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!


  1. Really interesting! I think the stress of earning so much of my income in one short window would kill me!

    1. I do diversify my income streams, but it's undeniable that craft shows are a great source of cash at the end of the year and that's here the pressure comes from. and the uncertainty!

  2. I love this post. Your experience has given you great perspective. Plus your writing style is charming and personal.

    1. Thanks mom! You were there at the start of my craft show career :)

  3. I think I am one of those people who would rather claw her eyes out than rely on selling in-person ;-) It's rather a shame, because I do enjoy the feedback that you get when potential customers can speak directly to you, but it has never panned out well for me. All of that pre-show work has never translated to good sales.

    I suspect my introversion, coupled with doing the wrong shows (therefore, very few "right people") has been my downfall.

    I like your tips. And I've been asked to consider being a vendor at a small fiber festival next year (which would *definitely* be a right-er venue for me than usual) so I may want to refer back to them next summer :-)

    1. I hope that venue does work for you. I bet selling printed (or CD Rom) patterns would be popular at a fiber show.

      I think it's important makers see that not all aspects of a creative business work for everyone so they don't feel like they're doing it wrong if some part of it doesn't work for them.

  4. Markets and shows are such fickle venues, aren't they. Last year my handmade soaps flew from market, and I couldn't keep up with several varieties of them. This year, I made old favorites along with some new, thinking my regular customers would be back for their favorites and would appreciate the updated stock. Instead, what am I selling the most of? Crocheted amigurumi and handmade greeting cards. There are some I can't keep any inventory of, while I have stacks of soap just sitting, selling two or three bars every Saturday at market instead of a dozen like last year. Sigh. I do love market, though, and will miss it when it ends next month.

    And as far as predicting at what will sell at a craft show? Forget about it. I'll have something I think is ridiculously cute (or unique), and people will look at it and agree, but no one will buy. I just take a wide selection of things and hope for the best.

    1. Yes! EXACTLY! That's likely why my product line is so diverse. Wishing you consistent sales (of whatever). :)

  5. I love this post Liz. Non-makers rarely see the unglamorous aspects of our lives. The frenzy, panic/manic stuff.

    This year I actually made product throughout the year (wha?!?) and feel I'm in very good shape for my shows and some additional 4th quarter wholesale. Going into the craft show season with so much inventory feels really good. The tough part was being able to think about this way back in January. Somehow, it worked.

    1. I am simultaneously delighted for you and insanely jealous!! I hope you have a great holiday season with lots of sales and restful nights!

  6. Glad I'm not the only one who at some point ends up crying! I've come to accept it as a part of the emotional process! I think my biggest problem would definitely be the selling aspect, I would have a hard time roping the customers in! By the way, those sheep! SO cute!

    1. It IS emotional, and why wouldn't it be? Right? So yeah, lets cry on each other's shoulders :) Thanks so much for your kind words re: Sleepy Sheep!

  7. Lots of good advice here, Liz.

    I know that panic mode too. I have done the same fall show for about 18 years. I deliver my things the Tuesday after Cdn. Thanksgiving and have pretty much ruined that holiday weekend for myself and my family all those years. I'm always scrambling last minute to add more inventory. I've sworn I won't do it (the ruining Thanksgiving part) this year but we'll see. The only saving grace is that I don't have to be at this sale in person. The women who run it do it boutique style and integrate all of the products together.

    Even after all these years, I still have trouble predicting what will sell best and how much inventory I need. There have been crazy good years and others that were just awful. It depends on who walks through the door, the economy, the weather--so many variables. Good luck with your sales. I hope it's a good selling season for all of us.

    1. Yes, it can ruin holidays! I also send goods to boutiques as well as doing shows and it's a different kind of stress but it's almost more complicated because everything has to be a coherent collection and priced and cataloged for someone else to sell and keep track of.

      And yes, the take home pay varies considerably year to year. I second your wish for a good selling season.

  8. It's like you've been inside my poor overworked brain during holiday show season....I too always promise myself I will "work ahead" during the spring & summer so I am ready and don't have to give up sleep. But that has yet to happen. And each year I schedule myself into one more show than the year before!

    1. Ha! I feel for you. I've been steadily reducing shows but then I set higher hopes on each one. Lets hope we can get it together in 2014 to make ahead :)

  9. This was a really interesting post Liz - thank you. I am full of admiration for anyone who makes to sell. It's just not something I could do - as you say, just keeping a decent inventory much be such hard work. Learning about your approach was really interesting though - so thank you :-) You have a lovely blog.