Time and time again I see on Facebook, blogs etc that people are struggling with craft fairs. Whether it is finding fairs to attend, how to display items or what type of fairs to do.
I have been doing craft fairs for a number of years now, since 2006. We have done small local fairs and large fairs at the NEC, some successful fairs, some not so successful. I can do a fair one year and do really well and then at the same event the following year do badly. Thankfully, these days the fairs that I do (which is significantly less than I used to) work out pretty well for us. It is a long time since I have done a fair and not made money - and by make money I mean cover the stall fee, cover the cost of my materials, cost of travel (and sometimes accommodation) and enough money to pay for my time. I am not going to pretend to know the answer to what makes a good fair, or what makes a fair successful...but I hope that by posting a series of blogs, based on my own experiences, then I can help others maybe avoid some of the mistakes that I have made.
When I first started out doing fairs I got carried away on a wave of enthusiasm (something I do a lot) and booked into every fair I could get into without doing much research. This resulted in a lot of disappointment and crushing of my confidence when I didn't sell anything/much or ended up sitting in an empty room all day hopefully waiting for customers to magically appear. Not to mention the amount of money wasted!
These days I take my time on choosing fairs and only book fairs that I have done well at in the past or that I think I have a realistic chance of doing well at.
Criteria I look at when picking a fair :
- Is it 'handmade only'
- Are there sensible limits on each type of craft
- Location, location, location
- Advertising/Social Media Presence/'Findability'
I have found in the past that the fairs that I have had the most success at have been events that are strictly handmade only - particularly those that are juried. By juried I mean that you have to provide photos of your work/links to your page or website and then a panel of people select the stalls that they would like to have at the fair. This usually means applying by a closing date and then waiting for their decision. More often than not these fairs have a lovely selection of different and complimentary crafts (usually handmade only) and provide a lovely shopping environment for targeted buyers. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to compete with lots of stalls selling similar products and bought in tat from goodness knows where. There is a place for bought in products and sometimes I do fairs where there are quality resellers there - and that is great. The problem comes (for me) when I have a beautiful set up handcrafted stall in amongst stalls selling products more suited to a market stall for knock down prices of the 'pile it high, sell it cheap' variety. As I said, there is a place for everything......and it is my belief that craft fairs should be exclusively handmade products. I am never going to be able to compete with mass produced prices and ultimately I am not going to find the 'right' kind of customer for my work at a fair that is targeted towards the 'Primark prices' type of buyer.
Another one of my frustrations has been turning up to a fair and finding that over 50% of the stalls there are selling jewellery. I sell jewellery so this is something I have a huge problem with, but I think it applies to other types of craft too. I have found that I have done much better at fairs where there have been sensible limits on similar crafts. Last year I turned up to a fair to find that not only was there someone else selling Murano glass jewellery, but they were right next to me! Clearly, this was disappointing for both of us.....and for the customers who would like to attend a fair to see a range of crafts and stalls, not rows and rows of jewellery/cards/soaps etc.
An excuse I often hear from organisers (who are eager to fill their stalls for obvious reasons) is that 'it's all different'. This is fair enough, some competition is good and a range of different jewellers selling glass, silver, beaded is good and keeps the fair looking fresh and interesting. When every other stall is jewellery this is NOT cool. I have lost count of the number of times I have been standing behind my stall and heard customers tutting as they past 'there's a lot of jewellery here' without so much as looking at my stall. It is absolutely soul-destroying and unfair on stallholders and customers alike.
My advice when booking the stall is to ask the organiser how many stalls there will be selling the same type of craft. If they are reluctant to answer or won't give a straight answer it makes me think twice about booking a table. I want a fair chance at doing well and if out of 30 stalls, 10 are jewellery then my chances of doing well plummet before I have even set my stand out.
Location, Location, Location
This is a really big one....and the most important factor - especially for the smaller fairs with a smaller online/media presence. Where is the fair being held? Is is accessible? Is it easy to find? Can your customers find it?
Some of the biggest mistakes I have made with fairs is booking events that had, in hindsight, not a scrap of a chance of attracting customers. It takes so much more to hold a successful event than simply booking a room, printing a poster off on a home computer and hoping people turn up.....yet it happens ALL the time. It's not that all organisers are out to rip us off and make a quick buck, it's a lack of understanding as to how difficult it is to drive people (and let's not forget, the right type of people.....you are there to sell, not to have a chat with folk, however lovely, that are there for a 'day out' with no intention of spending money).
So, where is the fair being held?
Is the venue on the way to something? Is there a lot of passing trade? Can people park easily? (especially important if you are selling heavy items like furniture/wood)
People are lazy in general and won't make an effort to get to somewhere if it's too difficult. Good venues tend to be, for example,
a) places in busy shopping centres/streets on a Saturday - plenty of passing trade and people that are out with the intention or idea of spending.
b) fairs that coincide with another event already being held (providing of course, that the other event is not direct competition).....such as Christmas Fairs that coincide with the 'lights switch on', craft fairs held in a hall when there is a farmers market on outside; a craft fair alongside a church/village/school fete where people are likely to come along to support the event. One thing to bear in mind though, is that school fetes might be more successful for cheaper end products and products targeted to children.
Is the venue accessible/attractive?
Anything not on the ground floor is a no no for me. Firstly, I don't want to put my back out carrying stock and display up a load of stairs! Secondly, we are back to people are lazy.....or busy...and take the path of least resistance....ie not having to trek up a load of stairs to look at stalls. Also, if there isn't 'easy access' of lifts then a whole section of customer base might not be able to make it up there e.g. disabled people, elderly, families with pushchairs/prams.
The harder it is to get to, the less likely people are to come. Plus, when you are hidden away up stairs, around the back etc then passing trade cannot see the 'buzz' going on inside and be enticed to come in and have a look. You want to be a visible as possible.
Also included here is the attractiveness of the venue. You are selling beautiful, handcrafted items...you want to be in a beautiful, well decorated, bright venue.....not some dark, dingy, poky room. It's all about the atmosphere, the buzz, the lifestyle....when selling handmade items you are selling a lifestyle as well as a product
Can your customers find it?
This is sort of tied in to the above paragraph on venue accessibility. The event HAS to be easy to find. I have booked events that I have struggled to find and get in to set up......disaster!!! If I struggle to find it (and I know it is there and am frantically looking for it) then how are the general public going to find it? The average customer simply won't make the effort to hunt something out, unless it is something they know they desperately want. Chances are, if you find it hard to get to then so will your potential customers.
Advertising/Social Media Presence/Visability
Don't be afraid to ask the organiser when booking what they will be doing in the form of advertising. Where will they be promoting/advertising the fair? Will there be huge signs out in front on the day? (A4 posters printed off at home will simply not cut the mustard) Will there be a big A board out in front enticing people in? To be fair, some councils/local authorities do limit the amount of advertising and signage that organisers can put out on the day - so best to check this. I know from experience that this is the case in York.....I am sure that this must be a problem elsewhere too.
A lot of organisers totally underestimate the amount of advertising they need to to, or even how best to advertise. A great social media presence is fantastic....creating a buzz on Facebook, Twitter etc in the weeks and days coming up to the event is great (but the event still has to be well signposted on the day itself). I would think twice about booking a stall with any organiser that has an unprofessional looking website and a lack of presence on social media. There are events that I have done in the past which I have done very well indeed at but tapered off in recent years. The world changes and so must business....you simply have to have at least a Facebook page (in my opinion) if you are organising an event. Virtually everyone I know is on Facebook, and on there regularly...it is a huge source of potential advertising and it really puts me off dealing with organisers who point blank refuse to engage with it. I have done some fantastic events with organisers that have created a huge buzz and excitement about the event on social media/Facebook prior to the event.
Be realistic and honest with yourself, if you are only paying £10 - £15 for your stall, chances are that there isn't a great advertising budget (if any) in there. Potential customers don't just magically appear, they need targeting, enticing, finding, reaching out to. This costs money. Decent, professional-looking signage costs money. I don't pretend to know the answer to successful marketing and advertising but I do know it takes time and costs money. I do events from the cheaper end of the scale and have done well at events where I have paid £10 for my table, so I am not saying don't ever do them.....it's just important to be realistic about expectations and what you are paying for. Generally speaking, you do get what you pay for. I do events that cost £10 a stall and events that cost £300 a stall. I am reluctant to do fairs that cost much more than that (although I do decide on a case by case basis, rather than any hard and fast rules) as the risk is so much greater and you have to sell soon much stock just to break even.
Again, there are no hard and fast rules about timing - as I have found many times, there is no pattern to selling at fairs. Some things to think about though are :
Time of the month
Ideally, the best time to sell is when people have just been paid and have a bit of money (hopefully) in their pocket.....rather than week three of the month when people are looking forward to next pay day.
Time of the year
This is especially important if you are selling seasonal type products. Some things sell better in winter (such as knitted gloves, furry boots etc) some things sell better in spring/summer. It might be better to spend the quieter months on products, online marketing/selling etc and then go hell for leather sell, sell, selling at fairs during your 'busy' periods of the year. I sell jewellery, and I tend to do well in summer and just before Christmas. My quiet months are Jan - April and then August - October. August can be a bad month for fairs (unless you are selling stuff for kids) as the kids have been off all summer and parents/famillies have had an expensive month entertaining the kids. This might not be the case for everyone, but it is something to bear in mind.
What else is on locally that day?
If there is a big event on locally that day, bear in mind that this may take a lot of potential customers away from your event. A Sunday afternoon event coinciding with the Wimbledon final may be quiet for example or events that coincide with big national events.
I have waffled on for way longer than I planned to...I kept thinking of more things as I was typing (I have clearly made a lot of mistakes in the past!). I hope this is helpful though.....like I said, there are no hard and fast rules and no guarantees. If I knew where all the perfect fairs were, full of my perfect customers and my 'target' market then I wouldn't have the time to sit here writing about fairs.......I hope though that this blog will help people when trying to decide which fairs to book and give some pointers to those considering starting out. I have lost more money than I care to think about in the past doing fairs.....and not just the money, it's that soul destroying feeling after a bad day and that erosion of confidence each time. Don't get me wrong, we all have bad fairs and bad days. It's part of business. It is inevitable. All we can hope for is that there are less bad days than good and that we can try and reduce the bad days and bad decisions from our own and others experiences.
I really hope this is useful and wish each and every crafter the greatest success for their fairs this year.....
Now for me, it's Handmade Monday time xxx