Advice from an expert with 20 years of show experience.
Having sold at varied events for over twenty years, ranging from flea markets, renaissance faires, wine festivals, conventions, and private gatherings, we can assuringly say this business method is a viable, oftentimes lucrative money making option if one is willing to research, organize, maintain stock and vehicles, drive distances, acquire people skills, and to exert the physical strength necessary to set up and tear down a booth within a limited amount of time. Yes, to say it's hard work is an understatement, but the almost guaranteed fast flow of cash makes it all worthwhile. Selling on the road requires preparation months or years in advance but the result is well worth the effort.
The very first step to success is in acquiring a state business reseller's tax license. This is free and allows selling at all shows. Make sure to have a chart of the percentage the show's city or county charges and add this cost to each item for sale, deducting the percentage from the total earnings at the end of the show when tallies are totaled. Depending on the promoter or if the show is out of state, taxes may be collected at the end of the event, however one is still required to acknowledge taxes paid for each show.
The second item that may be necessary is insurance specifically per event. Not all shows require this but most do today. Insurance covers any liability towards the promoter or event itself and coverage required may vary. Information on the insurance amount required is included in the seller packet received beforehand and should be purchased as soon as possible so one can focus on production and not paperwork.
If one intends to sell at events professionally on a regular basis, insurance is available on yearly terms that is adjustable. Discuss it with your insurance broker for more details. We recommend duplicating these papers for your records and keeping them in a safe handy file, taking the copies or original, if required by the promoter, to each show.
A very handy item to have and that may make or break a sale is a portable credit card machine that is able to run on location. If you have one, post signs acknowleding the acceptance of credit cards and process them when purchases are made. Be wary of accepting checks.
Lists of shows may be acquired online, through city chambers of commerce, market publications, other vendors, suppliers, newspapers, or by word of mouth. Get a calendar book, do your research, note planning, and show dates.
Shows that are juried beforehand require a number of clear photographs of your products and booth set up. There's a jury fee, normally $25.00 in addition to the booth fee, which is unfortunately in most cases, non-refundable but tax deductible. Make sure you receive a receipt. The jury fee and photographs are sent in with the event's application and depending on whether you're accepted or not the photographs are normally returned with the seller packet or are available for pick up when checking in at the promoter's table the morning of the show. It's a wise move to reserve a space for the promoter's next event if the show was successful before leaving. Occasionally the promoter will hold your photos as a form of calling card, so either make copies or take a camera to the show and photograph your booth, both empty and filled with buyers.
If one wants to break into this market, the first event to sell at is an organized flea market to get the feel of how a show runs. For years we've sold at Pasadena's Rose Bowl monthly flea market, but don't recommend it for beginning sellers. Most sellers at the larger flea markets are professionals who've been doing it for years (as we have), arriving around midnight to wait for admittance to set their booths up at four a.m. and having to stay til the market closed at 6 p.m. We recommend starting at smaller events: the local flea market
that opens to buyers around 6 a.m., a school or church fair, or similar.
Preparation is the key to success, as mentioned. Hire someone reliable to assist at the show
a few weeks ahead of time. Make sure your vehicle is well maintained including fluids, tires and spare. Have your stock priced and organized for easy unloading and repacking, packaging materials, booth set up complete and in good working order, chairs, tables, table covers, trash bags and cleaning supplies, a broom if outdoors, a dolly or hand truck, food and drink, cash and coin, receipt book and calculator, tax chart, insurance form if required, seller packet, a warm jacket and seasonal clothing, comfortable footwear, even a rug for long standing hours.
Map out the drive, exact location of your booth, eateries for after the show, and make necessary hotel/motel arrangements beforehand. Gas up your vehicle and pack it the day before if you can and if there's an alarm on the vehicle, engage it.
The booth and display set up is as important as your product line. Never underestimate this. With customer mentality in mind, buyers attend events for diversion from the everyday world, and unless you're selling sunglasses or reading palms, keep your selling area interesting, clean, and simple to navigate. There is nothing more irritating to buyers than a dirty, over-loaded booth that confuses the mind and eye.
Most purchases made are spur of the moment, but if a buyer is like me, they will have perused all the sellers and return to make purchases at their convenience later.
All items should be clean, clearly priced, and organized. Just like in a department store, your booth and customer relations should make purchasing easy and pleasurable. Don't be the seller that immediately "jumps" on the potential buyer, over eager to make a sale, but also don't be the seller that growls, moans, or ignores the buyer because you can't put down your book. Speaking of taking books to shows- do it if you must (after years of selling on the road, you'll consider it), but only read after the booth has been cleaned, restocked, and no one is around.
Keep storage boxes, cleaning supplies, personal items like handbags, etc. concealed. Cash for making change should also be kept in an area away from buyers as many sellers have had their cash boxes stolen. A hip pouch is ideal and may be obtained from army surplus, sports or bicycling stores.
Speaking of security, this is an issue with nearly every vendor. Set your booth up so people cannot walk through it to another booth or aisle. Panels are available that velcro onto booth poles and provide privacy. Get to know your neighboring sellers and watch out for each other. (This is also a good way to make friends and learn more about shows and selling.)
Meet the security team on their rounds and have them stop to chat. This in itself deters some would-be thieves but not all. If problems arise, try to detain the person and have your helper or neighbor get security. Do not make a large issue of it as it does happen. To keep it from happening in the first place, keep your small expensive items in cases buyers cannot reach into and only take one item out at a time, regardless of the number of buyers waiting for service.
Sincere buyers will understand and wait. Make eye contact, keep a conversation going with them about the product, and watch their hands and movements. Having a booth that's set up in a reverse U shape facing outward gives the seller more control over the complete stock. More secure display options are cases and hanging objects on racks that require a reaching up movement to remove.
After years of selling at events, our observations on what is profitable vary. We sold handcrafted jewelry, which is almost always lucrative but have seen the market flooded with imported mass produced jewelry, and most buyers in the 15 to 40 year old range (our market) choose the mass produced items for their lower price.
Product success varies though according to event. Higher ticket items do well at specialty shows: wine events, art and photography shows, and most juried shows. Unique, handcrafted items sell well depending on season and event location. Service related: face painting, crafts making, and similar do very well at shows aimed at children but require forethought in safety and health issues and may require higher insurance costs.
Always keep your product line geared towards the event, expected buyer base, the economy, and season. (No hand knit mittens in summer or collapsible book lights at a handcraft show.) Food and drink vendors nearly always do very well, outselling all other vendors, but selling those items require special (expensive) licensing and insurance, mandated storage and preparation areas, are subject to inspection akin to restaurants, etc., which is a whole other discussion. If interested in that aspect, contact the state board for current information.
A final note: sometimes, regardless of how well the same show was the previous year, events flop for whatever reason. Take it in stride, knowing the next show will be better. Improve your product line, booth set up, seller skills, and whatever else may be necessary to succeed in this business. There's absolutely nothing like returning home after a long weekend of selling with handfuls of cash.
Best of luck selling on the road!
Thanks. This is good advice for someone just getting started.
By Ken on October 22, 2009
THANKS FOR THE INFORMATION. LOOKING FORWARD TO MORE BUSINESS THIS YEAR. GINNY
By VIRGINIA BOHANAN on January 1, 2010
WOW great advice, I am going to make a copy and take it on the road with me! Thanks Suzanne
By OnTheRoadJewelry.etsy.com on February 21, 2010
I am just starting out. Excellent overveiw.
By Neal Peyton on November 17, 2010
Wow, just starting and didn"t know there was so much to do! Just moved from Floida too and have no clue what the laws are in selling from home!
I have all my christmas crafts ready for sale, but no liscence, now what?
Maybe I’m to late for this christmas?
Thank you for all the info, it’s greatly appreciated
By Annett Carter on November 22, 2010
Been in this for years, and what you have said has merit. I started reading it with skepticism, but think you did a good job.
By Jim on January 7, 2011
Generally, very good advice. I sell sunglasses and our booth is very well planned and impeccable. We have a strategy that we developed and our sunglasses are categorized and easy for the customer to see. We also demonstrate and do a lot of customer service. So I disagreed with what you said about “unless you sell sunglasses” comment. I do believe that your booth should be in tip top shape no matter what item you sell. This is especially true if you sell food items.
By Rita on February 25, 2011
I have a line of handcrafted flavor infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars that my husband and been out selling for the past year. We still wait to find that show where we take home hands full of cash. I’ve redone my booth so many times and all have looked great. We just did the MN Food and Wine show and that also was not good…..I think it was more about the free wine and beer then buy products. If anyone knows of a good place for us we would appreciate any help. Even tho people tell us our product is great its just not selling like I had hoped. Maybe its just the economy that is hurting everything right now.
By Rebecca Bouchier on March 12, 2011
Alexa! Great advice for a rookie and an excellent reminder for others! :)
I would like to comment on the paragraph “The booth and display set up is as important as your product line. Never underestimate this. With customer mentality in mind, buyers attend events for diversion from the everyday world, and unless you’re selling sunglasses or reading palms, keep your selling area interesting, clean, and simple to navigate. There is nothing more irritating to buyers than a dirty, over-loaded booth that confuses the mind and eye.
Most purchases made are spur of the moment, but if a buyer is like me, they will have perused all the sellers and return to make purchases at their convenience later.” This is KEY to any business!! Such a simple point - yet overlooked!
One other point is PRESENTATION ON THE OUTSIDE (Booth Itself). I recently attended an art festival in Dallas, TX and saw booths that could barely stand up (the legs looked bent and crooked). In fact, I was afraid to go inside. There was another booth that had problems with its top and the artist had placed 6 pliers in total on the booth to keep the top attached to the frame. When planning an event, I’d definitely keep a look out for a bolt-on top for a 10x10 booth—probably the E-Z Up Eclipse II, 10x10 Steel (not the AL). Reason being, the AL is lighter in weight and more expensive and is rust resistant but does not withstand heavy weather conditions. If you are an artist and are looking to do 8-15-30+ shows a year, your best bet is to go with the 10x10 Eclipse II tent that are SOOO E-Z to set-up and are real EZ on the fingers too!
There are tons and tons of TENTS out there and lots of E-Z Up’s too and there are people calling their tents EZ ups when they are not anywhere close to the word. Picking the best one is KEY! There are certain Ez up tents that are cheaper and don’t last more than 2-3 shows. I a 10x10 Pyramid II in 2006 and that lasted only 2 shows. I then bought another cheap tent from Ez up for $250 (including the walls) - I believe it was the Express II Value Pack and that lasted for about a year (4-5 shows).
Then I met this E-Z Up dealer in Texas - Splashtents. They are just terrific—they don’t push you to buy what they want to sell, in fact, they listen to you and ask you relevant questions and give you various options and let you make your own choice! I got my Eclipse II, 10x10 white tent Steel with graphics, 4 side walls, 10’ roller bag, sidewall storage bag, 4 weight bags—all for under $1000. Unlike other dealers that sell just the Tent for $800! 3 words for this company: Reliable, Experts, Lowest Prices compared to all other dealers! (I had spent 15-20 days comparing prices from other dealers and I found these guys to be lowest - plus I was given exceptional customer service!
I hope this response is helpful for new comers and also helpful for those having trouble with their booths.
Glad to help….
By Andy on April 5, 2011
Any advise for new food vendors?
By thornton vending on March 28, 2012