Studio Saturday: Selling at Art and Craft Fairs

I’m going to skip the I-can’t-believe-it’s-October-already exasperation and go straight to the reality that the holidays are almost here. If you’re thinking about selling at art and craft fairs, yay! Selling your artwork can be extremely rewarding, and I’ve learned a ton from setting up shop at holiday markets. Today I’d love to share some business-y tips with you, and pull in some experts for even more wisdom.

I always like to start with why—why do you want to sell your work? Are you trying to grow a business? Make a little extra money? Expand your newsletter list and social media numbers? Get feedback on teaching in person or online classes? All of the above? Figuring out the ‘why’ will help you set your goals and expectations. For example, if you want to expand your newsletter and social media base, make sure you grab as many customer emails as you can at the show, and work social media like crazy before, during, and after the event.

Selling at art and craft fairs can help achieve goals (Photo courtesy of Renegade Craft Fair)
Selling at Art and Craft shows, like the Renegade Craft Fair, shown here, can help you achieve your goals. (Photo from the Winter 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine, courtesy of Renegade Craft Fair)

If your goal is to pull in some extra cash, then make sure your overhead margin is low, and pay extra attention to what you’re selling, ensuring there’s a wide range of offerings and prices.

The shows I’ve done were like mini-business workshops in terms of how much knowledge I gained, knowledge that I still use today. As prepared as I thought I was, I still made some mistakes, but I learned from them and moved on.

So before you pop open a folding table and set up your display, here are some helpful tips:

Do your homework. Know as much as you can about a show before signing up to sell. The types of people who attend the show, the size of the crowd, the other vendors, the facilities—all of these elements factor into your success. So attend a show if possible, search for online reviews, talk to the administrators, and solicit feedback from friends or colleagues who have attended or been vendors at the shows you’re interested in.

Remember the Girl Scout Motto. Selling at art and craft fairs is hard work, but you’ll have it a lot easier if you leave as little as possible to chance. Set up your display at home or in your studio, making sure your items are accessible and displayed well. In the Summer 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine, the article “Designed to Sell” featured incredible booth designs from a variety of artists around the country. One standout was Nic Annette Miller, a printmaker from Brooklyn, New York, who designed her booth to look like a fish market. Miller wanted to show off a new body of work that included woodcut sculpture prints of fish, and at the Renegade Craft Fair she built a booth that resembled a fish market in every way, from the signage to the faux ice the artwork was sitting on. “I studied a lot of fish markets on the Internet,” she said, “and went to local delis and farmers’ markets to see the colors, the wording, and the lettering for signage, even what the fishmongers wore.”

A unique display always gets noticed, like this faux fish market designed by Nic Annette Miller (Photo courtesy of Nic Annette Miller)
To sell her woodcut sculpture prints, Nic Annette Miller turned her booth into a faux fish market. (Photo from the Summer 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine, courtesy of Nic Annette Miller)

In addition to booth design, think about how you’re going to process payments, where you’re going to stow trash, how you’re going to display a banner, what kind of shopping bags you want to provide, etc. If your goal is to get newsletter and class sign-ups, make sure people have easy access to clipboards to leave emails. And if you bring in extra help, make sure they’re up on all procedures, are able to represent the merchandise, and can handle the rigors of a day or two of selling. If you’re able to walk around and visit other booths at the show, do so. You may get ideas for displays and décor that you can use for next time.

Have a sales goal, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet it. Factors you can’t control, such as weather and traffic, can have an effect on crowd size and sales.

Collaged paperweights by Michelle Spaw, featured in the article "Making the Most of Little Bits" in the 2010/2011 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts. (Art by Michelle Spaw, photo by Larry Stein)
Looking for some great ideas for holiday gifts? Try these collaged paperweights by Michelle Spaw, featured in “Making the Most of Little Bits” in the 2010/2011 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts. (Art by Michelle Spaw, photo by Larry Stein)

Put on a happy face. I can’t tell you the number of art and craft shows I’ve attended where I’ve encountered absolutely miserable vendors. They never look up at people who enter their booth, or worse—they scowl at customers. Some complain loudly about the lack of sales. Even if you haven’t made a cent all day, don’t let potential customers know that. Be your beautiful, shining, upbeat, genuine self no matter what.

Be revealing. At one of the first shows I ever did, I wasn’t sure how to engage customers beyond the usual small talk. I decided to tell them about my work as they looked at it, offering little tidbits that seemed interesting. For example, some of my handmade books had vintage tintypes for covers, and I told people that they were handling an actual photograph from the 1800s. If they seemed interested, I added that most of the materials I incorporated in my books were the real deal—old photos, maps, ledger pages, etc. Many times those info bites led to a sale, and I felt good knowing people were purchasing something that felt special to them. If you have interesting information to share about your work, go for it.

A handmade welcome sign adds a warm touch to a booth. (Art by Paige Martin, photo by Sharon White Photography)
Unique touches, such as this handmade paper-cut welcome sign, can set your booth apart and make it look inviting. Projects instructions can be found in Paper Art magazine. (Art by Paige Martin, photo by Sharon White Photography)

Although some artists believe they’re not good at selling themselves, those skills can be improved. In the Summer 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine, career and life coach Mary Edwards said that people who buy art are curious about the person who made it: “It’s not like buying a toaster or a washing machine. Art is a personal product.…You might explain how you find your materials, what inspired you to create a particular painting, or what your art is all about.”

Provide a spark. Sometimes people need a little extra inspiration before making a purchase. Using handmade books as an example again, many people admire the workmanship that goes into a one-of-a-kind blank book, but they haven’t a clue as to what to use it for. After noticing people’s unfamiliarity with blank books at one show, at the next one I put up a small sign suggesting ways to use empty journals. I also brought some of my own filled journals, showing ways in which you can use books to record your life: sketching, making lists, storing favorite wine bottle labels, writing recipes, displaying photos, on and on. If you make artwork that’s best displayed on a wall, hang some pieces on a wall. If you make accessories, wear them and display them in ways that show how they’d be worn. Providing a few ideas will go a long way toward your success.

Here’s another tip that Jennifer Bertrand shared in the Winter 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine: “Create conversation topics through signage and notes,” she said. “Post fun messages…with little insights into your work and your workspace. Some notes could have details about your creative career, such as, ‘I entered my first art contest when I was three.’” Jennifer uses this idea at studio open houses, but it’s perfect for selling at art and craft fairs, too.

Cards by Ro Bruhn, featured in the 2011/2012 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts. (Art by Ro Bruhn, photo by Larry Stein)
When selling at art and craft fairs, offer a range of merchandise and prices. Ro Bruhn created these collaged cards, featured in “Festive Fabric Cards” in the 2011/2012 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts. (Art by Ro Bruhn, photo by Larry Stein)

Market to your market. Use social media to let people know about the event, and what you’ll be selling. Tease pieces you’re bringing, offer reminders of when and where you’ll be, and try to post photos on your favorite platforms while you’re at the show. You never know who could be in the neighborhood, see your post or tweet, and stop by.

Just to recap. After the show, make notes about what worked and what didn’t work, so you’ll have a record for the next time. If selling at art and craft shows is something you want to pursue, don’t be discouraged if your first time out isn’t a home run. The next one will be better, and as you learn more, your sales will improve.

Planning on selling at art and craft fairs this holiday season? Get great ideas and tips from these resources!

Summer 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine
Get fantastic tips on selling your work in the Summer 2015 issue of Artists & Makers magazine.
Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts magazine, 2010/2011 issue
Fantastic holiday mixed-media projects can be found in the 2010/2011 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors Gifts.
The Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market 2017
The Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market 2017 is the must-have reference guide you need for selling your work.

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