Monday, May 28, 2012

Diary of a Trailblazer: My First Craft Fair!

So, I know I haven't written here in a long time, and I'm sorry to have neglected you guys.  But there's a reason I've been incommunicado: I got in as a vendor at the May 27th Kensington Art Market!

I've never sold my stuff to people in person before - just online and in a consignment store - so I had a lot of preparing to do, both physically and mentally.  I've spent the past few weeks running on a heady cocktail of fear, excitement, and too much chocolate as I dashed around buying supplies and making stuff to sell and rehearsing imaginary conversations with customers.  I probably only slept for twenty minutes total in the last fourteen days, but I'm pleased to report that the Kensington Art Market went well, I had fun, and I have all kinds of tips and experiences to share with you!

First off, you may remember that I have some issues with shyness and anxiety.  On one hand, I know that I need to actively sell my stuff at an art fair, not just skulk behind my table avoiding eye contact; on the other hand, I often get befuddled and don't know what to say to people.  Small talk is...not a thing I do.  So I've been pretty nervous, wondering if I could rise to the challenge of talking to strangers all day.  That was actually my single biggest concern in this whole thing.

Guess what?  I did pretty well!  When I was angsting about all of this ahead of time, I'd forgotten a key point: I wouldn't be making small talk out of the blue, with no common ground - I'd be talking to people who were looking at my art.  The art is the common ground!  So basically my old customer service habits kicked in and I'd engage people by telling them random little facts about whatever they were looking at.  Everyone I talked to was super nice and seemed interested in what I had to say.  Some people even gushed about how much they loved my art, and Art Market organizer Rupert Young even said, unprovoked, that my table looked great and I must've done a bunch of these shows before, so by closing time I think I was floating a few inches off the ground. :)

And, can I just say, for a socially awkward dork I'm quite exquisitely attuned to people's body language; it was easy to tell when someone was open to conversation and when they really just wanted to browse around quietly.  I hate pushy salespeople and never ever want to be one, and I'm confident that I came across well in that regard, so yay.

Having said that, I do wonder whether I should've stepped up my game a bit.  There's got to be a middle-ground between "Hi!  Here is some stuff for you to look at" and "What do I have to do to get this painting in your house today?" and I'd like to find it.  If anyone out there is a retail champion who knows how to "ask for the sale" without being a total pushy bastard, please leave your tips in the comments.  Thanks!

In other news, it was a great learning experience to see which items people were drawn to the most.  In this particular venue my greeting cards were the best seller by far, so I'm gonna come up with more card designs for next time so my customers get more variety - and maybe try offering postcards or prints, too!

The Boy, btw, was invaluable in helping me get through the day smoothly.  I knew that merchandizing was one of the things he did in his last day-job, but I'd never seen him in action before - throughout the day he'd periodically come around to the customer-side of my table, peer thoughtfully at my display for a minute, and make some minor shift that caused choirs of angels to sing and the whole display of merchandise to just...make sense.  I mean, I'm a visual artist - I have a good sense of balance, colour, etc., and can arrange items in a fairly pleasing way.  But The Boy has mad skillz and it was amazing to watch him deploy them.  Turns out he also knows a bunch of little psychological tricks that are good for selling; he told me, for instance, that it I'd draw in more customers if I stood behind my table instead of using the provided chair.  Something about seeming more attentive and energetic, I think.  He also thought I should stand with my hands lightly clasped in front of me (instead of behind my back, like I'm doing in every damn photograph from that day) but the pose didn't feel natural to me - my hands kept sneaking behind my back again.  I'll have to work on that.

Overall, I'm pretty pleased with myself: considering this is my first time selling in a festival/trade show/whatever, I think I did pretty well on all fronts.  There is one thing I wish I'd done differently, though.  When I applied to be in this festival, I decided one of the things I'd sell is decorated wooden boxes (you know, for jewellery and knicknacks and whatnot).  I was thinking people might be more likely to spend money on something functional than on a purely decorative piece of art that just hangs on the wall.

Here are two of the finished products.  Totally cute, right?
The thing is, I'd never decorated a wooden box before.  There ended up being a bit of a learning curve, and I lost some valuable prep time redoing the first couple of boxes I made when I realized I should've used a different sealant.  So my biggest tip for my fellow craftspeople is this: when you're on a deadline, stick with what you know.  Even if you have a super-cool idea that you think will make a ton of money, put it on the back burner and use your time and energy to make stuff you can slam out without thinking about it.  Experiment with the new thing after your show, when you have time to perfect it.  Then you can unveil it at the next show.

More things I learned from the Kensington Art Market:

-The tape and scissors I brought with me were a godsend.  I think I'll prepare an emergency bag to take to all trade shows: it will contain tape, scissors, string, pens and some paper (and probably other things that will occur to me during future trade shows).  Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, as they say!

-Packing needs to be a priority for me, especially since I don't have a car.  The Boy and my amazing friend Molly were kind enough to help me schlep my stuff on public transit, but I'd really like to trim things down until I'm totally self-sufficient, if I possibly can.  I'm gonna have to investigate racks and displays that fold flat and figure out how to Tetris all my products into the most compact and unbreakable package possible.

-I need to point out my stack of business cards and encourage people to take them!  I had a lot of people at my table who seemed really interested in what I do, but didn't buy anything that day...and walked away without my contact information.  *Facepalm*.

-Pop-up gazebos and tabletop patio umbrellas cost a chunk of money, but I should take the plunge anyway. I got a really damn painful sunburn yesterday (apparently SPF 30 sunblock is not adequate for my freakishly white complexion).  Actually, if I were sheltered from the sun at outdoor art shows, I could stop buying sunscreen and therefore a gazebo or umbrella would eventually pay for itself.

Not just a sunburn: an asymmetrical, patchy sunburn!  Wheeeeee!
-I got maybe one sale per hour for the first half of yesterday, and started to feel pretty discouraged, but then  things picked up a lot.  From now on I won't start speculating on whether an event was a success until it's actually over!

-Next time I do this (which is July 29th, btw - I enjoyed this instalment of the Kensington Art Market so much that I signed up for the next one!  Mark your calendars!) I'm gonna put a few bottles of water in the freezer the night before and bring them with me.  This seems like a better plan than bringing one bottle of tapwater with me and having to seek out a drinking fountain for refills, like I did this time!

-I'm also gonna use a tablecloth next time to hide all the stuff I stowed under my table!  I didn't realize how messy and distracting it was until I got home and looked through The Boy's photos.

So, okay, I know you're all dying to know whether I made a heap of money at this thing, or what.  Let me set up my answer with an anecdote:

One time, I was talking to a guy who told me - with obvious pride - that his wife had recently run in a marathon.  I asked how she did and he said "she finished!" which momentarily threw me off because I was expecting him to give me an actual number, like "she came in fourth!" or something.  Since I'm the least athletic person ever, I didn't realize that people don't generally run marathons with the goal of beating all the other participants, they run marathons to improve on their own personal best.

Starting a business is a marathon: it's an endurance sport, not a flashy fast-paced one, and the concept of "winning" is not cut-and-dried.  To be perfectly frank, the money I brought in from selling my stuff yesterday doesn't cover the amount I spent on my registration fee, let alone what I spent on materials, display stuff, and shopping bags.  But it's more money than I expected to bring in, the display stuff and shopping bags are a one-time purchase* that I can keep on using for the forseeable future, and my artsy friends who've done similar festivals tell me that if I keep getting out there and making a name for myself, I'll probably start selling more and more stuff at each event I attend.

In short: I didn't make a profit, and I likely won't get to the profit-making stage for a while, but I'm still in the marathon and still beating my previous bests.  I declare yesterday a WIN.

*It's a package of 500 bags.  I mostly sell smallish things that people can just stick in their purse.  It's gonna be a long time before the bags run out.


By the way, I tend to update my Facebook page more regularly than this blog (I totally forgot to mention the Kensington Art Market over here until now, for instance, but I told my Facebook fans about it ahead of time), so you might want to head over there and "like" me if you haven't already!