It’s a little embarrassing to admit that our first venture outside of Tulsa was a flop. Michelle and I headed to Wichita with high hopes and a brand new display. Our merchandise was ready. We were ready. The booth looked great. So what happened?
Pictured: high hopes.
Another unsatisfied vendor (who actually packed up and left early) told us that in any given city, about 5% of the female population will attend a Girl’s Day Out-type event. He quoted some numbers at us; it all came down to that there weren’t enough people in the area to attend the expo and make it worth the vendors’ while. Another Tulsa vendor pointed to the booths selling Pink Zebra, Scentsy, Origami Owl, and the like. “We should have known when they let in all the resale sh*t,” she said very bluntly. She didn’t mean to say that Dot and Bo or the women who sell it have no value, simply that it doesn’t mix well with independent artists. It’s like putting a Pei Wei next to Mr. Ten’s Pho & V’Nam Sandwich. Handmade ventures like mine and the delicious homemade dips across from me, and boutiques seem to fare terribly whenever the Tupperware people show up. “Next time you sign up for a show,” the woman advised, “make sure it’s handmade and vintage or local only.”
I’ve been looking through my notes on past shows. Guthrie Green Sunday Market was always great. The Alliday Show, Indie Emporium, and Junior League of Tulsa Holiday Market also score high in the fun+profit=awesome event equation. With the JTL as an exception, every show listed catered to customers who wanted to shop for handmade goods. No resale allowed. JTL had high attendance and encouraged attendees to shop. It wasn’t a come-get-free-stuff event like the Women’s Living Expo, nor was it a vendors-are-an-afterthought festival like Center of the Universe.
The four markets that I’ve loved were well-publicized as handmade and local shopping opportunities. I could relax and quit worrying so much about making my booth fee back. As an occasional attendee of expos and events, there’s nothing more off-putting as a vendor hovering over my shoulder. As a vendor, I like feeling free to interact like a normal human being. Oh, you’re not shopping? Try something on anyway, just for fun. Your baby is adorable. Where did you get that delicious-looking pastry? At the Girls’ Day Out Expo I was on edge. The pressure of making a good impression on the Wichita crowd was doubled by the knowledge that the organizers of the first-time event had told us that the local radio had mistakenly advertised the show as Sunday-only.
There were some good parts to the Girl’s Day Out Expo. I connected with the women behind 2 Hip Chicks and Crazy Fists. Care to Dance played enough swing music that Michelle and I couldn’t help ourselves—we began to Charleston. I do dance like nobody’s watching, because I like to pretend that nobody’s paying attention to me. This was absolutely not the case, and so Michelle and I occasionally found ourselves goaded into rock-stepping at our booth or in the dance studio’s area. I can’t claim to have acquitted myself well since I was leading the whole time, but it was still fun. Also, I accidentally came up with a new bracelet design,
Michelle did this with a scrap and a couple of Sharpies,
and those few customers we did have were delightful people. (Enjoy your journals and bracelets, ladies!) Also, if you’ve been keeping up with my Instagram feed, you know that a little girl visited us two days in a row while her relatives browsed. We didn’t treat her any differently than we would have a paying customer, that is, we didn’t patronize her for being a child or ignore her for having no money. (She actually told us on Sunday, “We can’t spend any more money because we spent it all the first day”). Maybe it was because I had prayed that God reveal himself to us in ways we didn’t expect. For whatever reason, this child kept coming back to the Petunkalunka & Grumpy Skunk booth, mostly just to chat, but twice to bestow small gifts on us. The first gift was a Hershey’s Kiss for each of us. The second time she came to show us two wilting roses. “They’re not standing up anymore,” she informed us sadly.
“They just need water,” Michelle said encouragingly. “They’ll perk right up.”
“I heard you should put them in a pie tin, cover them with water, and then put something heavy on top so they’re completely submerged,” I added.
The girl looked at her mother and friends strolling away from our area, then back at the flowers in her hand. She handed the roses to Michelle. “You guys can have them,” she said. “You’re my favorite.”
If you had offered me a dying rose in exchange for a three-hour road trip, two nights of uncomfortable lodging, and a financial loss that outstripped that of the Center of the Universe and Winterfest combined, I would have told you to shove it. (Actually, I probably would have har-dee-har laughed and stewed later, in private.) In fact, I was in such a bad mood after the show that I drove back to Tulsa in almost complete silence. Poor Michelle, dozing in the passenger seat after I shut down any attempts to put a positive spin on the event. I turned it over and over in my mind:
If I knew more about salesmanship, could I have turned a profit despite the poor attendance?
Should Michelle and I have talked less?
Do the stretch bracelets need clasps, even if that would eliminate the very element that makes them inventive?
Is it obvious that the pendant and knot necklaces are more expensive than earrings because of cost of hypoallergenic metal chain, or should I lower the price just to move the product and eat the cost of materials*?
Was this a sign that I shouldn’t try to make Petunkalunka & Grumpy Skunk a full-time business?
Can I still make rent next month?
However, with a little water, those roses did indeed perk right up. With a night of rest in my own bed, so did I.
*I’m not doing this. It’s not good business sense to price anything at a loss just because one audience doesn’t like it. Good business sense would be finding a target market.
What did I learn?
- For now I should stick to smaller markets geared toward handmade art.
- It’s better to stay local while I’m still growing my audience.
- Quit doing first-time events (Girls Day Out and CoU Fest, par exemple) or those that rely on their vendors’ Facebook audiences for publicity. That’s the opposite of how vendors approach events.
- Give Michelle more Sharpies.
- Most importantly, that a little swing music, friendly neighbors, and a couple of wilted roses can better a bad show.
How about you? Have you ever attended an event that made you want to skip any booth that looked “crafty?” What kinds of local events grab your attention—farmers’ markets? Independent artist shows? Ladies’ days? A chance to discover new brands, or find the ones you love in person? For the other handmade artists out there, have you ever had a bad experience at a show that turned out to be incredibly valuable? What are your personal guidelines for choosing shows?