Imagine this: Someone admires your product, picks it up or tries it on, and then pays you for it in front of your eyes. There's something about this feeling that selling exclusively online just can't match.
Call it connecting with your customers or getting a crash course in retail, but in-person selling at craft fairs and art shows can be a rewarding experience. Markets and fairs afford small brands and new markets a sample-sized chance at retail.
It's all too easy to see a listing for a craft fair and purchase a booth, arrive with your products, and leave without having sold enough to even cover your costs. Many people will testify that they've been there and done that.
To save you from going through a similar experience, we've built this guide to help you properly prepare for your next (or first) craft fair or art show.
Craft fairs and art shows: A handmade history
“Maker,” “market,” and “pop-up” may be buzzy words, but the concept is much older. In fact, markets tell the origin story of commerce.
In 17th century America, creators were making a living wage on one-of-a-kind goods, still years out from the industrial revolution. When machines took over–mass-producing ceramic bowls and textiles, once exclusively by-hand industries—“artisan” became synonymous with “hobbyist.”
Enter William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. The 1880s saw a backlash against the machine, a fight for “visible artisanship” and a celebration of the craft.
As with food production, industries like textile printing suffered homogenization again at the hands of the post-war factory craze. Thankfully trends are cyclical, and support for handmade has been on an upward, unfaltering path for more than a decade.
Affordable ecommerce technology and online marketplaces reinforced the rebirth of the craft, giving makers more reach.
“Technology is only getting more and more advanced to help support [the in-person selling] movement and to help further make the creator economy a more viable alternative to mass produced goods and services,” shared Susie Daly of Renegade Craft.
Image Source: Renegade Craft
The benefits of in-person selling
Things made by hand are meant to be experienced by hand.
No technology can replace the one-to-one contact with the artist behind the masterpiece, or replicate a tactile encounter with a macramé plant hanger. The value for both the maker and the customer is obvious.
Moreover, for many small maker businesses running on Shopify, a brick and mortar location is out of the scope of reality.
Craft fairs, art shows, music festivals, and other temporary retail experiences are the compromise.
Why should you take your online brand offline? The benefits are plenty:
- Make connections with fellow entrepreneurs and makers in your area to share ideas, provide support, and pool resources
- Gain access to new audiences and shoppers
- Test your products IRL. Get insights via what products attract the most attention, what questions people ask, and which products perform better in person versus online
- Meet potential wholesale clients—many curated lifestyle shops source products at maker markets
- Use it as a stepping stone to pop-up retail or a brick and mortar shop. Experiment with merchandising, display, and customer experience
- Build a local following
- Collect customer information. Even if you don’t make a sale, an interactive experience in your booth can potentially rack up a sizable email list
Image Source: Renegade Craft
Choosing the right in-person selling event for you
Craft fairs, art shows, and local markets are a great way to hawk your wares without the pressure of signing a lease. That being said, the time and money put into selling at these events can quickly add up.
That’s why it's important to tread the temporary retail waters carefully. Here’s how to start small.
Be a customer first
Attend any events you’re considering for your business. Talk to the people behind the booths and get a feel for the quality, price, and nature of the products being sold—and whether your products would fit in.
Does the event fit your brand? Do the other vendors serve a similar target audience? Is the event well-attended? Ask yourself these questions and more as you walk the aisles.
Create a budget
Create a budget tallying all the potential expenses you'll incur. Depending on the event, these costs may include:
Many curated fairs have a juried process to select the best vendors that offer a variety of products that appeal to their target market. This fee is small but non-refundable.
Table or booth fees
This is typically an upfront, one-time fee. Some fairs might allow you to split a table with another vendor, so if you’re just starting out, pairing up with another vendor who complements your brand might be a good way to reduce the buy-in cost.
Table or booth set-up
In most cases, you’ll be required to bring everything you need for your own booth, including tables, chairs, table coverings, extension cords, and signage, plus any other items you need to light and display your products.
You’ll also want to add some flair to your table to draw in potential customers. Think of your booth as an extension of your brand. It should grab people’s attention, and immediately communicate the feeling you want people to experience with your product, even from across a crowded room.
Some craft fairs ask vendors to make a contribution to a door prize or swag bag. You might also give away a product to attract people to your table and grow your email list.
Don’t forget that time spent at an in-person event is time you’re not spending on other things. It’s important to factor in the cost of your time when deciding whether a given fair or market is a worthwhile investment for your business.
Depending on the event, you might need an extra set of hands to make sure that you’re able to help everyone who comes to your booth. Consider whether you’ll need to hire an extra person to help you out, or if you have a friend who can swing by to cover you for a quick lunch break if you need it.
📌 GET STARTED: Shopify POS is the fastest way to accept in-person payments, sell at events, or open a pop-up shop. Download the Shopify POS app onto any smartphone or tablet and rent a mobile card reader to start selling wherever your customers are.
Ask the right questions
Choosing the right show for your brand is much like navigating the dating world. Don’t swipe right too hastily, though–there are a few questions you should ask before sprinting to first base.
Read the fine print, and be sure it answers the following:
- Where are the power outlets?
- Is power included, or will access cost extra? What about extension cords?
- What are restrictions around lighting, staff, and booth materials?
- Does the venue have adequate wifi for keeping your business running?
It’s also important to conduct your own research:
- What are people saying online about the show? Did it get any press last year?
- Does the show have a strong social presence, and are they running any paid ads? What are the vendor responsibilities for marketing?
- Who were past vendors? Ask for a list of other participating merchants to be sure your product is a good match, and that their target demographic matches your own
- Check your contract for exclusivity clauses. Are you restricted from selling at other markets in the same region/season?
Evaluate your fit as a vendor
You’ve determined that the show is right for you, but are you right for the show?
Organizers Andrea and Robert of Vancouver’s Got Craft? suggest asking yourself if you’re able to produce enough stock to meet demand, and whether your pricing is accessible for the audience, but also profitable.
If you’re an IRL virgin or on a small budget, see if the show allows booth-splitting (sharing the space with a complementary maker), or has a dedicated space for newbies:
“A lot of the shows have sections for newcomers or co-op spaces," shared Matt Vaile, former Offline Marketing Producer at Shopify. "Ask to be in those areas, as the cost is less and buyers are always looking for what’s new.”
How to apply to craft fairs and art shows
Just like you want to select an event that fits well with your target customer and brand, the folks curating craft fairs, art shows, and markets want their vendors to add to the overall experience of their event.
Organizers of curated events want to see that your products fit their event’s desired style and feeling. You’ll likely have a better chance of being accepted if you’re active on visual forms of social media like Instagram and Pinterest—especially if you showcase photos of prior events and fairs.
Sarah Power, founder of INLAND, a Toronto-based show supporting independent fashion in Canada, carefully considers a brand’s overall online presence when reviewing applications: “It's through social media and the website that I'm able to capture the real perspective of where that designer is in terms of their business development, the brand, and customer awareness. How are they creating unique opportunities for engagement?”
Image Source: Renegade Craft
And pay attention to the finer details, they say: “Double check that the links you provide are current. There is no point in submitting an Instagram profile if you posted one picture of your cat from 49 weeks ago. Also, have somebody review your spelling and grammar!”
Once you have all of the right elements, be sure the entire package is cohesive, advises Susie Daly, Creator and Director of Renegade Craft Fairs: “We look at the total package—to really stand out, you must have a unique idea and well-made products, as well as attractive branding and packaging, a nice website, crisp photos, and exceptional styling.”
In all cases, make sure to read the application requirements and instructions thoroughly, and reach out to event organizers if you’re unsure about something. If you’re new to the process, give yourself enough lead time to be able to ask questions and prepare any information you might need to include with your application.
Image Source: Renegade Craft
How to prepare for your next in-person selling event
Once you’ve chosen the perfect sales event and have your market booth game on lock, you’re ready for IRL retail sales, right? Wrong.
To make your (and your customers’) in-person sales experience run as smoothly as possible, it’s important to remember all of the odds and ends you’ll need to actually track your sales. How will your customer pay in real life? Will you accept credit and debit cards? Are your products barcoded, and do you have your SKUs straight?
Depending on what payment methods you’re accepting and how you track your inventory, you will have different needs for selling your products.
Let’s walk through a handy pre-event checklist:
- Prepare and pack plenty of inventory! Always bring more than you think you’ll sell—an empty booth isn’t fun for anyone.
- Order and print promotional materials and signage. Think outside of business cards and postcards. How can you convey your brand in a memorable way, or via something useful? Can you incorporate a sample of your product into your customer takeaways? Beware of wasting money on printing high quantities of items that can’t be reused (e.g., seasonal/time-sensitive materials like lookbooks).
- Don’t forget basic supplies! Pack a supply kit with things like pen, paper, a calculator, bags, tape, extension cords, zip ties, hand sanitizer, snacks, and water.
- Bring bags so customers can easily carry their purchases.
- Consider bringing extra cash and a cash box for safekeeping.
However, we don’t recommend a cash-only approach.
These days, having a POS system—your point-of-sale software and the hardware that supports it—is crucial. Cash-only vendors see many missed sales opportunities, and writing out receipts by hand is not efficient.
Today’s shoppers are leaving cash behind and relying on cards, and depending on what you’re selling, potential customers might be unwilling to spend the extra time and money to take cash out from an ATM.
💡 PRO TIP: If you want to open a temporary retail location like a pop-up shop or kiosk at a concert, you don’t need to buy your hardware. Sign up for Shopify’s Hardware Rental Program to start selling quickly risk-free.
First things first, you’ll need point-of-sale (POS) software. This enables you to sync your in-person sales with your online store and allows you to track your sales, manage your inventory, and create detailed reports to help you to clearly see any trends—all from a smartphone or tablet.
To accept tap, swipe, or chip card payments, you’ll also need a card reader. You can either use a simple swiper that plugs into the audio jack of a smartphone or tablet or invest in a Bluetooth hardware option like Shopify’s Chip and Swipe Reader.
📚 READ MORE: How do credit card readers work? Learn the ins and outs in our quickstart guide.
If you already use Shopify for online sales, Shopify POS seamlessly integrates with your online shop and inventory. Not only will it allow you to take payment via credit and debit cards, but it will also integrate with your already existing inventory system and allow you to sell from anywhere.
While having all these items will help to keep your booth running smoothly, there’s no need to purchase every item right away. Especially if you’re starting off at some smaller craft fairs or art shows, start with the basics and see what works best for you before upgrading.
Book your next craft fair or art show
The in-person experience has evolved significantly in recent years, with vendors stepping up their game with branded photo booths and experiential retail experiences.
To stand out, small merchants and handmade brands need to think beyond foldable card tables and clipboard email sign-up sheets. Employ the best practices and equipment recommendations made here, and your next craft fair or art show experience will be successful beyond measure.