Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Prepping for holiday craft shows

First, an UPDATE to add thanks to Lisa and Diane for inviting me to be part of this fascinating and helpful blog hop!

I've been selling my work at craft shows since the late 1980s and I should feel like an expert at this point but I don’t! Sure, I know how to do all the tasks associated with applying to, making inventory for, setting up at, and selling at a show. But each time holiday show season comes around I am gripped with the same manic/panic energy. Will I have enough inventory? Will my right people show up at this event? Do I have new items for repeat customers? How can I make my display work to my best advantage?

Preparing for holiday shows is a big project that spans many months. In order to handle all these questions I take them in bite sized pieces.

Setting up my show schedule:

There’s so much I could say about choosing which shows to apply to, what it’s like relying on unpredictable and juried holiday shows for a large chunk of your income (I generally make HALF my entire year’s revenue between October and December), and what happens when you don’t get in or the show is discontinued, or two great shows are scheduled for the same weekend, but that’s for another post.

I’ll just mention applying to shows. A lot of big holiday shows that don’t happen until December will put applications online well before August. It’s good to be on their mailing lists as well as keep an eye on social media for when applications are up so you don’t miss deadlines. Not that that’s ever happened to me, ahem. (Yes it has.)

If you get in, (not everyone gets in!) there’s a moment of euphoria and relief which lasts about 15 minutes. After that the manic/panic probably sets in. Or if the show date is far enough away, a blissful denial will wash over you instead. Until roughly September 15th.

If you aren't sure if your right people, customers who will connect specifically with your products, will be at the shows you are thinking of applying to, you can either apply and take a chance or you can spend a season just attending, as a buyer, all the shows you are considering and see for yourself before you make an investment.

My inventory struggles:

Inventory making in process
Here’s the thing, my product line is WAY TOO BIG. I make too may different things. I have a lot of trouble keeping my super labor-intensive inventory stocked fully. But I have not appeared to have learned anything from this painful fact. Everything I make sells pretty well and I only rarely discontinue items that really just will not move.  Each year I swear I will start making things earlier in the season but it’s my experience that without the threat of a date certain, a looming deadline, I will mosey along making things here and there until about September 15th (as noted above). That’s when I will get serious and start crying when I realize the size of the workload I've saddled myself with and vow to start in April next year. Rinse, repeat.

Here I am overwhelmed by inventory making
That being said I haven’t really figured out the best way to stock efficiently. I've tried making only one thing for one week (say full sized pincushion cupcakes), but in a job of production craftwork which is all about being OK with repetition and a certain amount of tedium (salved with hundreds of hours of podcasts and intravenous caffeine) that method really tests the limits of patience and focus. So I've tried broadening out and working in one medium (needle felting, for example, or polymer clay) for a few weeks at a time, completing a few of each item every day, thereby getting a variety of items made, keeping from going batty and/or really getting sick of something, but giving up a bit of that production mode efficiency.

Sleepy Sheep ornaments in progress
This year I’m trying something slightly different. I've started a bunch of needle felted items and I've been working this way for a few weeks. The idea is to get the base parts made and embellish a few to the end here and there when I get bored making the starter pieces. But this makes me worry I won’t be able to finish making each item to the final step and still leave time for working in another medium because I could spend a month making just base parts and still not have any finished product. I’ll let you know how this works out.

Me, gleefully felting wool
I’m still never really sure how much is enough. Each maker has their own inventory level that makes them feel like they have everything under control. No-one else can see it though. You’ll come across a table filled with goods and tell your maker friend “Wow, looks great! You got so much made!” and they’ll cringe and sigh and say “But I’m missing ____”. In general I want a base minimum of a dozen of each product for each show, idealistically 36+ so there’s plenty of overstock and color variety. Not sure I've ever achieved that but you gotta have goals.

Finished inventory
Any maker will tell you it is super hard to predict which item will be the big hit at a show. And what might be a hit at one might be a dud at another. It’s exhilarating to realize one of your products is selling like hotcakes (mmmm, cake) but totally agonizing to run out of it before a show is over knowing you could have made more sales if only you’d known. This is probably the primary panic-fuel that production crafters operate on.

Another thing I think about is making new items for repeat customers. If I don’t come up with fresh goods I know I will get a lot of friendly folks walking by my table with arms folded and warm smiles saying “Oh I love those, I got one last year.” And that’s the end of the exchange. Boo. A lot of my ideas for new items or even just fun new variations on existing products come in October when inventory making is at its peak frenzy (and I am not yet a November production zombie). That  point in the season seems to be when the creative ideas part of my brain is really cooking but there’s no time for new product development because INVENTORY.

I've tried writing the October ideas down to tackle in quiet February but that hasn't worked for me. Apparently I need that frenzied production energy to follow through on new ideas because production is research and development and is not always successful. That takes time and it takes a mental toll. Now I try to allow time to sneak in product development in the midst of everything else I’m doing. If I can’t get the items to a finished state for the current season at least I’ve got more to start with next October when I’ll undoubtedly get ideas for tweaking them to success or it will be clear I can ditch them and try something else.

My displays

I have a habit in my home, and also in my studio and with my table set up, of finding something that works and just sticking with it forever. I might tweak it or add new display pieces over time but I’m not big into a total display overhaul each season like I know some makers are. I just don’t have that kind of brain. Do I wish a Display Optimizer Fairy would alight on my shoulder and guide me to the perfect craft show table arrangement? I might. On the other hand, I do like my display and it works just fine.

If you are setting up for the first time or want to test a new arrangement I recommend setting your table up in your studio or home and taking a picture when you get it where you like it. Check out Flickr for craft show display inspiration but DON’T COPY SOMEONE ELSE’S LOOK. Goodness, sorry, I didn't mean to yell there. You already know not to copy.

Six foot table craft show set up
8 foot studio gallery set up
One thing to keep in mind is you might have everything perfectly arranged for a 6 foot space but arrive the morning of the show to find you've got 8 feet. Or a corner! Which is all good, but totally changes everything you planned. Alternately I saw a vendor completely thrown because she only had 6 feet when she thought she had 8. Bring extra table covers and display pieces. You might have to improvise on the spot.

Selling what I make

I enjoy interacting with customers. I worked in retail for decades and learned the rhythms and language of sales. I am proud of my creations and confident that people who like what they see on my display will enjoy owning my work or giving it as gifts. I have my prices configured so I can afford to keep being a maker and I’m not afraid to gently, kindly defend them to people who don’t quite understand how handmade is priced.

Insane crowd at a good holiday show
That said, selling is a skill, and it’s work. Very few items sell themselves. I know a lot of makers are introverts and selling their things is excruciating at the same time it is so gratifying to get that positive feedback. It can also be crushing when people say rude and thoughtless things. I don’t have much advice on being more comfortable with selling if that really is not fun for you. But I will say if you really hate it I give you full permission to never do shows! Sell online or through shops. No need to torture yourself. But if you don’t hate it, you just feel awkward, keep at it, you will improve over time.

So that’s what I've been thinking about lately as I prep for 3 big holiday shows plus Open Studios this year. Check out my schedule in the sidebar and stop by if you’re local! Or find me in my Etsy shop or at the shops listed to the right that carry my work.

Please check out these other posts on the topic of tackling a big creative project!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Makers in Business with Liz Smith Ep 205 Mimi Kirchner

Hello! This month I'm featuring an interview I did with Mimi Kirchner. Mimi makes amazing art dolls that are incredibly collectible. Her work is distinct, meticulous, and lovely with a sense of humor that delights. Although she has been a maker all her life, she she did not start out making dolls for a living. Watch or listen to this fascinating episode to hear all about her artistic journey.

Link to the video on Vimeo:

Find the audio only version of this interview here:

Or subscribe on iTunes

Find Mimi Kirchner online here:

My show airs locally in Lowell on LTC Comcast Channel 8 on Tuesdays at 6:30 PM and Thursdays at 8:30. New shows monthly. For more information about Lowell Local Access TV, visit

Examples of Mimi's ceramics work

An early doll

Choosing buttons

Mimi's desk crowded with works in progress

Works in progress

Pinning a beard on a doll before hand sewing

One of Mimi's fabulous lumberjacks

A beautiful tattooed lady

Dapper Mr. Fox

Sweet swaddled baby

Mimi's craft show set up