Tuesday, September 05, 2006

South Haven - a moderately successful show

This weekend we did our fifth show - the South Haven All Craft Fair. I've heard from a number of artists that this was a pretty good show in past years, so I gave it a shot. I may not have come away with a fortune, but I did make back all of my expenses + a hundred or 2 extra on top of that. As a side benefit, I also came away with a number of additional shots added to my portfolio, all rolled into the same costs.

Since Last Weekends Failure of a Show
As I reported, the previous weekend, I had a pretty miserable failure, walking away with a small net loss for the first time so far. I realized that my biggest failing point for that show was that the market for big ticket items just wasn't there. Even a $20 print was out of the price range of many, it seems. I noticed the same situation with the show before that (in Warren). In both shows, I honestly believe that if I had something to fall into the $5 price range, I could bring in a lot more sales. A few bucks here and a few there could add up to a decent amount, turning a bad show into an OK one.

Determined not to repeat this failure, I spent the week working out ideas for products in this range. The best option seemed to be photo gift cards. I went to a few different stores, picked up a few different options, and went with what I felt worked best. I then bought 200 of those blank cards. Next, I picked out about 130 of my best photos that spanned my entire work for the last 2.5 years but never made it into my official portfolio. I then added to that all of the photos in my official portfolio. The resulting 160 photos I then had printed up, one copy of each. I assembled the cards and stuffed each one into a quart size ziplock back.

I now needed someplace to display the photos. I searched online (using Google Local) to find "store fixtures" or "store display" businesses in my area. I called each one up and asked if they had any used spinning wire floor racks for holding 5x7 cards. I finally found one that had one in stock. On the upside, he wanted $20 for it, versus the $100+ they seem to cost brand new. On the downside, it was missing 1 of the 4 card holders, and the card holders were a little too small to hold 5x7 envelopes (which are actually 5.25x7.25). I thought it was a deal, so I bought it anyway. I took it home, tried bending each of the wire bins, and was able to fit 5 or 6 cards easily in a bin.

The last element was pricing. Each card cost me under $1 each in materials. I decided to try $5 each or 3 for $12.

Friday Night
Finally, onto the show. We left at close to 2PM to make the 3+hour drive across the state. With accidents and construction along the way, along with the heavier holiday weekend traffic, it took us a bit over 4 hours to get there. When we arrived, we quickly found our spot, pulled in, unloaded, and setup.

After we left there, I could see a beautiful golden peachy sunset just down the road. We headed down there but it was paid parking and private property. We decided to head for the lighthouse, but didn't realize at first that we were going the wrong way. The once we got straightened out, we didn't realize we were on the wrong side of the river, too. Finally, we worked our way around and down to the lighthouse pier beach. Unfortunately, by this time the sunset was all but gone.

My wife wanted to just sit in the car and wait while I take my couple of pictures and was done. However, just because the sunset was gone didn't mean I was done here anytime soon. I could see a sky full of clouds with a gap near the horizon. I knew this boded well for some spectacular afterglow. After convincing her to grab her camera and head down with me we waited. Before long, the clouds started to glow more and more. Before we knew it, they looked like they were on fire. We were there to capture what several locals told me was the best sunset of the summer, and we captured it behind the town's lighthouse.

I realized that what we captured would be sellable, however, I didn't realize just how golden it was. We stopped at Walgreens on the way to our hotel and ordered up a few prints to pick up the next day. I got a few 4x6's and an 8x10. Luckily, I had brought some extra white 8x10 and 11x14 mats and foamboards, along with all of my extra blank photo cards and ziplock bags, with me for just such an occasion.

After that, we headed to our hotel, which was 20 minutes to the south. Hotels in South haven were all considerably more expensive, so we opted for a considerably cheaper hotel with a short drive.

We picked up our prints and headed to our booth. The show was scheduled to start at 10AM, and after everything else, we got there about 9:30AM. Unfortunately, the show already started picking up a lot of customers. We had a hard time parking and had to walk quite a ways. When we got there, we discovered part of our awning had torn. One of the velcro straps had ripped right out of the stitching, another part had been cut/torn, and one of the support arms had bent a tiny bit. In addition, inside the booth, my print bin (which was luckily empty) had tipped over. What I still can't decide is, was this damaged caused by the wind, or did some other artist hit my awning with their vehicle or trailer after I left? As far as I knew, there was no significant wind overnight. For the future, I need to find a way to drop the awning at night (currently, dropping the awning interferes with zipping up the front wall).

After taking care of this small problem, we got on with the show. Saturday brought plenty of traffic but little sales. I sold a couple of my regular prints and a handful of gift cards. In addition, I sold out of my sunset photos and enlargement.

By the time day 1 was over, I was plenty disappointed with how things were progressing, but I wasn't the only one. Lots of artists found themselves doing much worse than they did in previous years. At one point, I was starting to believe my prices on prints were too high. However, after looking around the show, I found most other photographers had sold about the same number of prints as me. The only difference was that they made less off of each sale. I felt reassured that my prices were good. I left, hoping for a better day tomorrow. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Walgreens again and ordered some more sunset prints and enlargements (9 4x6s, 2 5x7s and 2 8x10s).

We picked up our latest batch of prints and got to the show early enough to not have to park far away. Upon opening our booth, we found that condensation on the roof had apparently seeped through to the underside. Any shaking of the booth resulted in a mini rain shower inside the booth. We ended up having to wipe of the underside of the roof to remove the water now before it became a problem later. I'll need to find something to do about this (waterproof spray, or something).

The show was off to a much better start. Almost right away, people started buying up cards of the sunset. Within a few hours, I was nearly sold out of sunset cards, so I sent my wife up to buy another batch of 4x6 prints. I ended up selling half of that batch. I also sold a variety of other cards and prints throughout the day.

When the show finished, I decided that as we tore things down, the last thing to be torn down would be the card rack. I wanted it to remain on the sidewalk to catch the stragglers as they left. That idea paid off, as I ended up making another $30 or so in card sales while we tore down.


When all was said and done, we had made back all of our expenses plus a few hundred in profit. While not enough to quit my day job, for my first year, I consider those type of shows to be a pretty good success. It was also a nice reversal on my trend of declining sales at each successive show.

The card sales made me almost twice what it cost to buy the rack, all the materials and prints for my entire card inventory, and the cost of replacing the inventory sold at this show. From here on out, keeping my card rack stocked up will be a minimal investment of time and money, but should hopefully net me a tidy profit each show.

Considering I didn't do too bad, and that many returning artists said the show often does much better than it did this time, I decided to pay for the show next year, guaranteeing me the right to return and have my booth in the same spot. I've already got a couple who told me they'll be back next year to see what new local shots I have.

Lessons Learned

1) Inexpensive product options can pay off. In fact, I think almost all of my profit from this show can be attributed to card sales. Without them, I think I would have only broke even on the show.

2) Local shots pay off. To reclassify things another way, I could also say that all of my profits were attributable to the sunset photos we took Friday night. Of course, it's difficult to say how many of those sales were due to it being local and how many were due to it being something people experienced firsthand and wanted to have a memory of. I guess I'll figure out the answer when I see how well the same print sells at the show next year.

3) Research the local area better to find out what items are big attractions and might sell better. I discovered that there is a very popular tall ship that has merchandise in all of the gift shops and sells pretty well. Had I known, I would have taken pictures of it ahead of time.

4) Related to the previous item, after you research the area, make plans to go there ahead of time and collect some local photos to sell at the show. I planned to do this around setting up the booth and at night after the show ended Saturday. With everything else going in, there wasn't time to do that outside of catching the sunset.

5) I'm getting a little better at being a salesman. In a few instances, I was able to talk people into buying a $5 card they seemed ready to walk away without. Not a major accomplishment, but it's definitely a start.

6) I need to fill out my card collection some more. I only picked what I felt were my best photos to turn into cards. However, on several occasions, I had someone ask me about a particular scene which I've photographed but not had in my card collection. The card collection is the perfect place for carrying all of those obscure shots that aren't worthwhile to carry in your enlarged print collection.

7) I need to find a better way to organize my cards. People look at them and assume each bin has all the same cards. Very few people look behind to see there is a variety of cards (3 to 6) in each bin. I partially resolved this on Sunday when I added little tags to each card bin saying "In this bin: location X, location Y, location Z". Adding those tags helped quite a bit, but it could still probably be made more obvious.

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