It’s been several years since I shut down my handmade business and stopped selling at craft shows. I still kind of kick myself for not pushing through, as looking back; I know I really found my groove in my last couple years.
A lot of people feel like throwing in the towel when it comes to craft shows. If you don’t find the right ones, with the right organizers, bring the right product and create an amazing display, they can be anything but profitable.
Although a handmade business can be successful selling only online and through retailers, craft shows are an amazing tool to test your products, get to know your customers, conduct market research, grow your business locally and if done properly, leave you with a wad of cash.
I’m lucky enough to say that I always walked away from craft shows having made money (some profited more than others but I never took a loss). But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a LOT of mistakes and lessons along the way. I’m sharing some of those in this article to help you improve your craft show game.
I had sold at every type of craft show in my city, learning through trial and error how to pick the right ones. An unsuccessful craft show can really take the wind out of your sails. Especially when you can’t blame it on bad weather, poor organization or lack of promotion on the organizer’s part.
When you see other vendors doing well but aren’t seeing the sales at your booth, you really start to question if craft shows are right for you…..and maybe even start to doubt your business.
I definitely had my share of events that were less successful due to the organizer or because I applied to a craft show that wasn’t a fit for my products. Researching, choosing and applying to the right events is covered in detail in my ebook MAKE MORE MONEY AT CRAFT FAIRS and is an essential step in craft show success.
Along with trying a variety of events, I also tried a variety of products. I started with selling pajamas and rice heating bags, sewed a few pillow covers, got into making (every style of) handbags, sewed mittens out of leftover handbag fabric and sold a few odds and ends like wallets, coin purses, pencil cases, etc.
I played around with different display setups, fixtures, props, signage and sales pitches at each event as well.
After years of selling at craft shows, I finally started to find my place.
The problem was, I had spent so much time figuring things out, that once I found that sweet spot, I was exhausted, unmotivated and ready to shut things down.
I really wish the last couple years of my business were actually the beginning. I would have been starting in such a good place and heading in the right direction.
I can’t turn back time and give myself the valuable advice I’ve learned from a decade of selling at craft shows, being a handmade business owner and the more recent lessons that have come from running Made Urban.
But, I can share that advice with you!
I hope my mistakes and answers to “If you could go back and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?” will help you get on the right path sooner and continue your journey as a handmade business owner.
The sooner you find your sweet spot, the sooner you’ll start making more money. And the more you profit, the more motivation, energy and ease you’ll have running your business.
If I could go back and talk to the handmade business owner I was when I first started selling at craft shows, these are important lessons I would share to get me some more sales!
If you’ve read my ebook, you know I started my handmade business with a completely different product than I finished with. My first craft show was a bunch of flannel pajama bottoms with matching rice heating bags, as well as some throw pillows made out of vintage t-shirts…..aaand I was sharing a table with my friend selling photography.
At the next event, my friend and I started our joint venture making handbags. The majority of table was dedicated to them, with a few pieces of photography at the end. The table was like a buffet of purses; no two were alike.
With each craft show I narrowed down my selection and began to see the power of building collections.
The business grew and was profitable but I saw the biggest growth and profits when I focused on one handbag that set me apart.
That handbag was what I called The Weekend Bag. It was structured, made out of beautiful upholstery fabric and came in three sizes.
I still remember the first craft show I launched The Weekend Bag. It was the most expensive of all my products so I was a bit nervous, wondering if anyone would actually buy one. But watching it catch shoppers’ attention, seeing that look of “I need this bag”, having people come back after a loop around the event and adding up my sales at the end of the day, I had a really clear direction.
The other styles of handbags took a backseat and I focused on stocking up on The Weekend Bag for my next event. This one was an outdoor farmers’ market and despite the better part of the day being windy and cold, I had one of my best sales days yet, plus 2 opportunities to work with other businesses.
Unfortunately that “aha moment” of focusing on one style of handbag came a little too late for me. I had already spent years wearing myself out trying to come up with new designs, testing them at craft show after craft show, with varying levels of success, and slowly losing motivation.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen one type of product to focus on and tweaked that product until it was perfect, instead of trying to perfect 10 different types of products and offering something for everyone.
Find your unique selling position (USP) stat! This is one of the most common mistakes I see handmade businesses make (including my former self): creating products without a direction.
Knowing your USP will guide and streamline your business, set you apart from other vendors at craft shows (and online) and help get you more sales.
I have a great idea for a new product…should I make it for the next craft show? Can be quickly answered by contemplating whether it fits with your USP.
My USP was: bold, colorful weekend bags, which make a great alternative to your typical laptop bag, school bag or gym bag.
Let’s say I had the idea to start making clutches. A clutch on its own doesn’t really fit with my USP. But making clutches in the same fabric as the weekend bag and creating a compartment for the clutch within the bag makes it more of a fit.
I can now market the clutch as an additional organizer for the weekend bag. Something to hold pencils, highlighters and other small stationery. Or it could be used for wallets, phones or personal items so the clutch can be taken on lunch or washroom breaks instead of the oversized weekend bag.
Thinking about my USP before creating new products ensures I’m building a strong product line and offering items my shoppers will be more likely to love.
Keeping your USP in mind may also encourage you NOT to make that trendy item every one of your competitors is making.
Let’s say crocheted ladybug hats are all the rage. If you follow the same pattern everyone else is downloading to crochet that ladybug hat, how is your hat unique?
If shoppers can easily go to another vendor or retailer and buy a similar product, they’re going to go where it’s most convenient and the cheapest.
Give people a reason to come to you at craft shows by offering something they can’t find anywhere else.
You may decide that offering a crocheted ladybug hat isn’t profitable because it lacks a USP. Or you may decide to make ladybug hats but add an aspect that gives them a USP. For example, you could allow the buyer to personalize their hat with a name or make matching mittens to sell with the hat as a set.
Once you know your USP it will streamline your business and make the question: “what should I make for my next craft show?” or “which products should I feature?” so much easier to answer.
You won’t waste your time making products that don’t sell. You also won’t show up to an event and feel discouraged because someone right across from you is selling really similar products. And you won’t attract shoppers who pick out one thing and never buy from you again.
Way too much time was spent making products for craft shows and not enough on other little details.
In the beginning, when it came to craft show prep, all I worried about was making stock. A few days before, I would look around the house for items that could work as display fixtures and piled them together. Signage was quickly typed up on my computer, printed and placed in dollar store picture frames. Price tags were handwritten with whichever pen was handy and attached with leftover pieces of ribbon.
There’s nothing wrong with working with what you got, but the problem for me was; nothing worked with my brand.
Actually, the main problem was: back then, I didn’t even have a brand.
I always chose colorful fabrics and fun prints for my handbags but the elements of my display did not play up their bold, fun look or work with them.
In the beginning, I recall using Ikea baskets, a mix of white wooden frames and plexiglass picture holders for signage. I used the one and only tablecloth I had handy, which was moss green and jacquard print. Yikes.
Not only did my display elements lack branding, they clashed with my products.
It wouldn’t have taken much effort to buy some items from the dollar store, spray paint them an on-brand color and choose a theme to follow for each item that was placed in my display space.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have put the effort into building a brand from the start. Not only would it have strengthened my display, it would have helped my table stand out at a craft show and encourage more people to buy.
You may think small details like price tags and shopping bags don’t really matter but think about the brands you’re willing to spend a little more money on.
You could buy a cup of coffee from a convenient store for around a dollar or pay next to nothing to make coffee at home. So why do people choose to spend over $5 at Starbucks? Whether or not they have the best coffee in the world is debatable but the fact that they have a strong brand is not.
A strong brand is what makes people return to your business over and over, tell other people about it and be willing to spend a little more for the full-meal-deal experience.
Start by defining your brand if you haven’t already.
The way I like to think about a brand is; how you communicate your message (your USP) through the senses. What do customers see, smell, taste, hear and feel? Feel may apply in the sense of the textures people touch as they shop or as in the feeling, vibe or atmosphere you create.
People instantly know a Starbucks cup when they see one in the hands of people walking the streets, especially if it’s during the holidays and that cup is red. They smell their coffee from a block away when walking down the street. Their drink is customized exactly to their tastes and they know it will be the same every time, no matter which location they go to. The sounds of coffee beans being ground, milk being steamed and names being called is consistent from café to café. And there’s a certain feeling you get when you walk into a Starbucks. It’s a warm, cozy atmosphere with leather chairs, fireplaces and conversations.
Define your brand using a few words. Is it young and modern, feminine and sophisticated or rustic, vintage and charming?
Once you have a clear vision for your brand, determine how to carry it into every part of your business using the 5 senses.
At a craft show, you may be able to use all 5 senses (online, you may rely on sight and feel/vibe).
The key to branding is consistency. You don’t want your hang tags to have a rustic feel, your display fixtures to look modern and your logo to fall somewhere in the middle. Define your brand and carry it throughout every part of your craft show display and your business.
I have a fun exercise for you to go through in the free 5-day challenge. It’s going to help you look at your craft show display differently and figure out how to make sure it’s on-brand.
It took me a while before I got into selling effectively and had more to say than “there’s a pocket on the inside too” or “it also comes in blue”. I actually started at craft shows barely getting more than a “hi” out.
I really didn’t know what my story was or how to tell it through my sales pitch and display.
For the first few years of selling at craft shows, I was simply working on being comfortable around shoppers and trying not to embarrass myself. I figured I’d just let them shop and if they had questions, I’d be there to answer them.
It was also difficult to come up with sales pitches because all my handbags were different. There wasn’t one main selling feature I could share.
This one is good for an evening out and this one was hand-painted. This one has lots of pockets and I love this one as a book bag. Does that one fit a laptop? I’m not sure, it’s the first time I’ve made it and didn’t have time to test it out before the craft show…..
You get the idea.
So much info to cover in so little time and even I didn’t know the important features and benefits because I only worried about making, making, making!
Once I started focusing on my weekend bags, it was easy to point out important features, help shoppers imagine where and how they’d use the bag and then allow them to browse the different sizes and fabrics it came in.
Instead of trying to sell a basic tote that could be used for anything that would fit, I was selling a: reinforced weekend bag made out of durable upholstery fabric. This makes the bag sturdy enough to use for textbooks or laptops and big enough to throw sneakers and clothes into so you can head to the gym on a lunch break or use the bag for travel.
I could paint a picture of exactly who might use the bag and when, where and how they might use it. This made selling (and displaying) so much easier. I wasn’t trying to communicate 101 uses for a variety of bags; I was sharing a few main uses for 1 bag.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have put a lot of thought into my story from the beginning.
This would have helped me communicate the information that evokes feelings and encourages people to buy.
Selling is not about pointing out features shoppers can see or discover for themselves.
It’s about knowing how the shopper wants to feel and sharing information that evokes those feelings, mixed with pointing out features and benefits they may miss on their own.
It’s easy to disregard selling techniques, figuring you’re not necessarily making anything revolutionary or life changing so just let the people shop and pick out what they like.
But consider, for a moment, when you go shopping.
Let’s say you want to buy a new pair of earrings. Are you looking to buy earrings for the sake of buying earrings? Or do you have a certain outfit you want to pair them with, a certain style you saw on a celebrity and want to emulate or do you want to show friends how you’re up on the latest trends? Or maybe you just really want people to notice you and pay a compliment.
The point is, we don’t buy without first imagining how a product will make us feel better.
Once you determine what you’re selling, (it’s not the product, it’s what the product will do for the customer) you can start building the perfect sales pitch.
Your sales pitch isn’t a 5-minute presentation pointing out all the features and benefits. It starts with an open-ended question to break the ice and continues to ask questions that uncover their needs. Then it’s a matter of communicating the right information in the proper way.
Instead of: This bag can be used for laptops, books or gym clothes and has pockets on the inside. I would say: A lot of people love that size for a laptop bag. The big pocket on the inside fits up to an 18” laptop and there are lots of little pockets on the other side to organize your pens, phone, wallet, etc. Even with your laptop in, there’s lots of room for sneakers and workout clothes if you want to use it for a gym bag as well. You don’t go to the gym? It’s awesome as a carry-on bag for travel too.
This type of information is so helpful for building your display as well. When you know the way the customer is going wear, display, use or give your product, you can help them imagine that through visuals.
It was pretty much impossible to find props to communicate the purpose of each one of my 10+ styles of bags and help shoppers imagine where they’d wear them or what they’d wear them with.
But showing the weekend bag was perfect to take from school (or work) to the gym? Easy. Books, binders, laptop, pens, etc. as props on one side of the table and gym shoes, water bottle and a towel on the other.
Incorporating the story that sells your products through visuals and sales pitches is explained in the free 5-day challenge. If you want more info on coming up with your story, sign up below.
Those are a few key lessons I wish I knew when I was first starting out.
Knowing them from the start, or figuring them out within the first few years, would have made craft shows so much more fun and profitable.
Maybe I still would have stopped selling at craft shows when I did but at least I would’ve had more money in my pocket from them 😉
Questions about this article or the 5-day challenge? Comment below.
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