Show tunes

May 5, 2011 by  

Definition of exhausted: Me.

Actually, I’m writing this the day after the Gathering of the Guilds, an artist-owned art fair that I’m told is the largest west of the Mississippi, so you’d think I’d be recovered by now. But this is the 11th year the Oregon Glass Guild participated, and only the second year that *I* shared a booth at the show so, as with last year’s show, I ran myself ragged. And found out I still have a LOT to learn.

I am–for those of you who don’t follow this blog–a show newbie. What I don’t know about being an art/craft fair vendor could fill an encyclopedia. On the off chance that there’s someone out there even more clueless about shows, I figured it’d be kinda constructive to discuss the things that went wrong (and right).

Last year my friend Terry Belunes and I shared a booth at this show. Our spot was tastefully arranged, reasonably well-lit, not overcrowded. People said it was beautiful (and actually asked me to help them design THEIR booths for the 2011 show), crowded in to look at the sculpture, and begged me for glass sculpture lessons.

That booth was nearly perfect, or would have been if anyone had actually bought anything.

We lost a fair chunk o’change on it, and wore ourselves out hauling 35 quarter-inch plate glass shelves all over the Oregon Convention Center (which must be the single most badly designed complex in the history of mankind). I concluded that we hadn’t exactly hit the bullseye on booth effectiveness and pretty much decided not to do this again…

…and so I signed up for this year. My murrini project left me with maybe 75 pounds of really great glass cane, so I could churn out great-looking pendants and buttons and earrings by the gross. “How hard could it be,” I thought, “To fill a suitcase with glass jewelry, plop it all down on a table at the show, and smile as eager buyers snap it up?”

So I bought a 2×4 foot tablespace in OGG’s “group booth,” made 650 glass cabochons (which, if I do say so myself, were gorgeous)…and then things went sideways. My 8 square feet of tabletop mutated into a 100-square foot booth, twice as big as last year’s, with two partners, Becky and Carol:

We must have figured that many hands would make light work. We were almost correct.

The post-mortem

This is (surprise, surprise!) going to be a bit long.

What worked this year

The friendship. Carol and Becky are both good friends; I must admit I wondered if we’d still be friends by the end of the show. Sharing a tiny booth for three days is rather like being marooned at sea in a rowboat: If you haven’t tried to kill your companions by the time you’re rescued, you’ve won. We had a couple of small moments, but at the end of the show we were still speaking and even laughing occasionally, so…we won.

Sales. As in “I had some.” I FINALLY sold stuff. Not as much as I’d have liked (do we ever?), but enough to tell me that last year’s observations about consumer desires paid off.

Storage. We pulled last year’s U-shaped shelving out a bit, giving us plenty of storage behind (and a place to hide from the world, if necessary). We also discarded last year’s glass & metal shelves in favor of two inexpensive metro shelving units that were MUCH lighter weight. I’d learned last year that nobody looks at stuff below waist-level, so we simply covered the bottom halves with fabric –more storage!

Awhile back I’d spent $10 to buy two gorgeous stainless steel mannequin stands from a store’s closing sale, intending to convert them to sculpture mounts. Now we slid a 7.5-foot tall PVC pipe over each stand, connected a horizontal PVC pipe between them, and so built a frame for a solid-looking backdrop. Carol covered it with navy blue sheers from Ikea, and it both looked great and concealed our storage area. It also gave us a contrasting-colored “wall” to highlight work that didn’t look good against white. (And I’m thinking it’s going to be a GREAT backdrop for photographing larger sculptures.)

Wall-hanging. I made walls by cutting a sheet of 1/16th-inch luan plywood in half, drilling holes around three sides, painting both white, and then securing them to the poles and wire shelves of the metro units. I used zip-ties, to attach the “walls,” which gave us surprisingly stable hanging space; we simply drilled a hole wherever we wanted to hang something, then inserted a machine screw and tightened nuts on both sides of the plywood to secure it. Worked like a charm.

Pedestals. We added the two large plywood boxes between the metro shelves to make a long pedestal surface, and topped that with Becky’s stadium-seating-like risers, covered in fabric, to vary height. We stuck my entry hall table in front, topped with a nice copper tray, to hold “sale” items, i.e., pendants and glass cabochons.

Carol made booth entry pedestals from two lamp boxes saved over from her last move–they’re 12x12x42 inches. She lashed them to the poles defining our booth space, covered them with fabric, and placed our smallest, easiest purchases on each pedestal. I was skeptical (Carol rolled her eyes in exasperation when I said, “Uhm, won’t that look kinda tacky?”), but people started crowding around her  pedestals (and buying) before she’d finished setting up the display. (so I shut up)

Flooring. We saved our feet (and our customers’) by putting down the same 2x2foot squares of interlocking floor pads I used last year. Then we upleveled the whole thing with my office dhurrie rug, gaffer-taped down for safety.

Lighting. We used my gooseneck halogens (thanks forever, Luann, for suggesting them), ten in all, to illuminate the space. They’re fantastic for positioning light exactly where you need it, and as long as you don’t grab the hot part,  you can move the light around when you’re showing a piece to customers.

Merchandising. It was hard to find anything under $300 in our booth last year; this year you’d be hard-pressed to find much OVER that amount. Our prices started at $4 and topped out at $695, but maybe 90 percent was under $40 and much of that priced under $20. I’m not sure we sold any individual item costing more than $100 (I’m sure Becky and Carol will correct me if I’m wrong), and our average sale was probably closer to $25…but we sold a lot. Lesson learned.

Financials. I LOVE LOVE LOVE THE SQUARE!!!! Despite convention center promises that my little Square card reader (which plugs into Derrick-the-DroidX’s audio jack) wouldn’t work in the hall unless I paid $99/day for a wireless connection, the Square not only worked perfectly, but actually increased sales.

Square accepts Amex, Discover, Visa and Mastercard credit cards for a flat 2.75%, with no other credit checks, setup fees, monthly minimums or hidden charges. The card reader’s free, it’s incredibly easy to use, presents you with a record of each transaction (including a map showing where the transaction took place), and automatically deposits money in your bank account.

It lets you record cash transactions as well, so that you have all your records in the same place (I wish we’d used that feature), and if you can’t get a mobile signal the Square will batch up transactions and send them out as soon as it does. (or that’s what I’m told–it never had that problem for this show)

Turns out, though, that the best feature of the Square was something I thought merely a convenience: The ability to include a photo with each transaction. I took pictures of each buyer AND whatever they were buying, which was great for our records. Most people loved the photos, especially when told their email/text receipt would include the photo as well as transaction info.

Plus, posing for the picture kept people in the booth a little bit longer, and in a couple of cases they actually stayed long enough to buy something else. The Square also helped with accounting; with three artists in the booth we sometimes confused exactly whose work had sold; the Square photos solved those questions.

Signage. By the end of the first day I’d gotten tired of explaining over and over that these sculptures came from recycled float, that Carol’s mosaics made a great custom backsplash in a kitchen or whatever, and that Becky’s winebottle/cheesetray assemblages were wonderful mementos of a winey occasion. That night I made signs explaining exactly that and posted them in the booth, which increased inquiries. Carol wound up with requests to bid on custom backsplashes and I sold a recycled float sculpture.

What didn’t work

(you knew there hadda be, right?)

Sales. What I mostly sold were the least expensive things in my inventory, i.e., glass buttons, loose cabochons and cabochon “seconds,” all priced under $10. I sold my smallest $75 sculpture, and quite a few pendants (all under $40). My bigger dishes, sculptures, etc., didn’t sell. Since other vendors (and my boothmates) DID sell…I need to figure out how to make my higher-priced stuff more competitive.

Planning. I have a full-time (and very demanding) dayjob, Carol has a young daughter and displays of her “real” art to worry about, and Becky is extremely active in what appears to be half the good causes of Portland; she was also out of town on urgent business the week before the show. And we were all furiously making show merchandise in our spare time. That gave us almost no time to:

  • Lay out the booth. We had a short dress rehearsal (above) to develop the basic layout, but that was it. In fact, we didn’t really finalize booth design until the second day of the show. It definitely impacted sales.
  • Allocate space fairly. As it turned out, most of my pieces were very small (pendants and such), many of Carol’s were very large, and Becky’s ran the gamut, plus she needed space for cross-selling displays she’d promised another vendor. It led to the occasional teeth-gritting moment as we arranged (and helpfully rearranged) each other’s work. It could have been avoided if we’d each understood who had what and how much space it needed, before the show.
  • Manage finances. More on that later.
  • Allocate booth duty. The booth was simply too small for all three of us to be in it at the same time, and we had no booth duty schedule, time to arrive, or anything else. We should have agreed on times that worked for everyone, giving us time for childcare, petcare, shopping and other things.

Our lack of planning showed; on the first day, while others were greeting customers in their finished booths, we were still building, refining and stocking. Kinda embarrassing. Our booth actually looked a lot better than it should have, given the little time we’d spent on it, but it didn’t really become a good selling tool until halfway through the show. It’s kinda painful to think that we went through all this grief for half a show.

Storage. While we made sure we had enough space to store everything, it wasn’t very organized and we tended to lose vital things just when we needed them. And the fact that everything was behind our “wall” was a problem when there was only one person staffing the booth; if we needed something from the storage area we had to leave the customer alone in the booth to get it. That was just plain bad customer service and also left us open to theft.

Next year we’d really benefit from adding shelves or at least well-marked boxes for things like scissors, necklace chains, additional stock, business cards, tape, etc., and putting sales tools–padding, bags, receipt books, chain options for pendants, etc.–in some kind of up-front storage.

Wall-hanging. The plywood wall solution worked well…but didn’t allow for easy repositioning of stock once something sold–the holes we drilled were permanent. We did suspend a heavy mosaic from the metro shelves with special hooks; I’m thinking next year we should use foamcore or fabric for our “walls” and instead simply hang everything from those hooks.

Pedestals. The plywood boxes we used for pedestals are heavy and not really organizable. If we use them again it would be wise to add some shelves to their interiors, and possibly also to put them on wheels so that they become rolling carts that assist in loading and unloading. Or, perhaps, we should consider purchasing the lightweight cardboard pedestals that everyone else seems to have. They fold down into nothing much and are very light to carry.

One thing I still haven’t gotten right: Workspace. We still had no room to set down a drinking cup, write out a receipt or bag sales for a customer. Instead, setting anything down meant shoving a piece of glass to one side. We definitely need to fix that.

Flooring. My old office rug was a last-minute choice, but it may predate the dawn of glassmaking. Next year we should find something better-looking…or get pads in the right color.

Lighting. Despite buying three more gooseneck halogens, we needed still more, especially in front where we had our little lampbox pedestals. We also could have used uplights and backlights to complete lighting for more expensive pieces.

Merchandising. We worried that we didn’t have enough to fill a 10×10 booth when in fact the problem was exactly the opposite: Our merchandise crowded the shelves and flowed onto the floor. We should have bitten the bullet and hidden about half…or gotten a bigger booth.

Crowding is fine for small, inexpensive items–people enjoy plowing through a box of cabochons or tray of small earrings to find just the right thing–but I think it really hurt sales of our larger pieces. We were continually moving pieces aside to show a particular selection, which was distracting, and if we had to do that simply to reach it, how was the customer supposed to find it?

I suspect that was our biggest problem. Sigh.

Financials. Thank heavens Becky has bookkeeping and gallery experience–she deciphered who bought what from our sometimes-obscure written receipts, and totted things up to ensure we paid the right commissions. The Square helped with that, too…but we would have been MUCH better off developing an inventory of goods, marking them with SKU codes or something, and getting a bit more disciplined about our sales slips. It also would have helped us to identify stolen items; we’re pretty sure at least a couple of cabochons were stolen, but without an exact inventory we couldn’t prove it.

That’s basic stuff that each of us would have easily managed alone. Together, we (or maybe I) just hadn’t considered how it needed to change, given three artists and the huge variations we had for sale. We’d also needed to agree on prices for similar items ahead of time, so that we had some kind of consistent story to tell. As it was, larger pieces sometimes cost less than small ones, for no apparent reason (that the CUSTOMER could see, anyway).

Signage. Signs were an afterthought, but with a little advance thinking (there’s that planning thing again), we could have added hints about Mother’s Day presents, explained about the processes we used to make things, put up bios (especially for Carol, who has impressive credentials), etc.

All in all, I was very happy with the way it went, and considered it time well spent. Would I do it again? Uhm…..well….ask me again in about six months.

Comments

4 Responses to “Show tunes”

  1. jenn houser on May 5th, 2011 8:31 am

    Having never had kids, I still equate trade shows to giving birth- you don’t really remember how bad it was till you do it again. Also even if you are close friends- three in a both is a lot. So bravo to you lot for surviving.

    My best tricks- (and I am in love with your tech credit card concept – I used to use Paypal)

    A tool box for sale supplies (pens, mini stapler and other essentials, tool boxes are handy cause they are normally easy to spot.

    I often find that customers don’t really want to enter a booth, especially if it is empty. So when possible I front my area with tables, than risers, and sometimes hanging panels. Then you have space behind for you and your stuff, and you can work from in front of the display area or from behind it.

    There is a weird mix of how much product is too much, I typically keep a bit under the table to show, as people get more interested.

    If you use the luan panels, you can use those 3M sticky hooks on the back of them to hang bags, chain, and other supplies.
    -
    Always have candy. Or wine- I am a big fan of bribes.

    I think you did great though.

  2. Dee Janssen on May 5th, 2011 4:52 pm

    cynthia, IF you are gonna do this next year, here’s my recommendation for a couple of the issues you found:

    1) higher end jewelry – market the higher end pieces separately and under glass [or acrylic as it's lighter] to make the customer realize these pieces are special. i have dynamic display jewelry cases that i have used alot at art shows, the more expensive pieces go in it, the less expensive pieces on top where customers can easily touch.

    2)too much – don’t overload trays with pendant/cab/earring assortments, it can be overwhelming to a customer and they end up making no decision and no purchase.

    3)storage suggestion – i use the plastic tray inserts that are divided for storage and if you find media boxes of the appropriate length the trays fit in there quite nicely. easy for storage, transport and keeping backstock organized at a show. i have found the media boxes periodically at lowes, the plastic tray inserts i get from nilecorp.com and they are pretty cheap…

  3. Carolyn on May 5th, 2011 8:47 pm

    I saw your sculptures at the show…they are so beautiful!!! I wanted to buy one, but my budget is tight right now. Sorry I couldn’t add to your sales during the spring show! Maybe I’ll be able to treat myself to something special at the next show in the fall…

  4. Brandie Dunn on May 7th, 2011 7:11 pm

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing your detailed insights on this topic. I’m just at the point of exploring the possibility of taking part in Art Fairs/Trade shows/submitting work to galleries…I am very thankful to have found your blog, Cynthia!

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