Show Advice: The Essentials

(Note: with the 2018 Triffid Ranch show season getting ready to start, a lot of bystanders and longtime customers interested in starting their own small businesses ask for advice and recommendations about attending and selling at shows. While asking me for business advice is comparable to asking Jeffrey Dahmer for tips on vegan recipes, these ruminations might be of some entertainment value, especially among those thinking about jumping into the show circuit.)

It’s every beginning vendor’s lament: why isn’t there just one kit available with all of the stuff I need to start selling my stuff at a show? It’s bad enough to discover all the things you should have had ready for your first show, but it’s even more embarrassing to discover that item or service that you absolutely needed for the fifth or twentieth show. “Worse” is discovering, long after you’d despaired and kludged together something that performs a very specific function, that someone else had a perfect solution that you didn’t know about because you weren’t asking the right questions. It doesn’t get any better as time goes on, either: consider the number of old-school vendors who purchased halogen lighting around 2002 for suitable light for ceramics or jewelry, who now grind teeth on LED kits selling for a fraction of their paid price, using a fraction of the power, and producing a tiny fraction of the ambient heat.

The reason that nobody makes an all-in-one beginner’s show kit, aside from an issue of units moved, is that every vendor has specific needs that a generic kit won’t fill. A glassworker will share certain bits of show equipment with a jeweler, but possibly more with a potter or a blacksmith, and probably very little with a painter or someone offering unique beef jerky. Needs change based both on increased inventory and on changing markets: aside from the halogen lights mentioned above, what may have been an essential item a decade ago might be pointless to carry today. (For instance, when I started selling plants a decade ago, I regularly brought out a small bookcase, full of various new and used books that applied to the subject at hand. Three years later, I left the bookcase at home for good because of Amazon and the then-new habit of customers scanning a cover and making a purchase online. I still make book recommendations, but the weight of the books and the bulkiness of the bookcase soon became more effort than they returned.) However, the need for a recommendations list still applies, and the organization of my list of recommendations comes from a rather unorthodox source.

For those who aren’t classic Volkswagen enthusiasts, one of the classic guides to Volkswagen repair and maintenance is the very thorough, very detailed, and very funny book How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir. The pertinent aspect we need to focus on is that Muir broke down tool kits and collections into three categories. Type 1 tools were the ones any Volkswagen driver should have in the vehicle at all times, no matter what. Type 2 tools are ones that should be in the vehicle if possible, but absolutely should be available at home for more advanced repairs. The Type 3 toolkit was a collection of items that may not be necessary for emergency repairs, but that the Volkswagen addict would need for tuneups, overhauls, and extensive modifications. You didn’t need a Type 3 kit in the back of your 1973 Superbeetle for an everyday commute, but combining all three toolkits took care of pretty much everything that might go wrong with an air-cooled engine.

With this inspiration, a decade of Triffid Ranch shows hasn’t come across the full spectrum of possible necessities, but that decade managed to sift through “a lot of weight to haul around for something that gets used maybe once per year,” “nice to have,: and “I’ll set your grandmother on fire if you try to steal mine” items and accessories. Much like the aforementioned Volkswagen tools, this guide breaks them down into Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 accessories. These include:

Type 1 Toolkit – Essential At All Times

A dependable credit card reader or POS (point of sale) system: Cash may still be king, but the introduction of Square and other mobile credit card processing apps immediately changed the game for most vendors: it meant being able to take credit card payments without expensive and irritating credit card processing systems. Fifteen years ago, anybody setting up a business license or applying for a tax ID number in the States was hounded for years with random unsolicited phone calls about purchasing credit card readers that may or may not have been legitimate, but Square and Paypal killed that market. (Imagine that.) Today, most attendees at any event you can imagine will tell you “I just don’t carry cash any more,” and any purchase that requires cash is probably one that won’t happen. If you can afford to have 40 to 60 percent of your potential sales walk off because you can’t or won’t process credit cards, knock yourself out, but everybody else this far into the 21st Century will have some kind of card reader and software ready to take that payment. Pick the card processing service you like the most, but pick one, preferably one with a reader that can process chipped cards, and have it handy for all shows. Later, if you have enough items that you need to track incoming and outgoing inventory, a point of sale system will make you and your tax accountant very happy, but worry about being able to process purchases before you worry about tracking them.

A cash box and sufficient change: Although paying by card is more and more of a standard, never, ever pass up any cash thrown in your direction. This requires (a) enough change to break larger bills and (b) a lockable and securable box to hold that change. Depending upon the size of the show, that means both making change for innumerable transactions under $20 and the occasional big transaction requiring more than $15 in change in return. Make sure that this box can be kept secure so that it can’t be snatched if your back is turned, nor set underneath a table or boxes to where reaching it is inconvenient. While I won’t tell you how much change you need, make a fair assessment on your inventory (most items under $15 will be paid for in cash) and bring at least twice to three times what you think you’ll need, in both bills and coins. Any excess in change at the end of a show is just that much more change that won’t have to be collected before the next one. Also, if you are selling in a state that charges sales tax, make sure not only to have enough coinage to handle a day’s transactions, but purchase a sales tax calculation card so you don’t have to punch the final amount into a calculator with every transaction.

Sidenote: everyone who has ever worked retail will tell you about That Guy who walks in right at opening and tries to pay for some tiny item with a $100 bill. You are not obligated to give up all of your change because he didn’t want to get his bill broken beforehand, and point out that you may not have any way to get change for anybody else. If this happens often enough, or if you have concerns that these are attempts to get rid of counterfeit bills, feel free to display a sign reading “We Cannot Give Change For Any Bills Above $X.”

All necessary permits and IDs: This category depends upon federal and state law and municipal ordinances at a show location, and requires research that depends upon what is being sold and where. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS RESEARCH. At the bare minimum, in the US, register for a state tax ID number long before your first show, and keep a copy of the tax ID with you at all times. A tax ID confers a lot of privileges in most states, such as being able to purchase wholesale inventory, but it’s also vital for both state income and sales taxes. (For instance, here in Texas, residents do not pay a state income tax, but pay a state sales tax on most items purchased within Texas. Oregon has exactly the opposite situation, with a state income tax but no sales tax.) Since all businesses selling items within Texas are expected to collect and pay sales tax, tax agents can and will hold event organizers responsible for allowing sales without that remittance, so most events require proof of tax ID before vendors can start setting up. This also applies to food, alcohol, or other perishable permits, additional handling permits for restricted items, inspection tags, and anything else that may be regulated in the state in which you’re operating. If the cost of those permits is higher than the potential return on sales, then you might want to reconsider exactly how badly you want to do the show.

Sidenote: For a very long time, many movie and television intellectual property holders looked the other way when various small vendors offered products that infringed upon copyright law, partly because tracking down infringers wasn’t worth the time and partly because sales of little handmade items were seen as encouraging sales of larger and more expensive licensed items. Those days are as dead as Fotomats and milk delivery. IP agents can and will drop by shows and conventions and drop off cease & desist orders against individuals selling items that use the agents’ parent company’s intellectual property without compensation. The good news is that if you’re serious about a particular product, many IP holders are willing to negotiate licenses based upon expected sales: for decades, plastic and resin model kit manufacturers have worked with movie and TV studios on official licensed products that trade a very low licensing price in exchange for not being able to use the actual property name. If you get a license under those terms, bring that paperwork with you to be able to show any agents asking about your permissions to sell a particular item. Just don’t be surprised that arguing about the invalidity of copyright law with bootleg toys, clothing, music, or sculptures won’t go very far.

A dependable, sturdy cart and/or handcart: These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but pick one based on the needs of your inventory and displays, as well as accessibility in elevators and in narrow hallways, and be reminded of the adage “Cheap is expensive.” If you can, spend the extra money and buy one with pneumatic tires. Hard rubber tires are okay on hard, smooth surfaces such as hotel hallways, but they always manage to get caught in tracks and elevator floors, and they’re nightmarish on irregular surfaces such as unpaved lots or trails. Much like discovering exactly how many inclines your “flat” neighborhood has once you start bicycling it instead of driving, hard cart wheels let you learn exactly how irregular and gravel-strewn that allegedly immaculate roadway or parking garage really is. Spend the money to get a good cart, because there’s no guarantee that the event location will have any to borrow (a lot of hotels are banning the use of luggage carts by event vendors, because they tend to disappear for the entire weekend and hotel guests can’t access them), and treat that cart as if your liver is strapped to the underside. That means respecting it and not bashing it around because you can, making sure the wheels are properly inflated (get a good bicycle pump, and not one of the bike-kit pumps intended to strap onto your bike, unless you like sitting around for the next three hours pumping up a flat or underinflated tire), and never EVER lending it to someone you don’t know who just needs to borrow it “for just a minute; I can pay you!” Even if you get it back, which isn’t always a guarantee, you have no guarantee that you won’t get it back damaged or demolished. If you trust someone enough to lend a cart, get something as collateral that requires that person to come back, such as car keys or at least two children. Anything else, and it’ll walk because “what I left is worth more than the cart,” and you still need that cart to haul your stuff back when the show is done.

Sturdy storage tubs: If you’re just starting off and can’t afford anything else, you can squeak by a few shows with those cheap Rubbermaid tubs intended for longterm storage of Christmas ornaments. If the total weight of items in each tub exceeds 10 kilos, you need lots of packing to protect fragile items, or if the items need to be protected from weather extremes, spend the extra money for locking, stackable storage tubs. Those Rubbermaid Christmas tubs can’t handle larger or bulkier contents for very long, they have a real problem with cracking or rupturing when used often, and stacking them with any significant weight in the upper tubs means that the lower ones probably will be flattened by the time you get to your destination. Stacking tubs means increasing the amount of inventory you can bring to a show that can be fitted into a vehicle, and tops that lock onto the tub mean that contents won’t go bouncing out if your vehicle hits a pothole. Most importantly, don’t even think of using cardboard boxes unless you like playing with cardboard slurry when setting up or breaking down in the middle of a thunderstorm. You may think it won’t happen to you: I thought the same before getting caught in a near-tornado in Fort Worth and watching fellow vendors make frantic dashes to their vehicles with containers that fell apart in their hands.

Pens, pencils, and Sharpie markers: You don’t have to go crazy with different varieties of pens and pencils, and you don’t absolutely have to buy pens and pencils with your contact information on it, but you WILL need some sort of writing implement at all times. It’s not just for you writing down essential information for transfer to more permanent media: it’s for others either getting information from you or giving it to you. Throw at least a pair of permanent markers (I recommend Sharpies, but I also recommend checking them on a regular basis both for ink flow and for unmashed tips), for marking packages, bags, and wayward children.

Flyers, postcards, and other physical media with your contact information:  You’d think that in the days of the internet, physical media wouldn’t be necessary. Put up a URL or QC code on a banner, and you’re golden, right? That argument is complete garbage for two reasons. The first is that while people are more and more likely to take a photo of a URL than in times past, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to read the final photo. “Vern, is that an ‘l’ or an ‘i’?”The second is that it might not be accessed in the first place. The best way to prevent that worry is to make sure you have plenty of physical media with your contact information. I am perpetually surprised at the number of vendors at shows who think that ripping up a sheet of lined spiral notebook paper and scribbling contact information in it is enough to guarantee a later sale.

Now, what you decide needs to be on your card, sticker, refrigerator magnet, or NFC chip is up to you, but a few tips based on experience. Unless you have a physical storefront location, don’t include your address on business cards, unless you want people to stop by in the middle of the night. (I’ve had a maildrop since the beginning, and the Web site specifically states that this address is a mailing address only, but I still get at least one person per month who goes to that address “to see the ranch” and blows a gasket to discover that they can’t just walk in to see the plants.) After you settle on a logo and design, pass it to a few friends for readability: if it’s so Illustrator-poisoned that a friend can’t figure out what you’re selling, then your customers definitely won’t. While supplemental material can be photocopied, don’t use photocopied flyers as the main promotion material: the only venues that still do this are old-school science fiction conventions where the head of promotion had to sneak access to his mom’s Xerox at work. These days, postcards are considerably cheaper than they were in times past (especially through online services that cut deals for bulk orders), they can look exceedingly professional, and they’re just large enough that they’re less likely to be dropped in a pocket and forgotten.

Batteries or other power sources, especially for phones and tablets:  Even with the best of shows, accidents happen that might cut off your electronic devices’ access to sweet light alternating current. Sometimes, it’s incidents outside of the event organizers’ control: a personal favorite was with the hotel that suddenly decided that the event couldn’t have access to electricity…after most of the vendors had paid for same. (The hotel manager stalked through the event the whole four-day weekend, making sure that nobody at the event was stealing his power by inspecting every last outlet on the floor.) In others, you only discover an issue when you arrive and someone breathlessly tells you “Oh, yeah, we don’t have power” because the organizer decided to spend the money on an ad…on AM radio. In all of these cases, anybody running a point of sale system or credit card reader is going to be wincing, and wincing even more if the phone or tablet doing the processing doesn’t have a full charge. Even if the event has the most dependable power source ever seen by humanity, purchase a power storage device good for at least an additional eight hours of continuous use, and KEEP IT CHARGED. Experienced vendors know from firsthand experience that a lot of transactions can occur long after official closing hours or in situations where you’re unplugged, and those transactions can’t be completed on a device that’s completely drained.

Clips and fasteners: Clothespins and paperclips for holding paper and light cloth together, heavy clips for attaching signage to your table, Zip ties for securing power cables, or bungee cords for holding folding items closed while transporting them: get good ones and make sure to have them in an easily accessible container.

Lightweight displays and table covers: With the shows that offer tables and chairs as part of the booth fee, most include tablecloths and table skirts to make the (usually beaten half to death) tables look better. If you have so little in the way of inventory that you can lay all of it atop your table, then you’re done. If you have more, or if it needs to be shown in a particular way, make sure to get or make displays that show them the best, because presentation DOES matter. Likewise, make sure to have at least a couple of good tablecloths to make your items stand out or to garner interest from passersby that you wouldn’t get from standard white tablecloths. Oh, and for those vending at shows over multiple days, bring a couple of sheets to cover your table and inventory once the show shuts down. Should you be a little late arriving the next morning, the sheet signals “gone Chopin, be Bach in a minuet” and minimizes the chances of early arrivers messing with your displays.

Type 2 Toolkit – Good To Have

A sturdy folding table and chairs: Many shows and events seeking vendors advertise tables and chairs as being provided as part of the booth fee. Others simply lease out the space to put said tables and chairs, and it’s completely up to you as to how you want to arrange it, and still others charge extra for them. One way or another, having a good table and chair set is worth the expenditure, especially if the provided items are inadequate to the task (which happens often) or they just aren’t available. For ease of transport and setup, I recommend tables that fold in half for storage, and I also recommend buying a new table instead of depending upon that one that a friend or neighbor had in the garage for the last decade. (Neil Young was right: rust never sleeps, and you don’t want to discover rust’s effect on support pins or table legs five minutes after getting all of your sale items and displays on top.) The most important thing to consider is how much weight that table will support, and whatever you do, do NOT assume that it will and bring it to a show without verifying this. Test  it first, preferably with something nonbreakable. Likewise, when doing outside shows, always bring boards or other supports to go under the table legs, unless you like your table sinking into the ground and dislodging everything atop it.

Banners and signage: Signs and banners serve two very valuable purposes. The first is to attract attention from a distance and encourage potential customers to give your booth a try. The second is to prevent particularly stupid people from wandering up and bellowing “WHAT’S THIS?” at your inventory over and over. (To be fair, some will do that anyway, either because they’re too lazy to read or because their lives aren’t complete unless they interrupt a conversation with a paying customer with a well-placed vowel movement. The best you can do is reassure yourself that the idiot will choke to death on his 42-ounce cup of Brawndo.) Even a few years back, banner options consisted of heavy vinyl either tacked to a backdrop or wall or installed in an equally heavy frame, but now vertical and horizontal banners are available in a wide variety of materials and print options. In addition, lightweight display stands are more and more affordable, allowing vertical banners to go up on tables or in front of extra inventory. Right now, many big-box office supply stores offer excellent online options for composing the layout of your own banners before sending them to print, thereby making sure that any mistakes in spelling or syntax are yours, and in matching the right display stand to the right banner.

Lights: The bad news: even indoor shows have problems with available ambient light, especially if the venue hosting the show hasn’t switched out its fluorescent tubes since the Harding Administration. Outdoor shows have even more problems: even discounting the problems inherent when the big yellow hurty thing in the sky ultimately descends in the west every night, sufficiently overcast days can make viewing unlit items a bit problematic. The good news: at the turn of the last century, most lighting options with a remotely decent lumen output involved energy-hungry and heat-intensive halogen or incandescent light bulbs, which were both delicate and dangerous to work around until they had enough time to cool after use. Today, LED options both provide similar lumens for a fraction of the energy of incandescents, but they can be used in places and around items that would have been a serious fire hazard 20 years ago. Any discussion of lighting options is an essay in itself, but do some research, look into power options (for venues without available electricity, running an LED array off a marine battery with a DC-to-AC inverter is now a practical reality), and consider the best light type and source for your inventory.

Heavy displays: Need bookshelves, heavy racks for large pieces of clothing, or wire racks for displaying jewelry or electronic items? These qualify as “heavy displays.” Obviously, the heavy displays depend upon what you’re selling, but make sure they’re kept well-maintained, and consider weight and fragility when bringing them to a show. Remember that plastic scratches, glass chips and shatters, metal gets metal fatigue or pops welds or rivets, and wood gets dry rot, and a catastrophic failure of your display could potentially lead to injury or death. Consider why you need a heavy display and why you’re bringing it: that big glass display case being discarded at work might make a great display for your inventory, but consider that glass is both heavy and fragile, and you’ll experience them both sooner or later, especially if you’re moving it by yourself. Without fail, really big shows have at least one vendor who gives up on trying to haul back a big set of metal racks or glass shelves that are a nightmare to move in and out of elevators, and they stay put because the other vendors know better than to take them for themselves.

Type 3 Toolkit – Nice But Not Absolutely Necessary All The Time

Tent and sidewalls: It’s possible to go through a healthy vendor career without ever needing to show items outside. During the extremes of summer and winter, the only people more happy to see a show listing that reads “Indoor vending” than the vendors are the customers. The rest of the year, though, having access to a tent opens up a lot of opportunities. Some events include access to pre-pitched tents as part of the vendor fee, but a lot will emphasize that you need to bring your own. Most vendors go with standard 10 x 10 pop-up tents: getting ones in custom colors or with custom signage built-in is at the discretion of the vendor, but they’re definitely not necessary. Just make sure that either the tent comes with sidewalls or that sidewalls may be purchased separately, and not just to keep rain out during a show. Outdoor events generally hire security crews to watch over vendor tents left overnight, but they expect that the vendors put up sidewalls on all four sides before the vendors leave for the evening or break down and move out any valuable items.

Tent weights: Anyone wrangling a standard pop-up tent into position can complain about the weight all day long, but consider that a typical show tent has a lot of surface area with a relatively lightweight structure underneath to give it shape. With a sufficient amount of wind, and that “sufficient amount” may not be all that much, a tent makes an excellent parachute. If all it does is bounce up on two legs before falling over and blowing across a parking lot, consider yourself lucky, because anyone doing outdoor shows long enough in windy places like Texas can tell you stories of tents flying up in severe winds before losing lift and coming down to crash. Pop-up tent frames are strong, but they’re not strong enough to handle the impact of falling two stories or so before slamming into a hard surface. The spectacle of flying tents can be minimized either by buying commercially made tent weights that wrap around the tent legs, or by making your own from concrete or metal. However you go about it, remember that tent weights don’t work if they’re left at home or they’re not attached to the tent in some way, and the word “weight” in “tent weight” is there for a reason. Remember that cart or handtruck in your Type 1 toolkit, and make sure beforehand that it can handle moving the tent weights, either all at once or one at a time.

Is this everything? Well, that’s a good question. Let me know after you’ve done a decade’s worth of shows: you’ll probably teach me a lot when we compare notes.

One response to “Show Advice: The Essentials

  1. Great article! Have you thought about becoming an Amazon affiliate and listing your book recommendations on your page? Just a thought :)


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