I seem to always talk about the good shows and mention that I have bad shows, but I have never really elaborated about the bad ones. It’s just normal human nature to talk about the successes and not the failures. The craft show business is not always a bed of roses and I have more than my share of failures each year. So what are the pitfalls?
In my mind, a bad show is one with low or no sales. I’ve been fortunate that I have never lost money at a show. I always make sales, but I also have shows where I just barely cover my expenses. This situation occurs every year and sometimes multiple times. Sometimes the reason is obvious and sometimes it’s not.
I did $900 at my very first show three years ago. I only had three different sizes of end grain cutting boards and I was ecstatic. The next four shows went $200, $225, $150, $200. At this point I was beat down and started questioning whether I wanted to continue. Being stubborn, I decided to add more variety of products, price points, and bite the bullet to spend more money to do bigger shows. The result was sales in the thousands of dollars. I found that sticking my big toe in to test the water wouldn’t work. It wasn’t until I fully committed myself that I started seeing reasonable sales. However, even a big show can be disappointing. I have a large (20,000+ attendees) show that I have done for the past two years and didn’t break $300 both times. Consequently, I will not be attending it next year.
There are numerous reasons that contribute to a bad show. The economy has no doubt been the number one reason for bad shows over the past couple of years, but that aside, these are my top ones (or excuses):
1. Product appeal
3. Bad demographics
4. Low customer attendance
6. Age of show
7. Too many competing activities at the show
Product appeal is one of those things you just have to experiment with. When you have thousands of people walking by your booth during a show and not coming into the booth, it’s a good bet that your product doesn’t appeal to that audience. This doesn’t mean that you have a bad product, but that it may be the wrong product for that show. My products don’t do well at country craft shows. My price points are too high for the type of customers who attend these shows. However, stuff for kids does very well. I watched a wood crafter at a country craft show who had a 10×20 space stuffed with all kinds of inexpensive things like bows and arrows, magic wands, and little wood games do a killing. Every kid who passed by my booth had one of his widgets and his booth was packed all weekend. I’ve seen this occur at many “low end” shows. At these shows, Mom and Dad takes the kids out for something to do and this keeps them occupied and from whining all day. They also spend a small fortune on over priced food so there is no money for practical items. Everyone is walking around all day with a funnel cake or ice cream cone stuck in their mouth. This is the reason I try to stick to fine art/craft shows. However, I have noticed that birdhouse builders make a killing at these spring shows.
Weather has the most impact on an outdoor show. If it’s raining, cold, or windy, sales will be slow or nonexistent. I have experienced everything from thunderstorms to icicles hanging off my tent. I no longer do outdoor winter shows since I found out that Titebond glue disintegrates when it freezes. Hot weather is also a negative. I had one show this summer where it was 99 degrees and 85% humidity. The only vendor who sold anything was the ice cream guy. The few customers who showed up didn’t stay very long. Fall and spring shows have always been my best shows because the turnout is very high versus the summer months. It can be brutal in the summer here in the South. A couple of years ago I pulled my trailer to Conyers, GA in a thunderstorm on a Friday morning. It was Interstate all the way, but I couldn’t run more than 40 MPH because of the standing water. I parked my trailer behind my booth space, unhooked it and went home. It rained twice as hard on Saturday and I didn’t leave the house. I went back at 6 AM on Sunday and set up. By the time the show opened, the clouds came back and the temperature dropped from 60 to 40 with heavy wind. This is normally a 20,000+ attendee show. I did about $250 with a $150 booth fee. Yep, that was a good one.
I set up at the Inman Park show this past May in Atlanta. This was a Saturday morning setup (I hate these). By the time the show officially opened at 11 AM, it was getting dark and I could hear thunder. It got so dark by noon that the street lights came on. A few minutes later the sky opened up and it poured the rest of the day. I went home soaked at 2 PM after sitting in my tent with the flaps closed for a few hours. On Sunday, the sky was clear and I did more sales in one day than I normally do on a typical weekend. I don’t view this as a bad show, but I keep wondering how good this show would have really been had both days been clear.
My definition of good demographics is people who have disposable income and are not afraid to spend it. You can get teary-eyed when you look at your products, caress them with loving care, and explain the complexity of dovetail construction to customers all day long. However, at the end of the day, it’s still a business and the most important thing is to make money. In order to sell your widgets for a fair price, you must go where the money is. I want customers who will come in and drop a few hundred dollars and not blink. If most of the customers are agonizing over spending $5 for a bookmark, then I am in the wrong place. High demographic shows usually, but not always, have the highest entry fees. I’ve heard weekend woodworkers say “I won’t pay over $50 to do a show”. That’s just someone who only sees the word “risk” in a risk/reward situation. Would you prefer to do a $50 show and maybe make a couple hundred dollars, or do a $350 show and make $5000? The return on a high demographic show is so much better. I have always done well at expensive shows. I usually have poor results at cheap shows. This doesn’t mean that all $50 shows are not worth your time, but if that’s all you do, then it can become very frustrating. The percentage of bad shows is high in shows under $100. I have one $60 show that is an exception to this, but it’s just because the promoter hasn’t figured out that the average sales everyone is experiencing each year can command a $150+ entry fee. She won’t hear this from me.
It stands to reason that you will only make sales if customers show up. High customer attendance will normally have a positive impact on sales. A lot of things can affect attendance such as weather, advertising, and how established the show is. New or first year shows are dangerous because no one knows the show is there, such as the Chastain Park show I did this spring. Chastain Park is located in an area called Buckhead which is the wealthiest area in Atlanta. Everybody lives in mansions in this neighborhood and they live to flaunt their possessions. I jumped at the chance to do a show there for $150. It was a nice show if you look past the fact that no one showed up. The weather was great, but I doubt there were 1000 customers all weekend. The ones who came in my booth bought my most expensive widgets, but I sold less than $900. I had expected a minimum of $3000 in this location. This was a new show and the promoter wasn’t advertising in the right mediums. Most attendance problems occur with smaller shows where the promoter does little or no advertising or a small non-profit sponsored show where the only attendees are their own members. Sometimes you may have to attend a show to check out the attendance before signing up for the next year. Shows that are large and established become yearly destinations for customers and usually bring in large crowds.
Pricing affects my sales almost as much as the weather. If you are a substandard woodworker with a cheesy product that is priced so that you can retire with one sale, you may have a bad show. If you have the highest quality product with hand-cut dovetails and a price to match at a country craft fair, you may have a bad show. Pricing is not voodoo magic, but if you don’t fit your price to the right audience, the results will be disappointing. I let the show entry fee drive my choice of shows in the beginning. Consequently, my higher price points didn’t go over well at these small and country craft shows. It wasn’t until I started doing larger fine craft shows that I finally received confirmation that my price points were acceptable. But, regardless of the show, if I have a product that refuses to move over multiple shows, then it is time to lower the price or drop the product. What I think is a reasonable price may not reflect what the customer thinks is reasonable. This is the reason it’s important to understand your true costs. Lowering the price just to sell it, regardless of the profit margin, just doesn’t make good business sense. Either find a way to lower the cost to produce it, or drop it. There is no room for emotional ties in making money.
I get a lot of email invitations to shows. Many of these invitations tend to be first year shows and they are usually desperate for vendors. Established shows with a proven track record don’t have to look for vendors. New shows tend to be disorganized and have very little advertising. Most importantly, they tend to have a low turnout of customers. It’s very boring to sit in a booth all day with nothing to do and go home at the end of the show with a sunburn and $200 in my pocket. I don’t care if it’s in a good demographic area, first year shows have always been a disappointment to me.
Is it an art and craft show or a circus? Some shows try to have something for everyone. Kiddie rides, petting zoos, beer tents, food festivals, tractor pulls, etc., make for a great family destination on the weekend. Unfortunately, most of these customers come for the activities and not the crafts. I do much better at shows that are purely art and craft where customers are coming specifically for the artists. Beer fests and food festivals can draw a large crowd, but all they do is eat and drink. This competes with the dollars to buy my products. It’s tough to sit there all day watching people walk by holding a cold beer looking at you like you are a monkey in cage. At these shows I feel like I am part of the entertainment. Having a free kid entertainment area is common at many shows and can help sales if you are located close to it, but there is a point where too many non-craft distractions will kill your sales, especially when customers are spending money on these distractions. It can make a difference between coming home with $200 or $2000 dollars.
I intentionally omitted competition as a reason for a bad show because I view this as a lame excuse. Obviously, I prefer shows where my products are the only ones on display. However, I did a show this spring with 300+ vendors and at least five woodworkers with overlapping products and vastly different prices. It was my second best show of the year. I have never felt that competition greatly affected my sales. Competing on price alone is the worse thing I can do and if I don’t sell well at a show, there is always the next one. I feel my products are very high quality and the customers that recognize this fact will buy them. Customers that buy a cheaper and inferior competing product probably wouldn’t buy my product anyway, so I don’t feel I am losing anything.
It’s all about generating cash flow. Sometimes it’s small and sometimes it’s big. I’ve come home soaked to the bone, and I’ve come home burnt to a crisp. Some days I wonder why I even bother. My experience is that good shows over shadow the bad ones. It’s kind of like golf. You can have a very bad round that day and swear you are going to quit the game. But there will always be that one “hero” shot during the round that brings you back again.
-- I don't make mistakes, only design changes....www.dgmwoodworks.com