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How to Market and Sell Art

The following are observations I have made while creating my own business, which started out as a small table exhibiting photographs in a small town arts and craft show in Texas in the late 1980s. In the early 90s, I founded Lumina Candles & Art (sold to friends Jan. 2001) and now I own and operate Borsheim Arts Studio. I still do shows. In addition, I have included tips shared with me by other vendors. I hope these comments will help you in your endeavors to be your own boss. Here's to a successful business!
Kelly Borsheim, copyright 1999

Tips for Exhibiting Arts and Crafts in Shows

  1. Do Your Research:
    Even if you haven't fully committed to wanting to sell your crafts in shows, but think of it as just an idea or "a fantasy," start attending shows. You need to be familiar with the flavor of the kinds of shows you might consider exhibiting in. This relates to the "know your market" line item described on my business tips page. Each show has its own "personality" because of the kinds of merchants the show organizers accept and although it may be a great show for some vendors, others will have a lousy time selling in that particular show. This may be because their merchandise is not as good as they think it is or their prices are wrong, but more often than not, those merchants simply are in the wrong show for the KINDS of items they sell. For instance, my experience selling my beeswax candles is that if I exhibit in a show that sells dolls and hand-sewn items, I won't do well. Nothing wrong with dolls or my candles, but the flavor of those shows draws people looking for certain kinds of items that are not my style of product.

    For shows you like, ask vendors how to get on the show organizer's mailing list. You want to start getting used to seeing applications and the kinds of things needed to apply, such as slides or photos of your work and even your booth (for the bigger shows). That way you can take your time getting these items together and can apply with confidence and class.

  2. Follow the Application Directions:
    Read and reread show applications. Collect all the materials asked for and then check each one off the list. Once you've got it together, reread the application entirely, looking for things you might have forgotten. Applications are not always organized well, but sometimes an application is rejected because the applicant didn't send in everything requested. Also, make sure you KEEP a copy of show regulations and dates. Most applications are designed to be torn off from the show info, but if not, make a copy of the entire application for yourself. This is invaluable information that you will need later. By the way, SASE means "self-addressed, stamped envelope" and needs to be included with proper postage if requested (and if you want your images returned).

    Also, for outdoor shows, request a booth in the shade. Even if you have a tent with sides, you may not like how soft and malleable your candles will get in direct sunlight. Most show organizers are happy to accommodate special requests if they can plan ahead for it (not the day of the show!). Plus, since the goods are candles, it is not a request based on your own personal comfort (your special treatment is justifiable).

  3. Rejected?
    This happens, especially on the larger shows. If you can attend the show as a visitor, do it. It's research. Try to determine why you may have been turned away. Were your slides inferior? Do they already have a stable of exhibitors who have products similar to yours? Is your booth visually appealing? Talk to vendors--is this a show you should try to get into next time?
  4. OK, You're In.
    Show up as early as possible, unless you have done this show before and know your way around. When you are new, you need more time. Come prepared with assistants for setup, takedown (strike), and selling, as needed; don't count on assistance from your neighboring exhibitors or the show hosts since it is a busy time for everyone. However, show people tend to be very nice about helping newbies with tips and information during slow periods.
  5. Booth Visuals:
    Like a good piece of art, your booth should be so visually appealing from a distance that you actually draw (pardon the pun) people in for closer inspection. Take some time to research the look you want your booth to have. Let it reflect your personality so that you are comfortable there. When you are visiting shows or even retail store displays, keep an eye out for attractive visual displays.
    [Note: Although there are lots of ways to save money while still putting together a professional-looking booth, it can still be expensive. Prioritize the addition of fixtures to your booth as your budget and needs dictate, but if you have a plan for the final look you desire, you will end up with a more cohesive-looking booth as you grow.]
    • Equipment: keep it sturdy and portable!
    • If you plan to do outdoor shows, you will need a tent. Standard booth size is 10' x 10', so get that size tent. A white canopy is preferred, and required by some high-dollar shows. One manufacturer is EZ UP, but you can often buy their canopies locally [Sam's Warehouse, Academy Surplus (camping supplies)]. Get sides, if you can, to shade you from sun and secure your booth (somewhat) during multiple-day shows. Get weights for windy days, as many show locations do not allow you to use the anchoring spikes.
    • Tables and Tablecloths: I use camping tables. They are lightweight and fold up well. However, they are scary during a windy day. Also, if you are selling heavy items, you need a heavy table (these fold up well, too). If you choose lightweight tables, consider getting weights (or at least stacking your surplus inventory in boxes that hold the legs down). All tables need to be draped to the floor. This makes for a professional display and allows you to store inventory, shopping bags, or empty boxes neatly inside your booth, as well as giving you a discreet place to keep your money box. (I use light-colored tablecovers. On a warm sunny day, dark fabric will absorb heat--not good for displaying candles!)

      HINT: Leave some empty space on your table as a purchasing area (with your business cards in plain sight). It is not wasted space! Customers need a place away from your other products for viewing products they wish to purchase (decision-making). When purchasing, that space is often used for setting down a purse or other packages in the customer's hands. It also gives the client a hard surface on which to write checks. In other words, it adds to the convenience of shopping with you.

    • Bookshelves and Baker's Racks: You need to maximize the amount of exhibit space you have in your booth as well as add visual appeal, so you will eventually need to go vertical! I found two lovely baker's racks that I have at either side of the entrance into my booth. They fold flat for transportation--a real space saver in my van full of candles! My husband John made a terrific fold up bookshelf for me using (info. coming soon). I can put a LOT of candles on its four shelves. A bookshelf is great also because there are times when I can arrange my booth with an open side--people can see my products from inside and outside my actual booth!
    • Chairs: A chair or two is optional and totally up to you. I prefer to stand during most shows. I am working/selling after all. However, if you cannot stand for over 8 hours at a time (usually on concrete), I recommend you include a nice-looking chair in your booth. Place it out of the way, though.
    • Carpet: If you are doing inside shows, this is a nice touch. The rug will cover a potentially ugly concrete floor and feel better on those tired legs (yours and your visitors') You can sometimes pick up inexpensive carpet at Habitat for Humanity and thrift stores. Since this item is not a necessity, you can afford to take your time searching for just the right look and cost.
  6. Use Color: When I first started out, I displayed all 8-inch pillars together, all 6-inch pillars together, and so on, thinking this would be efficient. But after watching how people look for things in my booth and watching how the crowds moved throughout the shows, I discovered that my booth was better arranged by placing all red candles together, all natural candles, all blue candles, etc. You ever hear of color coding (for files, teams, etc.)? It really works! Color is a basic visual element that we respond to. I discovered that, in the world of candles anyway, color was a more important factor than size. And people found the candle size they wanted FASTER when I arranged the candles by colors. Also, this rainbow effect has a stronger impact from a distance, which often causes people to run over to my booth--even passing up other exhibitors! Amazing.
  7. Use Space: Keep in mind your objective when doing shows. You are there to sell. You need to have your product attractively displayed in a way that allows people to get the information they need about what you offer. And people want to feel good. I set up my booth in a big "U" shape, with the open end being the front "door" of my booth and with me doing transactions at the very back. I want to allow customers to have "elbow room" and I want them to see everything at a glance. In essence, I want to make the experience easy and enjoyable. Have you ever passed a booth by just because you felt as though you couldn't make the committment to do (look at) one more crowded booth in a big show? In contrast, did you ever "dive" into a booth because there was some breathing room there compared to the crowded aisles? If you have only one table's worth of goods, set your table back into your booth space about half-way. You'll still be seen. This gives you plenty of room in back and allows people to get out of traffic in the aisle. If they cannot stop to look at your goods, they can hardly buy.

    Have you ever been in a booth in which the tables enclose the visitor like a maze? Small space is intimate space -- it's personal. It's almost a committment to buy when you enter one of these types of booths -- and visitors sometimes feel guilty walking away, so they won't enter (unless you have something they can see from a distance that they want). Invite, don't smother.

  8. Signage:
    Information sells. Period. I prefer to clearly label the items in my booth. No, I do not label each item (because price stickers don't stick to wax and they leave an ugly mark on my cardboard packaging). I post signs on the shelves and near each product type. Also, since I have exhibited a lot, I tend to get common questions. So I try to make signs to answer those, without going overboard (to avoid a tacky looking display). I incorporate selling features in my price signage, such as "Dripless Beeswax Tapers" with a honeycomb and bee graphic. It's short and precise.
  9. Pricing:
    • The general rule of thumb on pricing crafts for retail is to determine the cost of materials for the product and multiply that by 3.
    • There are basically two theories on pricing: clearly post or don't (and make the client ask). I know vendors who do not want to label their hand-made jewelry. Why? (And this is for real!) They base their prices on what they judge you can pay. Now, many vendors give discounts to other vendors (usually 10% or trades), but when I ask about the price of an item and one of these vendors says to me, "For you, it's . . . " do I really think they are offering me a savings? No. I worry they are giving me a "special deal." No thanks! That's not good business! (Or as my sister-in-law Vicky says, "That's just WRONG!") If you offer different prices for different customers, be wary of the consequences if your clients ever compare notes (or if you are inconsistent with the same person or have a bad memory)! On the other hand, your prices may vary based on the region you are selling in and what that market can bear. It is up to you how you want to price. I suggest that if you do this sort of price changing, at least keep the same prices for one entire show/market.

      Another point to consider: ever hear the phrase "If you have to ask, you can't afford it?" Don't make people afraid to get information. When I shop, I often collect information to budget for future shopping (especially during the holidays). Shy people, especially, do not want to feel they have hurt your feelings when they turn away after you gave them the price of the items they are researching.

      Be clear. Be considerate. John and I were in an art gallery in Hawaii once and I asked the price on a painting I enjoyed (nothing was marked). The woman said, "55"
      Now, I am a literal person and I do not assume much. Also, I have a bad habit of messing with people who annoy me. So I said, "55 dollars????" She rolled her eyes, obviously thinking I was an insignificant idiot. You know what? Not only did I not get an answer (55 hundred or thousand? In the art world, it could be anything), but I will never even consider buying this artist's work because of this snobbish woman. [An aside point: it is dangerous for anyone to assess what a potential client is able and willing to spend. People often find a way to pay for the things they really want. Even poor people make economic decisions.]

    • Pricing and Taxes:
      Again, two main options: include taxes in the price or not. Some vendors I have met don't include their taxes in their prices because retail stores do not (so people are used to having to add tax) and they feel this makes their prices sound lower than the tax-included total. However, I find that when I am busy making sales, the last thing I need to do is complicate the math. Also, I don't want to worry about running out of change AND it is easy for me to remember my own prices. So I take my original prices, add tax (the cities in which I exhibit all have the same tax rate, so this is easy), and round to the nearest quarter. I keep a few dimes and nickels in my money box, but mostly I only have to have on hand a roll or two of quarters. It is easy. It is fast. Customers appreciate the speed. Also, I divide the tax out of my rounded off total price to come up with the new price of the item and my signage reads, for example, $7.85 + $0.65 tax = $8.50. So I get the best of both worlds. Information sells.
      Note: Although this is how I operate my candle booth, I do not do this in my art booth since the paintings and sculpture sell for much higher prices.

      Incidentally, when you contact your state's comptroller to get your business's tax ID number, you will be added to the mailing list and receive an annual booklet listing sales tax amounts for cities, towns, and counties in your state. [Or this information is available on the Web.] If you do out-of-state shows, contact each state's comptroller's office before your show to get taxing information and licenses.

    • Price Ranges:
      You need to cover the gamut on this. Here's why. Although your low-dollar items ($10 or less) cost you more to make and store, these items are fast sellers and will often get your booth fee back (at least). However, you must include higher priced items so that you have the opportunity to have a really good show (i.e., make a profit!). For instance, the products in my candle booth run from $1.00 to $38.00 per item. This also means I can usually accommodate any customer need. In my art booth, I have small paintings that start around $200 and sculpture that can be $5000 or more. However, I also offer notecards of my paintings or photographs. This allows me to offer my art in a form for smaller budgets and for a show with little traffic (ahem, a bomb), I have a better chance of getting SOME income. (It is true, the more people who see your products, the more sales you will make. The problem is that the shows that attract thousands of people charge booths fees averaging $300! Art is so subjective, it is often hit or miss. And it takes a LOT of candle sales to cover a $300 booth fee expense!)
  10. Look Alive! Do you like what you do? Then let it show. Ever hear of the Law of Inertia? Basically, a body at rest stays at rest (and vice versa). Do not just sit there staring at your potential customers, daring them to buy. Do not read a book! Be involved and INTERESTED in your business. Do a demonstration. My art booth tends to gather a lot of people when I demonstrate painting or sculpting. Demo-ing also serves as an ice breaker. And, again, people want to feel good. Conversation makes you human. It also connects the people involved. Connections with people are good for your business (and you). I once had a vendor tell me that he does lots of sales by balancing the "keeping busy" with "being available." During slow times, he dusts or rearranges his crystals. But he does it in a way that allows him to keep an eye on his booth and its visitors and is not so wrapped up in his "cleaning" that he cannot break away to assist someone. One final note on this: I love to see familiar faces. And I appreciate the support of friends. However, when I am in my booth, I am at work. I depend on sales to live. So I do not need my friends to choose that time to monopolize my attention. Or worse, I do not want my customers to feel unimportant.
  11. Dress neatly, but comfortably. Wear comfortable shoes. Shows are grueling sometimes--long hours of loading, unloading, and selling. Look attractive. Feel good.
  12. Leaving the show: During a show, I always wear a name tag (and so does my helper). I want people to know who I am and be able to address me by name, if they choose. But when I leave the show, I remove my name tag. I do not need to be a walking sign that says, "I am a vendor. I am carrying a cash box with lots of money."

Contact Kelly Borsheim.

[Kelly sold Lumina Candles & Art in January 2001. This information is only left online to help you. Hopefully, it serves that purpose.]

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