The craft of craft fairs

I’ve been a stallholder with my Rebejoo jewellery hat on at a number of craft fairs over the last few years. Some work well and some work… less well. By ‘well’ I don’t mean whether or not it was enjoyable – it always is – I mean in terms of sales/income. Now, I’m not especially mercenary or money-minded (quite the opposite), but in the end it’s not a hobby; I’m looking to pay the mortgage with a bit left over after that and other basics are met. If all I needed to do was break even, I’d attend as a punter – I could still have all the lovely conversations with splendid fellow craftpeople, and peruse the shiny things, but without all that pesky work. No, I’m there to sell my wares for reasonable prices. I may sometimes run a stall at a charity or other progressive event primarily to help support that, but choosing to work in art/craft does not imply acceptance of poverty. In most cases I’m there to make a living.

So, I can’t help wondering why some fairs work better than others. Some things are probably fairly obvious e.g. in the run-up to Christmas sales unsurprisingly go up, then in January drop off again. If the weather’s horrible, no-one comes out – so be it, that’s beyond anyone’s control, but other factors aren’t. I’ve been musing on this for a while – it unashamedly puts the onus on fair organisers, but I hope in a constructive way. Anyhow, here are my thoughts – they might change and certainly aren’t a you-must-do-it-like-this set of instructions, and I welcome comments:

  1. Advertising. This seems to be the biggie, and unsurprisingly so – it’s true of all manner of events, not just craft fairs. If no-one knows about it, no-one’s going to come. Given it’s such a fundamental aspect of successful events, I do worry about how often it seems to be treated as an optional extra – it isn’t. Yes, individual stall-holders will probably promote the event on their own facebook pages and so on, but event organisers need to drive this aspect. In this sense, it’s the same as running a music venue. This means an advertising budget needs to be included (printing, online promotion), as does some time (distributing flyers and posters) and headspace (I do appreciate organising events can be stressful). If this means my stall fee goes up by a fiver, that’s fine – chances are I’ll get that back and more if genuine buyers turn up. Two fairs stand out as being particularly successful and they are also the ones that put the most effort into publicity. They also sought helpers so the organisers wouldn’t be too overwhelmed and drop the publicity side of things.
  2. Audience. This follows on from #1 i.e. who are the intended buyers? From a sales point-of-view, they need to be people who are actually intending to spend money, and who recognise that good-quality crafts don’t come at jumble-sale prices. My stall is not a temporary museum exhibit – it’s a pop-up shop. I appreciate people are perfectly welcome to browse and leave – it’s their cash after all – but there are people out there who come to buy, and events need to find and appeal to them. Again, the best fairs have made it clear that the event’s about buying and targeted people who are willing, in principle, to spend – or have targeted people whose interests match the theme/niche of the fair, if it has one. The the less successful ones haven’t appealed beyond, say, those used to local village hall (yes, jumble-sale) events.
  3. Mix of stallholders. This one’s trickier because there’s a place for everything, but not necessarily all in the same place at the same time. Despite my ‘jumble-sale’ point above, there is a role for bargain pricing and I am an inveterate rummager. However, I have to say that as a mid-price seller (mostly £10-£50, and averaging around £20), my heart does sink a little if I turn up to find a series of stalls selling 2nd hand bits-and-pieces for a few quid per item. Aside from the under-cutting problem, that ain’t craft! At that point, I either break out the bargain basket or resign myself to a slowwww day, and speaking to other crafters, this is a common issue. I suspect this is a bit more complex – a bigger event like some vintage fairs can support a range of wallet sizes, but smaller craft fairs maybe need to be a little more targeted. Certainly I find that ‘art’, ‘craft’, ‘second-hand’ and ‘vintage’ don’t always mix.
  4. Information. Who are the stallholders? What do they sell? What are the price ranges? These are things buyers want to know up front. It’s also really helpful to include ‘BRING CASH’ in the advertising. Most crafters don’t have the facility to take card payments. It’s getting more affordable but it’s still a minority thing outside the larger events. I can take Paypal on the spot if there’s wifi, but not every venue has it. Basically, it’s best if punters assume cash is the way.

OK, that’s about it. It’s sort-of-critical in places, but not unfairly I think, and certainly not to anyone in particular. I acknowledge that new events take time to get going and new organisers have to learn; I’m happy to support these even if it means the occasional slow day, just not, you know, always. Event organisers will make mistakes, and sometimes they’ll need to ask for help. That’s all fine. It’s the same for crafters.