(Note: with 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.)
So you’ve made the big leap from talking about starting a small art retail business to doing it, a feat roughly as terrifying and as awesome as finishing flight school and starting the solo flight. The fear never goes away, nor should it, but that’s combined with increasing confidence in your abilities and skills. This is where you get to discover whether you’re suited for selling your work or if you’re better off putting it on consignment elsewhere. It’s also the point where, like not watching for that flock of geese or filling your auxiliary tanks with black-strap molasses, you’re going to have a whole new set of worries as you evict the old ones.
Right now, the small retail show or vendor’s room is facing stresses and trends that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Living in the future means having plenty of options to take payments that don’t involve cash. The same technology, though, means having to focus on uniqueness, which really affects niche events such as science fiction conventions: the days where a vendor could clear out the local Walmart of Star Wars figures and sell them at a 200 percent markup are as dead as Y2k panic, and for as long. Smartphones mean that if you’re selling a commercially available product of any sort and it isn’t perishable or otherwise in immediate need, customers can and will stand right in front of you, price-compare, and make same-day-delivery purchases right then and there. Alternately, one quick picture send out via Instagram or Twitter might mean having a crowd in front of your table in an hour. For those of us who remember having to lug cash registers and halogen lighting to shows, it’s a strange and terrible and wonderful time.
Even with that, it’s always nice to know what concerns are worth worrying about and which ones aren’t and when they switch. For instance, most beginners worry about custom bags and packaging with their contact information emblazoned on it, which should never be a concern to anyone making less than six figures’ worth of sales per year. Even with those who do, a well-placed business card has more of an impact and is less likely to be used as an emergency cat litter box liner. Likewise, the things to worry about can look a lot like the things that should be kicked down the road or kicked off a cliff. While this isn’t a comprehensive or even a coherent list, it hits on the important notes of a decade of Triffid Ranch shows, and here’s hoping my pain is someone else’s enlightenment.
Things Not to Worry About:
Your neighbors selling more than you. A very common fallacy among hubristic vendors at shows is the assumption that any money going to any other vendor is money that’s being stolen from them. It’s a slightly understandable feeling, aggravated by that feeling when you’ve sold maybe three items over a three-day weekend and the vendor next to you has completely sold out of inventory by Friday night. Sometimes that fallacy gets poisonous enough to say something completely inappropriate in public, such as the vintage bookseller who comes to shows and badmouths anybody not selling books before he and his brother set up. Sometimes it gets even worse, where those vendors throw tantrums to the show staff about having to play well with others and threatening never to come back unless the offender is banned forever. (This is one of the reasons why I no longer bother with being a vendor at literary science fiction conventions, especially the big industry events such as World Fantasy or World Horror: the official excuse as to why new vendors aren’t admitted is that “the previous year’s vendors already reserved their spaces for the next event,” and the conventions are very careful not to rent vendor’s room space big enough to expand because they don’t want to deal with the bookseller tantrums.) On a much smaller scale, there’s the grumbling and snide remarks made in passing, which make the event a lot less fun that it could have been.
Instead, here’s what you should do as a vendor when someone else is cleaning up: celebrate it. don’t grumble about your poor sales, especially since you don’t know how long that may last at that show, and the situation may be reversed by the end of the show. Instead, congratulate them when they come up for breath. If your neighbor has a crowd five people deep in front of the booth, use that time to spruce up your own display or otherwise be productive instead of sulking behind your phone. If this continues through the whole show, just break down, pack up, congratulate them again, and acknowledge that you just didn’t find your audience at that show. (If you have several shows in a row with similar experiences, then either you’re picking the wrong shows or your inventory just isn’t clicking, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)
Yeah, you’re tired and you’re disappointed, but you WANT your neighbors to do well. Firstly, the better you treat your show neighbors, the more likely they’ll reciprocate at the next show, and that sort of goodwill is infectious. Secondly, as anyone who has ever worked a carnival or fair will tell you, attendees who see someone else with a new purchase and a big smile are much more likely to buy something themselves, so by cheerleading for the currently hot vendors, you’re increasing your own odds of the show becoming something great.
People “stealing your ideas”. Anybody familiar with publishing knows the ongoing schtick about beginners afraid of someone “stealing my ideas”. Based on the very occasional publicized lawsuit involving a movie or television production company stealing source material from published fiction, the assumption is that every writer with some vague idea of a short story had best go to extreme and legally unsound ideas to keep unethical editors and publishers from swiping that vague concept and making money from it themselves. There’s no need to go into the fallacy of mailing story ideas to yourself as a “poor man’s copyright” or how those lawsuits are based on someone high-grading a creator’s already-completed work, with the emphasis on “work,” and how the plagiarism prevents the original creator from being able to leverage their own work. The main thing to take away is that if you have a truly innovative item or concept that you wish to sell, get it copyrighted, trademarked, or patented, right now.
The reason why I bring this up is because with nearly 8 billion people on the planet, the odds are pretty good that at least two people with the same exposure to the same influences might come up with the same general concept. What turns this from daydream to a marketable concept is the work necessary to implement it. Patent and copyright law in most countries is intended to protect the work, not just the idea. Everything else…well, as tempting as it would be to assume that you’re the only person in the history of humanity to make little wooden chests decoupaged with old comic book pages, you’re probably not. If you’re showing your little chunks of your heart and soul in public and they’re not something that can be protected under the law, there’s not a whole lot you can do to keep someone from seeing it, thinking “Hey, I can do this!”, and trying it themselves. If that weren’t the case, we’d probably still be paying royalties to the Neanderthals for use and development of flintknapping techniques.
So how do you keep someone from walking up to your booth, looking over the items you lovingly knitted, sewed, forged, sintered, potted, or 3-D printed, and getting the same gleam in their eye that some Denisovian had about Mousterian hand-axe construction? You get passionate about your work. The moment somebody planning on hitching themselves to your wagon asks “Is there a lot of money in this?”, tell them, honestly and truthfully, “that isn’t why I’m doing this.” Instead of making lots and lots of the same exact item, continue to expand your range, so that the wannabes see that they need the same level of dedication to catch up. Take the time to explain to customers why your inventory is so special, so even if someone else offers a product roughly similar to yours, they want to buy from YOU. You don’t need some alternate persona or some schtick: be yourself. However, that passion is infectious, and the passion also implies that you’ve put so much more work into your work. If you inspire someone to find that same level of passion, just run with it and welcome them. If they don’t, then they’ll drop it and move to something easier. Either way, your work stands out, and anyone attempting a half-assed knockoff will stand out as such.
Non-customers poking about your sources. It sounds insulting, and it definitely feels insulting: that person coming up to your booth who has no interest in buying anything, but who has to know where you get your materials or components. Note that you as a creator are under no obligation to reveal your sources on anything that isn’t affected by state or federal law, although it’s definitely in your best interests to be completely upfront about materials and components that might be dangerous if misused, especially if it might come into contact with food or drink. However, the vast majority of these non-customers aren’t interested in competing with you or even in trying to get an in with your sources: they’re exactly like the people who have no intention of becoming stage illusionists but who obsess about how to replicate every one of Penn & Teller’s illusions. They don’t want to compete against you: they want to know how you do what you do so they can brag to their friends about this supposed inside knowledge, “direct from the artist,” and be able to provide references if they’re called on it.
Want proof? Respond to a poker with something along the lines of “Oh, the supplier went out of business about five years ago” or the completely honest “I make my own,” go into a little bit of detail, and watch their eyes glaze. Expect the same who want to know about your techniques or who ask if you teach classes: they’re more interested in knowing that you’ll share your knowledge than in partaking of it.
The “You Should Just” crowd. A subset of the pokers are those who have just enough knowledge of your field of expertise that they’ll drop the most esoteric and exotic fact they can find. In the case of carnivorous plants, it’s always a very rare and very hard-to-grow plant that only a couple of people in the United States have the room or the time to give the proper care, such as demanding to see a Nepenthes rajah up close. Upon hearing that you don’t have one, no matter the reason as to why it makes no sense to have one available right then, they’ll cluck their tongues and exclaim “Well, you SHOULD.” This isn’t about a customer with a particular need. If you say “I have X, but it’s back at my shop/in my gallery/in the inventory I haven’t unpacked because I don’t have the room,” they’ll wander off, because it’s all about claiming superiority. If you simply don’t have it, they’ll keep fussing “Well, you should just carry one…” until either you shoo them off or they find another bright shiny object to chase.
If three or four potential customers ask about an item, this suggests a legitimate demand among the community, and you should cater to their needs as quickly as you can. However, if it’s one person who keeps insisting that you really NEED to carry one obscure and expensive item, and doesn’t want to put down a deposit or otherwise confirm an actual interest, ignore them. If you succumb and get that one item just for them, they’ll cluck their tongues, rush off, and make absolutely certain never to see you again.
The $5 crowd. Do enough shows, and most vendors can recognize the people who are only there to snag as much free stuff as they can carry off. (I want to emphasize that a huge distance lies between those who may not have money now but who are interested in your inventory, and those whose sole interest is in getting everything they can for free. The secret here is to treat everyone with respect and consideration unless they prove they don’t deserve it, because that 8-year-old who is in awe of your stuff but who is dead broke usually grows up into an 18-year-old with disposable income who remembers treatment from a decade earlier, even if you don’t.) The more insidious ones are those who somehow get it into their heads that your items should be at some magical price that’s usually way below your cost. I refer to them as “the $5 crowd,” because they get upset that everything isn’t priced at $5US. I’m not sure if this derives from memories of some magical time in the early 1970s when anything short of cars, houses, and nuclear weapons could be purchased for less than $5, or from some strange mental default that sets this value to everything.
Either way, this leads to pointing at an item that incorporates $40 in materials and sneering “I’ll give you $5 for it,” or scoffing “I wouldn’t pay $5 for that.” Sometimes it extends into blatant lies, such as claiming “I saw something JUST LIKE THAT last night on Home Shopping Network that was selling for $5,” or insisting that some magical store three timezones away has something exactly like your handmade and hand-designed item “and THEY only sell it for $5!” It all comes down, though, to the Euclidean idea of the issue, and that was demonstrated to me last year by an East Texas goofball who crashed an art show and harangued every artist there with the same question: “Do y’all know someone who makes something EXACTLY LIKE THIS, but just not for so much?”
The important thing to remember, with these and the people who offer to trade your handmade items for “exposure,” is that your work is important. Your time is important, even if you horribly undercharge for it. You aren’t doing yourself or anybody else any favors by conceding to the $5 Crowd, because not only will they not appreciate the favor, but they’ll then use that as a cudgel against other artists and vendors by screaming “Well, THEY let me have it for $5!” These people are not your customers, and you want to know how you’ll know this? You’ll know when they wander off and then contact you six months later after buying some cheap bootleg knockoff for $5 from Amazon or Walmart or Etsy and demanding that you help them get their money back. (Oh, and don’t even bother to respond to those requests. Just tell them “You might need to bring that up with the person you bought the item from,” because that’s all you owe them.)
Things to Worry About:
Having Enough inventory. Yes, I understand. You work a horrible 40-hour-per-week job for a control freak who clocks your bathroom breaks and collects urine samples every week as a cheap alternative to Budweiser. The commute to and from work makes you wonder if some of your fellow commuters have to be kicked in the chest to be reminded to breathe. You drag yourself home after ten hours of nightmare seemingly designed to bring out your worst misanthropist impulses, and instead of sitting on the couch or bed and crying yourself to sleep, you’re hard at work on making the items that make you live. You subsist on ramen and assorted captured insects so you have money for metal or fabric or glue, and you risk hallucinations from sleep deprivation in order to work way past a normal bedtime. You hear about an upcoming show, further risk rickets and night blindness by spending your grocery money on the booth fee, and gather your available inventory together. You’ve got enough to present yourself at the show, right?
Seriously, and with as much kindness and as much love as I can muster, if you haven’t been a vendor at a show before, look at your existing inventory. If you can put everything you have on one six-foot table and not have anything else on standby, cancel that show and don’t sign up for another one until you have three times that amount. And don’t settle for three times of the same items, either. Increase the variety as well, so that every potential customer that walks by your table will see SOMEthing that catches the eye. If you’re doing clothing, focus on a strong line of items instead of a little bit of kid’s clothes and a little bit of men’s clothes. If you’re doing jewelry, offer options other than just necklaces or rings. While you’re at it, offer items at multiple price points, because the crowds interested in high-end items and penne-ante pieces change between shows. My wife refers to the small items as “bread and butter,” because you can make your booth fee on 40 $5 sales as you can on one $200 sale, and those $5 sales increase the likelihood of those customers coming back, either at that show or at subsequent ones, and buying a lot more.
If any advice to new vendors was the most important, it’s this: too much is better than not enough. Bring out too much inventory, and you’ll have to pack it up and haul it back home when the event ends. That’s a lot better than selling most of your stuff in the first few hours and then having to sit at an empty booth for the rest of a weekend. Much more importantly, even if a potential customer goes over your table and checks out every last item without finding anything, it’s still an opportunity to engage, to ask “So what are you looking for?” and even talk about custom assignments. If the table is mostly empty, odds are that the attendee won’t even get that close: s/he will do a quick driveby, see nothing of import, and scoot out and never return.
For us veteran vendors, nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing someone with undeniable talent and skill who didn’t make a single sale because every last item had to be spread out in an attempt to fill the space. The table doesn’t have to groan and threaten to buckle from the load, but it should always have a reason for a show attendee to stop and give it a chance.
Another reason to have more inventory than you have room to display? Accidents and emergencies. You get to a show and discover that the entire contents of a box or tub are damaged or otherwise unsellable, which happens more often than you’d think, or you realize that the one remaining tub is sitting on your kitchen table. The last thing you want to have is a massive hole where a big item was supposed to be, and sometimes a lot of smaller items can fill the space in both table and sales just as well.
Having your own space and display in order. After a little while, every vendor doing events and shows has at least one story about a particular folly in displays and signage that almost made sense at the time it was first used. The big wooden rack that held paintings but that kept catching the wind and going airborne. The glass display case that looked oh-so-impressive but that required three people to move it into a vehicle and threatened to decapitate the driver during sudden stops. The backlit sign just marginally longer than the available truck bed, causing it to disassemble from road vibration on longer trips. The aspect that nobody wants to talk about: the displays and signage that the business outgrew but couldn’t be pitched because “I paid good money/this was a gift when I started out/I really like it”.
Your display space reflects upon your business as much as the inventory, which means that regular maintenance and upgrading is necessary. With wood furniture, paint or stain the inevitable travel scrapes, and seal the wood to prevent staining from rain or hands. (April Winchell of the much-missed site Regretsy was absolutely right about how bare wood was hipster catnip, and the individuals who go on and on about the authenticity of unfinished wood in displays obviously haven’t been around long enough to see the grodiness of a display after five or six shows, what with Cheeto-covered hands, spilled drinks, and the occasional sneeze.) With metal, carry polishing cloths or bottles of Brasso, and don’t put off fixing broken welds or popped rivets. Plastic? Invest in any number of plastics-safe polishes, and be prepared for the inevitability of plastic and resin eventually going yellow and/or brittle, a lot sooner if you do a lot of outdoor shows. If something breaks to the point where the repair is more noticeable than the rest of the display, replace it with a new one, because if it breaks again, it’ll most likely be on the existing damage.
(Sidenote: If you can possibly help it, set aside a separate fund in your show budget for display upgrades and maintenance, and go through a regular brutal assessment of your displays, lights, and accessories about every six months. Ask friends and family to assist, and ask for their honest opinions on your final arrangement. Are you making contemporary jewelry, but still using New Kids on the Block sheets as a tablecloth? Are your shelves and racks so patched and duct-taped that they could be props on The Red Green Show? Are you still using incandescent or halogen bulbs that were purchased back in the Twentieth Century? Does your assembled display suggest “Fun Shopping Experience” or “Telethon for Tetanus”? If you see issues, that’s what the display upgrade budget is for. At the very least, take advice from professional retailers and upgrade your displays every couple of years just to spark new interest. Yes, it’s money that could be used for inventory or transportation, and that’s why it’s usually severely neglected.)
(Sidenote two: unless you’re struck by lightning at the end of a show and wake up six months later in a body cast, clean up your damn messes when you leave. Yes, shows have either volunteers or paid personnel whose final responsibility is to sweep the floor and dump the garbage after you leave, but dumping your detritus all over and chuckling “Job security” to the poor person having to do final cleanup is a jerk move. That behavior comes back to bite you, especially if it gets back to the show organizer that your area looked as if Hunter S. Thompson had camped there for a month. I know two vendors who somehow managed to leave more junk at the end of every show than they’d packed in at the beginning, and they’re only now starting to realize that the only shows willing to take them are ones desperate for ANY vendors. These are usually shows where the vendors outnumber the attendees, so you understand the importance of cleaning up after your filthy self.)
Timewasters and parasites. As you continue in your small retailer career, you’ll find people who, to be nice, want to be involved but who don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. This includes people who nag endlessly about “any room for an assistant?”, but who can’t do anything besides sit behind the table and text all day. You’ll be hit up by alleged organizers of big shows who want you to sign up and pay the booth fee RIGHT THEN, and who refuse to go away when you decline. You’ll get the people who work for other shows and come to yours to badmouth their competition. Expect the guy who camps out next to your table and creeps out potential customers with his very loud reviews of his very extensive hentai collection. You’ll get the ones who comment “Gee, you have a nice table here” and either ask if they can have “just a corner” to sell their own items or ask to put a big fat stack of flyers for a direct competitor right out in front. And it’s nearly a rite of passage to get that one seemingly enthusiastic customer who swears on four grandmothers’ graves that s/he will be “right back with the money if you put that item in reserve for me” and then disappears forever. Being a retailer, in any capacity, is an immersion in the human condition, and that includes lots of mixes of stupidity, arrogance, cluelessness, greed, and/or delusion that parade around in skin suits. If you think you might have it bad, just consider what anyone working the front counter at a comic shop or a movie theater has to deal with every day.
Sadly, since nobody has developed a surefire jerkwad repellent (and that person would be the richest person on the planet within weeks of developing it), you’ll have to deal with these people and more, and one technique works well in 97 of 100 cases. The moment someone pops up to try to take advantage of your basic human compassion, just tell them “I’m not in a position to do so right now: could you come around after the show is over?” Well, this works on everyone but the hentai creep: in his case, ask him nicely to move elsewhere and call loudly for security if he refuses.
Always remember that you can say “NO” at any time, and also remember that your ultimate responsibility is to customers, as in “people who exchange money for your inventory.” If that Etsy trunk show organizer shoves one of your customers aside to tell you all about her event next week and doesn’t respond to “could you come by after the show?”, you have no responsibility to be nice or even civil afterwards.
(Sidenote: Many shows and events are sufficiently large or of enough specific interest that they may get bands of roving reporters and photographers wandering around for reaction shots. If your inventory or your backstory has enough of a hook to attract further interest, you might even get a followup from one of those reporters, either asking for a few words and a quick photo of your display or for contact information for a more formal interview. Without fail, they’ll come around right at a time when your booth is completely overwhelmed by curious attendees and returning customers. A quick and easy way to spot the difference between real writers and wannabes is to see how they respond upon seeing a crowd around your booth. Anyone with any actual experience in reportage, or at least any without a major “You, OF COURSE, know who I am, don’t you?” hubris infection, might pop in during a lull between four separate conversations, make a quick introduction, and ask “Mind if I ask some questions when you’re not so busy?” It’s the frauds and incompetents that literally shove people aside and demand that you pay attention to them RIGHT THEN, and blowing them off in order to take care of customers won’t affect you in the slightest.
Last year, I had one such charlatan not only interrupt two people with serious questions, but who huffily asked me “could you get an assistant to take over so I can interview you,” his words, right then and there. He sulked off when I explained that an interview might be better after the show, only to come back when the crowds abated somewhat. Not only has that interview never appeared in any publication, print or online, but the only subsequent contact from him was a solicitation to write blog posts at truly entitled prices.)
Getting enough sleep. No matter how much practice or preparation, the last week before a big show is a cascade of sleep deprivation. If you aren’t staring at the ceiling wondering if you took care of that last-minute thing or coming up with a new concept right when you should be unconscious, you’ll be getting up extra-early to get everything to the show in time. There’s always the joy of thinking “I can get this last thing done in an hour,” getting to work, and looking up to realize that you’ve worked the whole night through. If you work a day job, you have the joys of balancing the last-minute emergencies that always happen as you’re trying to get out the door with show prep.
If the show is far enough away that you have to stay in a hotel, there’s the aggravation of late-night searches for a 24-hour grocery or drugstore because you packed the cat instead of the toothbrush, or discovering that the night manager already gave your hotel room away and the only option is to pay $500 per night for the last room or go to another hotel. If the show has food vendors, those carrying coffee or high-caffeine soft drinks are the angels to incoming vendors, especially in the last few hours before breakdown. I won’t even start with the well-meaning friends who assume that because you’re in town and have a whole six hours between the end of one show day and the beginning of the next, you have to get together with them for dinner or a party. If you’re smart, you’ll bow out on those invitations unless you know you can get enough sleep, because you’re no good to any of your customers if you’re so sleep-deprived and hallucinating that you alternate between extolling the virtues of your work and waving a marlin spike around while yelling about reptiles.
I don’t have any personal stories to relate about particular sleep horrors, although I discovered last September that I can go approximately 40 hours without sleep before I encounter my inner William Burroughs. However, I was neighbor to a vendor at one big show in Fort Worth who ran into everything that might interfere with a good night’s rest. He came in on Sunday morning about a half-hour before the show opened to the public, uncovered his table, told everyone about how he’d driven three hours to be there because his wife had to work that day, sat down in a little folding chair, and promptly passed out. Customers coming by his table couldn’t ask him questions because he was insensate, and his snoring started drowning out sales pitches from other vendors and announcements over the hall intercom. Finally, as the show ended and the rest of us started breaking down our displays, he nodded, stretched, and complained loudly about how he hadn’t sold a thing all day and how he hoped his wife had done better the day before. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that she did the same exact thing, and hoped he’d do better when his turn came. I haven’t seen them at any shows in a while: I hope they’re getting enough rest…