In this installment of my series on ways to monetize your softie making habit I want to talk about craft fairs. I have discovered over these last seven years of sewing softies that there are many paths one can take when it comes to selling work. I think it is beneficial to consider all of the possibilities, but I also think it is valuable to think carefully about what you enjoy. I did several craft fairs in 2006 and quickly realized that they weren’t for me. Having people pick up my toys and put them down, comment about them and then walk away just made me feel awful. I think craft fairs are a great option for softie makers, though, and I wanted to talk with some seasoned craft fair veterans to find out more about their craft fair experiences.
I decided to talk to two softie makers whose work I love and admire: Jennifer Strunge of Cotton Monster and Jen Gubicza of Zooguu. I am thankful to Jennifer and Jen for talking to me openly about selling softies at craft fairs and if you are thinking about getting a table at a fair soon I think you will be interested to hear what they have to say.
First we’ll hear from Jennifer Strunge. Jennifer’s Cotton Monsters are amazing. She makes them from recycled clothing and blankets and I’ve bought at least six over the last several years. You could say I’m a collector.
Here is what Jennifer told me about her craft fair experiences:
I decided to try craft fairs shortly after starting up my business as a way to attract new customers and start spreading the word about my work, and I think it worked! It’s always so great to meet people who had bought or seen my work online and to introduce new folks to my work in person. It’s also always eye-opening to get out of my studio and meet neighboring vendors, often other crafters whose work or blogs I follow online. My face always hurts from smiling at the end of a craft show! It can be exhausting to talk about yourself and your work over and over all day, but seeing peoples eyes light up and hearing them squeal with joy when entering my booth makes it all totally worth it.
Selling online is fantastic, but selling at shows can help reach a whole new audience. Even if I don’t sell a lot of monsters at a show, I always feel like I gave out a ton of business cards, collected emails for my newsletter, and hopefully turned on a new batch of potential future fans!
My first show was a two-day outdoor event, and it rained like crazy. I wasn’t prepared for that and I think it kind of scarred me…there were a few casualties; monsters falling on dirty wet ground=much sadness. I am much less likely to do outdoor shows, as I’ve found my plush work does not fair well in the rough elements.
Sometimes shows just don’t go well, whether it be low attendance, few sales or bad weather. I try and touch base with friends and other vendors after shows and see how they did and how they felt about it for comparison. Sometimes shows that don’t go so good aren’t in good locations or poorly advertised or maybe are just not the right fit for your work or price-points, but more often, it can be blamed on mother nature or just bad timing! I take all this into consideration when deciding whether to apply the following year, in addition to booth fees and costs.
I’d recommend to newbie plush artist starting with a one-day indoor show not too far from home (hotels/gas/travel expenses can add up quick) just to test the waters. Be prepared with business cards or postcards, something to give people to remember you by! Some folks may shower you with compliments totally get the time and love you put into making your stuffies, but others are taken aback by the price of a hand-made object or can say rude things (do they not see that human being sitting behind that table covered with their creations?!), so you may need to put on your tough skin for the day! All in all it’s a good learning experience! Nothing feels better then seeing a very excited person pick out their new Cotton Monster, give it a big hug and not want to let go!
For a second perspective on this topic I talked to Jen Gubicza. The last time Jen and I met in person it was at a craft fair in Wellesley where she was selling and I was shopping. Her display was amazing and included a beehive-style shelving unit that she and her husband made themselves. Jen sells her beautiful, handmade Zooguu plush toys at markets every single week. She is clearly a seasoned craft fair seller!
I have a background in graphic design, specifically for the audience of kids and families. I started making toys as a quiet hobby to get away from staring at a computer screen all day. In January of 2006, I heard about Etsy and opened a shop. My toys started selling really well and I began getting involved in Etsy and started to get to know other crafters. When Etsy was in the early stages, they started sponsoring Etsy tents at outdoor markets. Basically, we would tell customers about Etsy and hand out postcards and Etsy would pay for the show fee. I was fortunate to get a spot at the SoWa Open Market in Boston, and I was hooked. I love meeting new people and talking about the things I make. Some of those early customers are still my customers today. These days, I do at least one market every week.
I love hearing stories, like who they’re buying a toy for or why they like a certain animal, etc. I love traveling to different cities and getting to know my customers all over the country. It’s also a great way to test out new designs or color combinations. If a new design gets snatched up quickly, then you know to make more. Customers will talk to you and the people they’re with while they are in your booth, so you can really get a feel for how your work is received.
I think every category has its challenges. The key is to find shows that work for you and your prices. There’s still a little bit of price resistance out there for toys, because people are used to spending only a few dollars for an imported toy. But, over the last few years, I’ve heard less and less comments about my prices being “too high”, when in reality, they’re probably not high enough for the amount of time that they take. I find that I do best at shows that are promoted as indie shows. They draw the right crowd that values handmade and will spend money on a quality product.
This is so true. Sometimes you’ll sell a lot, while your neighbor isn’t selling anything and vice versa. If you don’t have a successful show, it’s probably because your particular audience just isn’t there. You have to find shows that work for you, and not every show will be great. Over time, you start to figure out where you may or may not do well, and that just takes time and experience. Your setup and your demeanor can also come into play. If you don’t look like you want to be there, customers won’t want to shop in your booth.
It’s not for everyone. You really have to be interested in meeting people, be prepared to have a thick skin (customers say exactly what’s on their minds – good and bad), be committed to invest in entry fees, displays, tent, weights, be ready with enough inventory for every show, be in for a long day(s) and loading/unloading all of your wares. It’s hard work, but if you’re the type of person that enjoys these things, it can be very rewarding. I would recommend starting out by sharing a booth with a friend to see if you enjoy the experience.
So what do you think? Are craft fairs something you are considering? If you already sell at fairs, are Jennifer and Jen’s comments similar to what you’ve experienced? Do they make financial sense for you? Anyone else out there like me and avoid selling at craft fairs? Let’s talk and help one another!
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