I’m Always Surprised — Selling at Bazaars

An example of my latest table setup

Selling craft items at bazaars isn’t something new for me. I started the bazaar sales dance as a side gig during the 90s. At the time I had a young child, was trying to break into the writing world, and worked some other side gigs as a political activist (not canvassing, never canvassing, thank God). A friend got me started in making stone bead jewelry (shades of the Portlandia segment “She’s Making Jewelry Now” which expanded to sales on eBay and early Amazon. I got my work into a couple of stores, opened accounts with a credit card processor plus business PayPal, and ran a website on a hosted business sales site.

It was okay money, but nothing huge. So my next step was to look at the assorted bazaars around my Southeast Portland neighborhood and ease into the wild world of selling crafts at bazaars. Over the course of several years I developed a following, created a newsletter mailing list, and did all the hustle stuff that was earnestly discussed on a couple of craft marketing email lists, much as self-published writers do today on Facebook.

In 2001 I was set for my best year yet. The fall Christmas rush was going to be my big breakthrough. Sales were rising toward an expected crescendo in late October/early November.

And then 9/11 happened. Online sales tanked and the bazaar world wasn’t any better. I ended up leaving the bazaar world for the different but equally bizarre world of special education teaching. It paid better but was more stressful. But I couldn’t sustain the jewelry business, and the same things that were problematic for shipping products for online sales now impacted the writing world (remember the anthrax scare?).

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Fast forward fourteen years. We had purchased a second home in Northeastern Oregon. I hadn’t made much jewelry except for occasional custom work and was putting a lot of energy into writing, moving tentatively into the self-publishing realm. But I had a lot of jewelry in stock, and wanted to try selling my books and short stories alongside the jewelry. When I saw an advertisement for a local crafter’s guild meeting, I decided to check it out. It didn’t take long until I found myself back in the world of bazaars, this time as a writer as well as crafter. My embroidery caught the eye of the local quilt guild and before I knew it, I added art quilting to my craft offerings, along with my books, a couple of experiments in mixed media, and what remained of my jewelry stock.

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Cats and Books Wall Hanging

The kind of jewelry I make is a hard sell these days. I use a lot of colored stone (aka semiprecious) beads in my designs. They tend to be clunky to some eyes, and the necklaces are both big and expensive. I try to design a necklace to hang gracefully from the collarbones, and reduce the weight of the necklace from collarbone to fastener. It’s an art, and I really don’t live where there’s a market for such work. The preference locally is for fine silverwork, and I don’t really have the desire to develop that skill. I’d much rather develop my art quilting techniques and promote my fiction.

But this just illustrates a concept that many people don’t think about with regard to bazaar craft sales. Marketing is a tough component. Shopper tastes change from year to year, shaped not only by the economy but fashion, local preference, and fads/needs/market saturation. It’s not hugely better in a larger market, either, because each bazaar has its regular attendees, even the big giant ones. You have to produce new work and try to figure out the trends while doing so — unless you have something consumable. And even then you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the market.

Additionally, long-established vendors have their own clientele that will come to a bazaar, bee-line for that vendor’s booth, buy something, and often turn right around and go out. Often these crafters are selling something that needs renewing. Goat milk soap. Hot pads. Christmas wreaths. It can be frustrating for the newer bazaar vendor to see shoppers drift by the table without stopping to look at the wares — and yet learning to deal with that annoyance is a key part to surviving and thriving in the bazaar sales life because it isn’t a rejection of you.

Success means becoming that vendor yourself — and that process takes time, a thick skin, and a certain experimental ability and desire to figure out just what is going to work. Taking the time to develop a clientele, rotating in new stock based on your interpretation of market trends, creating a newsletter to keep your followers informed. Putting yourself out to chat with people walking by the table without mugging them (a skill that takes time to develop). Most of all, it means having the self-discipline to stay at your table or booth even when it’s an hour away from shutdown and no one is walking through the door.

Because at that very last minute someone might just walk through the door, look at one of your big-ticket items, and buy it — which turns your weekend from “meh” to “wow.”

I know. It’s happened to me often enough that I don’t leave early unless there’s a reason to do so, and shake my head ruefully at the eager-to-leave crowd.

Bowl Cozy

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I’ve worked competitive bazaars and cooperative bazaars, and I really have a preference for the cooperative bazaars. The competitive venues where the vendors glare at each other, mutter about someone else copying their work or style, or duplications within the bazaar, are no fun at all. Realistically, when you spend the good part of three days (setup before the bazaar, then two days of sales before teardown) around a group of people that are grumbling and glaring, it impacts your sales.

Plus, even people selling the same items frequently have stylistic differences. So three people are selling bowl cozies (a hot pad with a bowl-shaped indentation that insulates a warm or cold bowl so it can be easily held)? There will be variations in fabric choices, thicknesses, colors, and shapes. And jewelry? Even other people selling stone bead jewelry frequently have different designs from mine. We’re all artists, damn it, and our choices of colors and design differ.

I used to get frustrated with people obsessed about being copied. Now I just shrug. Part of this attitude has been shaped by the quilting world, because even when quilters work with the same design, unless you give them all the same fabric, it’s going to come out different.

The cooperative bazaars can be a lot of fun even when sales are slow. Instead of glowering at each other, we joke. Exchange tips. Take pictures of each others’ booths and post Facebook pictures in local sales groups to encourage attendees — because again, we all have our own followings and showing the product variety doesn’t hurt any of us.

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Each bazaar has its own particular type of shopper and market they’re appealing to, which shapes the vendor mix. Some are strict about “handcrafted only!” to the degree that sourcing can be a major issue. Those are usually the sales that call themselves something other than a bazaar, and try to appeal to the high-end market (and are frequently touchy about perceived competition). Others allow antique shops and collectors to sell from their stock along with the crafters. Still others are a mix of handmade, MLM marketers, garage sale items, and so on. It all depends on the venue.

It pays to know what sort of venue you’re selling at because that affects what you’re setting up to sell. Some crafters prefer to sell at specific venues and not others. I prefer to do a mix of venues.

The other thing that has made a big difference in the world of bazaar sales is the ability to take credit cards using your cell phone. For me that has been a game changer, especially when it comes to my book sales. Some venues are better than others for book sales, but I always get surprised.

If anything, that’s the lesson I’ve taken away from my years of selling at bazaars, both in the 90s and now. I always learn something from each venue…and I always get surprised. Would I do it every weekend? Probably not.

But for a handful of weekends in the fall, one or two in the spring, and maybe one in the summer — yeah. Now I’m thinking about occasional appearances at the local farmer’s market. That’s going to be a change and an interesting new challenge. We shall see how things unfold.

Author. Teacher. Horsewoman. Liberal country girl split between urban/rural life, writing science fiction, fantasy, poems, and essays from the wide open spaces.

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