Craft fairs. Nothing sends a shiver down my seam ripper like attending a craft fair. I know, it’s totally not cool to say it out loud. They’re a Great British institution and apparently the lifeblood of the making community. Yet my experience of craft fairs is that they are anything but the fun, bunting-strewn gatherings of art lovers (with a scone chucked in). For me they’re like meeting Harvey Weinstein in a hotel room: I start out with great expectations only to leave in tears while vowing to call the police.
I make a loss at craft fairs
Not many makers will admit this so let me break cover: I rarely make money at craft fairs. In fact I can only think of one fair where I did more than break even. Before I decided to never again darken the doors of such an event, there were times when I didn’t even make enough to pay for my stand.
That’s right, readers, I made losses. That’s like admitting to going on a weight loss boot camp and coming out with a bigger arse. And yes, I can hear you whispering that perhaps it’s because no one likes my slouch bags but hold those horses. I’ve already been down that angst-ridden path and come to the conclusion that I make a loss for the following reason…
Seriously, I’d be quicker shoving a fistful of notes into a frantic cement mixer. Don’t believe me? Tot up this lot in terms of time, materials, money and energy: a 40 hour week making caddies (because online I make to order), buying in or making display props, not having time to work on customer orders, giving up my weekend with my family, un/loading mahoosive boxes, petrol, eight hours behind a stand, food and drink for the day… you want me to go on? No, neither do I.
Just writing this makes me want to collapse against my fabric shelves. If I charged a customer for that amount of time and effort I’d run out of noughts. Why, then, would I do it for a craft fair when it gives me a profit of, say, £10? And worse than the lack of profit is what comes next…
Craft fairs can be soooo demoralising
If you want the experience of having your gut wrenched out try this simple exercise: lovingly embroider a hoop, present it to passing customers, watch as they lift it betwixt thumb and forefinger, like a bad piece of ham, while whispering, “I can’t thread a needle but I reckon I could make that.”
And yes, perhaps people say that when they see my work online but at least they’re not saying it to my face. When this happens at a craft fair there is the added insult of you being treated as if you’re invisible. So not only do they hate what you’ve worked on but they don’t care how much it upset you. I mean, c’mon! Thing is, it’s indicative of what too many people expect from a craft fair when they attend in he first place, which is this…
Now, you might live where craft fair customers shower you in tenners, much like you’re in a Snoop Dog video. If so, have a pint of Cristal for me. However, where I live – an area that struggles with poverty – I’m more likely to get showered with mouth juices as a customer splutters, “How much!”. In every craft fair I’ve attended I’ve had too many customers sucking in their breath when they read my price labels. I wouldn’t mind but I sell my totes for £12.95. £2000 Birkin bags, they ain’t. In fact, if I sold them any more cheaply I’d be handing them out for a loss.
The problem is that far too often ‘handmade’ is equated with ‘cheap’. And while I know what poverty feels like, and appreciate that a £12.95 tote may be the Earth to some people, it instantly makes craft fairs uphill struggles.
Worse, ‘handmade’ is equated with ‘easy to make’. Customers who expect a bargain don’t consider the amount of time, buying, effort and skill that goes into handcrafting. Instead they make a quick mental calculation of what it would cost to make after a trip to Hobbycraft. Thing is, they always calculate it wrongly, not least because online I’m repeatedly told to put my prices UP and have taken orders every day for the last year. And here’s who else calculates things wrongly…
The bad craft fair organiser
Not all craft fair organisers are created equally, believe me. I’ve known great organisers who think about the makers and avoid duplicating products to create diverse events. However, I’ve known many more organisers who just fill stalls without even knowing what’ll be sold. Thing is, you don’t spot these bad ‘uns until you’ve attended their fairs and by then you’re weeping on the way home.
One fair I went to had so many tables, all selling the same things, that it looked as if 80% of products had come from one maker (there were a LOT of baby booties). Another was touted as the premier craft show only for it to consist of fifty stands of decoupaged fairy scenes. And while competition is good, this just means that no maker is a winner. Customers get bored, the fair narrowcasts and makers drop their prices until they’re dancing around the flames of their businesses. Which leads me to this next abomination…
The footfall-free craft fair
My first craft fair was in a local community hall. It had been well arranged but had as much passing trade as a lost sock in a desert. I manned my stand for six hours for the mere 24 customers who came through the door (I counted them out of boredom). Worse, not even all of those 24 came to my table (because not all of them were interested in, say, duffel bags). It wasn’t just that the venue had few passers-by and little parking but that it was also raining. Had anyone even fancied the fair they’d have seen the puddles and thought, “Bugger that!”.
It’s a perennial problem. Too often the assumption is that the words ‘craft fair’ are community catnip and that customers will queue like Star Wars fans for a new film. They don’t though and, as election organisers know, getting people to the venue means persuading them to give up their free time. Discovering someone willing to give you that as well as their money would even make Indiana Jones throw in the towel.
So if you’re a successful craft fair lover, good on you. Godspeed! Roll naked in your notes at the end of every weekend! But if you’re not? Well, I hope this has divested you of the crushing notion that you’re the only maker who never profits. Believe me, you’re not alone and there are more of us than you think. In fact so many of us that we should form a club. Or how about a craft fair? I mean we could have bunting and scones and tables and… oh, hang on.
If you are a maker what are you experiences of selling at craft fairs? Are they different to mine? And I you love to visit craft fairs, do you recognise any of what I’ve written above? Let me know in the comments below!