Wistful lyrics float across a rolling field and slip under a massive white circus tent, barely audible above the din of chatter and cha-ching.
Makers have congregated here, hoping that fandom is catching, bringing their goods to thousands of millennials and bohemians who were lured by the music. Festival season is upon us, and mash-ups of artists of all ilks will sell sounds and salves and scarves to the indie-minded.
Elsewhere, creators are lugging portable tables and pallet shelving into church basements and reclaimed warehouse spaces and city parks. Temporary and pop-up markets are affording small brands a sample-sized chance at retail, and forging real connections between makers and customers.
“Maker” and “pop-up” may be buzzy words, but the concept is much older. In fact, markets tell the origin story of commerce.
Markets afford small brands a sample-sized chance at retail, and forge real connections between makers and customers.
A Handmade History
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 a 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 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 this movement and to help further make the creative economy a more viable alternative to mass produced goods and services.” – Susie Daly, Renegade Craft
Things made by hand, however, 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.
photo: Wintry Market
For many small maker businesses running on Shopify, a brick and mortar location is out of the scope of reality. Art shows, music festivals, and crafts markets 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 – share ideas, provide support, pool resources
- Gain access to the festival or venue’s own audiences
- Test your products IRL – get insights via what products attract the most attention, what questions people ask, and which products perform better in person vs 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
“By doing these events, I've learned how integral they are for the business. People want to get to know you, the face behind the brand.” – Corrine Anestopoulos, BIKO
The in-person experience has evolved significantly in recent years, vendors stepping up their game with branded photo booths, VR showrooms, and interactive experiences. To stand out, small merchants need to think beyond foldable card tables and clipboard email sign-up sheets.
I connected with the experts – seasoned craft market vendors, show organizers, and the team behind Shopify’s own pop-up events – to help navigate the ins and outs of applying to crafts markets, art shows, and music festivals, as well as creating an amazing booth on a tiny budget.
Choosing the Right Show
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. Hidden costs and prohibitive booth rules are like relationship baggage. 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?
“Booth regulations can be a Debbie Downer but can also be a great creative challenge – how will you conceptualize and build out the space within the booth constraints?” – Natasha Singh, Event Producer, Shopify
It’s also important to dig a little deeper – conduct your own research:
- What are people saying online about the show – did it get any press last year?
- Does the show have 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
- Designer Avril Loreti suggests checking the contract for exclusivity clauses – are you restricted from selling at other markets in the same region/season?
Booth regulations can be a great creative challenge – how will you conceptualize the space within the constraints?
photo and header photo: Renegade Craft Fair
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. Ask to be in those areas, as the cost is less and buyers are always looking for what’s new.” – Matt Vaile, Offline Marketing Producer, Shopify
Lastly, be sure to factor in travel or inventory/booth shipping costs when considering out of town shows, and check government websites for information about doing business over the border.
Submitting a Winning Application
Sarah Power, founder of INLAND, a Toronto-based show supporting independent fashion in Canada, says that your application is more than what you submit.
She 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?”
photo: Renegade Craft Fair
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 - so 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.”
Dress Rehearsal: The Pre-Show Checklist
So you’re approved. What now? Be sure you start getting the word out to your local audience via social, email, your homepage and your blog. Next, focus on inventory, POS/payments, promotional materials, supplies, and booth design.
Running out of inventory not only looks sad – it can reflect poorly on the show’s organizers, and result in lost sales.
“You should also be prepared to sell lots! Always bring more product than you think you can sell, because you may be surprised at how well it can go, and an empty booth just looks sad.” – Corrine Anestopoulos
Take credit and gift card payments in person, and sync the sales with your online store.
“POS is crucial – if you’re cash-only you miss too many sales opportunities, and writing out a receipt by hand is not efficient. Having a solid POS system in place helps with collecting customer data, too.” – Natasha Singh
If you’re manning the booth yourself, you’ll likely have little opportunity to run to a convenience store for tape or change or snacks. Make sure you’ve packed your toolkit with enough of the right supplies to get you through a long day of selling on your feet.
“Lots of extension cords and zip ties; lip balm, hand sanitizer, hand lotion (because the show floor can be dry), and a bottle of water!” – Avril Loreti, Designer
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 (seasonal/time-sensitive materials like lookbooks).
Building a Killer Booth
photo: Renegade Craft Fair
Start with the basics: how much space do you have, and what are the restrictions? Because each show is different and set-up time is usually limited, stick to easy, versatile setups. Then, make it your own.
Draw your booth layout before building it. Consider: traffic flow, lighting, POS, weather coverage (for outdoor shows), and placement of signage. Tip: use an interior design app for iOS or Android to plan the space.
“The booths that really stand out always have two things in common: lots of lighting, and enough room for products to be seen clearly and customers to feel comfortable spending some time in the space.” – Avril Loreti
The booths that really stand out have two things in common: lots of lighting, and enough room for products to be seen clearly.
Consider Set-up Time
Some shows allow vendors to set up the night before, but many only allow access to the space on the day of the event. Be sure your display is quick and easy to assemble. Tip: time a dry run set-up in your house or yard a few days before the show.
“If you can’t set it up in under an hour, you’re doing it wrong. ” – Cody DeBacker, Shopify Plus & VIP
Build it Versatile
Save time and maximize space with double-duty displays. Items used to transport your stock – pallets, boxes or luggage – can double as display surfaces or props.
Hinged panels, peg boards, stacked boxes, and adjustable shelving are all flexible solutions for making your booth work in any configuration and any size space.
“Product storage for back stock is key, and should be cleverly incorporated into the booth design.” – Corrine Anestopoulos
Items used to transport your stock – pallets, boxes or luggage – can double as display surfaces or props.
Is it on Brand?
Choose booth finishings that complete the story, complement the products, and are in line with your brand’s aesthetic. Even a standard table set-up can be personalized:
“For example, if you’re a lapel pin brand, cover the front and top of the table in cork, and then you can stick pins everywhere.“ – Matt Vaile
Your brand may lend itself to an experience – look to other brands for ideas:
“At Renegade in Brooklyn, one brand made their tent look like a fish market and they sold wooden carved salmon. They dressed the part and really transformed the space!” – Blaine & Mackenzie, The Local Branch
Booth details (photo: Spell & The Gypsy Collective)
Is it within Budget?
“It's worth the extra dollars to create a hard wall with shelving, or to get extra lighting to spotlight a key design,” – Corrine Anestopoulos.
photo: Iron Curtain Press
But even small budgets can DIY impactful booth experiences with inexpensive, repurposed, and unconventional materials: cardboard, pallets, galvanized steel pipes, branches, old ladders, string lights, thrifted props, IKEA hacks, and elbow grease.
Look for inspiration everywhere (photo: Brooklyn Bride)
Creating an Engaging Experience
“I am all about experiential activations such as games, video game lounges, and interactive photo booths,” Shopify’s Cody DeBacker tells me. It’s tough to stay ahead of the technology, but there are plenty of budget-friendly experience ideas for small businesses:
- Give away exclusive products to customers for taking a photo in your booth and sharing on social
- Create an experience unique to your brand: “I've seen artists offer stick and poke or henna tattooing at markets for an interactive service in the moment.” – Natasha Singh
- Get your customers involved: “Share some of the process by letting buyers make something in their booths, like terrariums or simple beaded bracelets.” – Matt Vaile
photo: Renegade Craft Fair
- Share your story: use iPads to roll video of your product being made, or signage to share details about process, materials, and your inspiration
- Be engaging: “Pump yourself up with some juicy affirmations (‘I love doing shows! I love making sales! I'm going to have an amazing day!’), and look forward to sharing your work with the people who walk into your booth.” – Matt Vaile
The sun is blazing, meaning most 2016 summer market submission deadlines have passed. The good news? The warm months are perfect for perusing local markets for inspiration and researching applications for fall and holiday shows. Get out there!