We’ve shared tips for preparation and display + packaging in our craft fair series. Today Candy Glendening from Candied Fabrics shares tips for interacting with customers. Candy has had a lot of successful experiences at craft fairs selling her beautiful, artistic designs created with hand-dyed fabrics. You might remember Candy from her Organic Prepared for Dyeing (PFD) Fabric Test, the helpful advice in Primary Tints: A Beginning Fabric Dyeing Tutorial from Candied Fabrics and Candy’s Fabric Dyeing Resources post. Learn more about Candy in her introduction and be sure to stop by Candied Fabrics. Chime in with your tips in the comments below.

The awesome folks at Sew,Mama,Sew! have asked me to write about interacting with customers at art fairs and craft shows. For the past six years I’ve done somewhere between four and eight shows each year. My very first booth looked like this:

And here’s my booth at a festival I did last weekend:

Wow, how things have changed in six years! But from my first show to my last, at each show I interact with lots of people– explaining to them what an art quilt is, discussing how fabric dyeing works, sharing the excitement of a new color palette, etc. Although I’m not quitting my day job yet, I am relatively successful at these shows, and I know that part of that success comes from my ability to interact with people when they walk up to my booth. I also have observed other artists and crafters interact (or NOT interact) with show goers, and I’ve formed some strong opinions on what is and what isn’t successful. Please note: My definition of success is for people to learn about, and possibly purchase your work, or at least sign up for your newsletter or take your card. In this post I’m going to share what I do to interact with folks, and I’ve also talked to a couple of fellow artist friends that I’ve made at these shows to offer other successful strategies.

Starting the Conversation
First of all, remember that folks come to these shows to meet the maker, to be connected to what they purchase, to know that they’ve got something that’s one-of-a-kind and made just for them! So the most important way for them to learn this is for them to meet you! However, this doesn’t mean that I jump right at them the moment they come near; some folks need to just look, or are a bit shy, or your work isn’t their cup of tea and they are going to leave quickly. So, when someone enters my booth– or stops in front to look inside– if I’m not writing up a sale, I’ll either just say a quick “hello there” if they look like they really don’t want to talk, or I’ll say some variation on this phrase: “These are Candied Fabrics because my name is Candy and I dyed them.” The most obvious and unique feature about my work is that it was all colored by me, so I make sure that folks know that. This is a great conversation starter if they want to learn more. If they look away, whether to keep exploring the booth (or not), they now know the most important thing about what I do.

One way I avoid being “in your face” with people is that I’m always busy with something. When I’m not actually completing or packaging a sale, there are plenty of other things to keep me occupied yet completely accessible. I could be dating sales slips, straightening piles, or fussing with my row of scarves (they always need adjusting).

These are all tasks that I can stop immediately, but it means that I’m not standing in front of my booth looking desperately for someone to talk to! I want to be accessible to people, and I find that being up and active at some small task is a great way to make this possible.

The Inaccessible Artist
Here are some quick examples of things you can do to be inaccessible (I’ve met these people!):

  • Inaccessible Artist #1: She is sitting at the back of her booth, nose buried in a book or occupied with a smart phone. She obviously doesn’t care about the customer inspecting the texture on the painting… They would LOVE to know how she got that texture, but geesh, she could care less about them so never mind, off to the next booth!
  • Inaccessible Artist #2: He’s not in the booth, he’s deep in a conversation about (fill in the blank) with the artist in the next booth. Although networking with other makers at these events is an important part of a show, you should always keep one eye on your setup and stop conversations with other artists mid-stream when customers stop at your setup.
  • Inaccessible Artist #3: She’s behind a long table that contains just a small bowl with her business cards. She has a few paintings hanging on the back wall of her booth, but you have to walk all the way around the table to get to them. She’s smiling at you as you stop, but there’s a desperation in her eyes. That desperation, combined with the fact that you’ve got to walk all the way around that table to see something, makes you worried you’ll get trapped so you move on quickly!

    Between the fact that sometimes I’m busy with another customer, and because some people seem to want to look without much chatter, I make sure that I’ve got signs that point out prices; I’ve noticed that some people won’t ask and they need to know!

    I also have a sign that explains how and why I create what I do, and another that points out my recent successes. They are not very formal, but they take the place of an “Artist’s Statement” and a CV.

    This is another way I try to be accessible. The vast majority of people visiting your booth do not make what you do, so you have to use words that they’ll understand!

  • Inaccessible Artist #4: His work is exquisite, but when you ask him a question you don’t understand three quarters of what he says.

Tools + Ideas to Support Customer Interaction
I also love to make custom work, something that some folks really don’t like to do, so I also try to make this really obvious:

My husband’s hobby is woodworking, so he’s made all of my booth displays. One very important part of the booth is this stand:

I originally asked him to build it so that people would have a place to write checks on. Before he made it, they’d use a table with some of my fabric journals on it to write checks, a couple of which were ruined by pen marks. It also holds and hides the necessary but not pretty aspects of selling at a show: Diet Coke, snacks, packaging materials, a box full of random things that I may need. I have a stool behind it that I can perch on to rest my feet when folks aren’t around, but it’s also really easy to pop right up again.

At some of the shows I do, customers collect slips from different artists, pay once, and return later for their purchases; I have to label the packages to avoid confusion. I came up with making a really quick, rough, sketch of one of my birds saying “Thanks, (customer name).” Although it began as something I did out of necessity, I now do this for every sale, even when the customer is taking their package right away. This is just another way for me to personalize the sale, to emphasize that this thing was made by me and is now theirs, and that I thank the customer for their business.

Most people are interested in how you do what you do. I make sure to have things to show people that help explain this. Here at my first show I had one of my “Candiotic Tables” of fabric swatches, plus a notebook portfolio that had pics of work not at the show, including detailed close-up pictures.

Now, I have my DVD running on an iPad, along with a magazine or two that I’ve got a publication in. I especially love having the DVD on the iPad; now I can show people exactly what free-motion quilting is or how I do low water immersion dyeing. Of course, that it’s a professionally shot DVD doesn’t hurt either– it gives my work a stamp of approval that some folks want to see!

Demonstrating Your Process
Some artists I know demonstrate in their booth. Because that’s something I can’t do, I interviewed a couple of folks who do this. First, let me introduce you to Ginger Pena, a watercolorist who paints on canvas:

She and I were both too busy at the last show to actually talk much, but I sent her some questions and she was kind enough to write these awesome responses that I want to share with you:

Q: Why do you demonstrate at shows?
Ginger: Several reasons: 1) To avoid boredom and a feeling of futility during slow periods, 2) to replenish inventory of the small paintings, which go fast, 3) to give people a reason to linger in my booth, 4) to educate people about my art medium and processes, 5) to provide an ice-breaker and to start conversations, because people don’t linger to watch without making a comment or asking a question, 6) show organizers appreciate demonstrators, because art show-goers appreciate us!

Q: Do you find you get more sales from this? Or do you think you lose sales because people don’t want to “bother” you?
Ginger: I think that people who don’t want to “bother” me would probably not be buying art anyway. I think browsers are more comfortable in my booth if all my attention is NOT focused on them, and they don’t feel pressured to make a purchase. And I do think I get a few more sales this way. Sometimes I sell the piece I’m working on because people feel a connection to it after they watch the process for a while.

Q: What’s a common question you get asked? And is it a question you like to answer, or are you really sick of answering it?
Ginger: “What media is that?” People often don’t believe that I’m using watercolor because I am not painting on paper, or framing my work with mats and glass. I don’t get tired of answering this question because it leads to greater understanding and appreciation of my work.

Q: Are you able to paint at the same skill level as when you’re in your studio or en plain air?
Ginger: No. And I don’t try to complete masterpieces at shows. I focus on painting my “mini” paintings which are 3 x 3 inches. I sell a lot of these, so I count on replenishing inventory of these during shows.

Q: Do you have any tips for people who are thinking about starting to do this?
Ginger: Choose something to do that is easy for you– A subject and size that doesn’t require a lot of concentration. You will be interrupted often, and that is sort of the point of demonstrating.

Although I’ve never been able to come up with a way to simply demo something that I do, now that I’ve actually asked her these questions I’m going to wrack my brain and see if there’s something that I could do!

I also talked to ceramic artist David Porras, who always demonstrates at Art for Heaven’s Sake, the show we both did last weekend. As a potter his work is quite messy, and he’s got a bit of the “Pied Piper” in him… Kids always cluster around him:

In his case, it would be almost impossible to sell pottery while throwing, but he sells well at these shows because his wife Nanette is there by his side the entire time:

She knows his process intimately, and can answer lots of questions and do all the other chit chat one needs to do to make a sale. (Oftentimes people are purchasing a gift; it really helps them to talk through why a particular person would like a particular piece).

Dave feels very strongly that people (especially kids) need to learn about his craft; we all use pottery in some way, and most people have never give two seconds to think about where that bowl/mug/vase was made.

I asked him if he thought there were any down sides to demonstrating at a show. He told me that a few people see how quickly he throws a piece and then raise their eyebrows at the price (which are quite reasonable, by the way). This is where education needs to take place, and both Dave and his wife know just what to say. They first have to point out it took him 40 years to build his skill set such that he can actually throw that shape so quickly. Then, they describe all the other steps that take place after the throwing– the firing, sanding, glazing, re-firing, more glazing, etc.

As Ginger suggests, he throws simple, quick shapes. However, he never actually finishes a piece that he throws during demonstration, but instead re-uses the clay over and over until it’s unworkable. It’s out in the studio, on nights and weekends because he’s a lawyer during the day, that he makes beautiful pieces like these:

Answering Questions
Talking with Dave made me think about those questions that may be a bit uncomfortable for you to answer. If you’re new to shows, you may want to brainstorm with a friend or two about the types of questions you may be asked that you want to have an answer for. And if you get asked a question that surprises you, just remember it and think of a better answer later on. Unlike most circumstances where you think of a witty response to something in bed that night, you’ll most likely get asked a question again, so if you don’t like your first answer, you get to try again!

One question that I get asked frequently is “How long did it take to make that?” Like Dave and Nanette, I break down my process, pointing out all the different steps it takes to make something… I usually don’t actually give them a number at all, and most times they end up laughing with me and saying I need to charge more!

Another question I don’t enjoy answering is when people ask if they get a price break when buying multiples. I’ve got several responses to this, based upon what type of item they’re asking about and their tone, but the first couple of times this one really threw me. The easiest, most comprehensible answer is, “Well, it took me just as long to make the second one as it did the first… So, no.” But I also have a response ready for the scarves, which is “Buy 12 and the 13th is free! And if you don’t want to buy them all today, I’ll start a frequent buyer card for you!” This came about because a couple of years ago, a lovely woman named Holly (who was actually helping her hubby sell his woodwork) spent a long time during the show, in 10 minute spurts, choosing scarves for all 12 of her female relatives in Norway, where they were going to travel for Christmas. She was having so much fun choosing colors for each different person, and she loved modeling the scarves while choosing them. There was one she kept returning to that looked so great on her, but I could tell she just didn’t want to splurge on herself, so at the end of the show I just HAD to give it to her.

Talking about Holly and all her scarves brings up another really great aspect of a show, when customers interact with one another! Sometimes one person will ask another person their opinion about a color, or ask them to hold something because their hair is the same color as the person they’re trying to buy for. Both people become drawn into whatever they’re looking at, which makes them think a bit deeper about it– always a great thing. Holly is a special soul; every year at this Art for Heaven’s Sake she ends up in my booth with some friends or people she’s met at her husband’s booth, showing them all the different ways you can wear a scarf. She’s a hoot! More importantly, she’s a customer who really loves my work, so much so that she continues to rave about it.

Ultimately, I put who I am into my work, and then display it in a 10′ x 10′ booth. So many people walk in, look all around and say, “This is so happy– This must be you!” and it gives me great joy to say, “Yes, yes it is. This is me, welcome to my world!”