A lot of crafty, creative types are pretty introverted. While it might be relatively easy for you as an introverted, creative person to set up a very attractive display table, the prospect of standing behind that table and talking to complete strangers all afternoon at a craft market might just scare you to death.
I admit that I’m stereotyping here, and if you are naturally gregarious, then you do have an advantage at a craft market. But even if you’re naturally quiet and shy, you can learn some basic skills to sell your work effectively, just like you learned the skills necessary to make your craft work.
For myself, I’m an awkward people-person. As a professional teacher, I’m used to talking to people all day, but I’m really more comfortable in front of a group of people than I am one-on-one (and I am more comfortable still when I’m alone with my books). I’ve never liked approaching strangers, and striking up a conversation with somebody I don’t know well has never come easily. But thanks to a little advice, a little self-evaluation, and a lot of practice, I’ve learned that there are some things I need to do (and several things I should definitely not to do) to help me sell my work.
Be present. These days we hear a lot about “mindfulness,” which I think is just another way of saying “pay attention.” So the first rule of interacting with customers is to give your business your full attention. Look up and look around. Be attentive to people before they approach you. Make eye contact with everyone who walks by, and greet them cordially. Don’t look away until they do. It takes time and practice to build up enough confidence to do this, but it really helps. If people sense that you are willing to pay attention to them, they’re more likely to pay attention to you.
Stand; don’t sit. I get it–craft markets that last all day are hard on the body as well as on the mind. But as tempting as it is to sit in a lawn chair behind your table while customers browse, don’t do it! The lawn chair sends a subtle message that you’re not really at work. It says you’re relaxing and probably don’t want to be disturbed. If you stand, however, it puts you on the same level as your customers (literally and metaphorically), and you look like you’re there to do business, not to take a vacation. If you physically can’t be on your feet the whole time, a bar stool is much better than a lawn chair.
Standing has one other advantage over sitting: it lets you stand beside the table, not just behind it. Because really, there’s no law that says the table must always stay between the vendor and the customer. To the introvert, it may feel comfortable to have the physical barrier of the table between you and the customer, but many of the best vendors arrange their booths so that they can easily come around and stand beside their customers as they show off their wares.
Put down your phone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a potential customer approach another crafter’s booth and then wander away after a couple seconds because the vendor was absorbed in his or her phone. Yes, there will be slow times when you can sneak a peak at your social media pages and even post pictures of your display table. ( #craftmarket #handmade ) But when there are potential customers within eyesight–even if they’re not walking toward your table–you need to put the phone away.
TALKING TO PEOPLE
I’ve sold my wares at quite a few markets, and you know what? The first time a potential customer approaches, I STILL get butterflies in my stomach!
As people approach, remind yourself that, if they’re coming up to your table at all, that means they actually want to hear about your work. You don’t have to manipulate them into buying anything. You just have to tell them why your work is special.
Have a spiel ready. It is absolutely pointless to try to come up with something original to say to every customer. But if you know what you’re going to say ahead of time, it makes the whole exchange much less awkward. A good spiel is short and to the point. In two or three sentences, tell your potential customer what you’re selling and why it’s special.
Here’s how mine goes:
“We have handmade wooden spoons and spatulas. We make them from hardwoods, mostly salvaged from downed trees and limbs–wood that would otherwise end up in the burn pile. We use traditional hand tools to shape them individually, so each one is a little feels a little bit different in the hand.”
That takes about 15 seconds to say. Sometimes I change it up, leaving out something here or adding something there. But the central message stays the same. You can even write your spiel down and memorize it if you like. You know you have a good spiel if, by the end of the market, the vendors next to you can give your spiel, too.
Encourage people to handle your items. After I had done a couple craft markets, I noticed that about half the people who actually picked up one of my spoons would buy something from me. But people who didn’t touch anything didn’t buy anything. So I started encouraging people to pick things up. “Go ahead and pick them up,” I would tell them. “They’re made to be used!” It helped a lot.
Later, my daughter showed me a more subtle way to encourage people to handle the merchandise: As people approach your table, and you start your spiel, pick up one of your items and handle it. Not only does it signal to customers that it’s okay to pick up the merchandise, but it also gives you something to hold so your hands aren’t just fidgeting. If the customer seems interested, you can even hand him or her the item. Trust me: this really works!
Let the silence work. There are vendors who can keep up a steady dialogue with a customer without much effort. But if that’s not you, it’s okay to give your spiel and then be quiet for a little while. If somebody is quietly lingering over your table, that’s a good sign. It can feel awkward standing there in silence while people are looking at your work, so if you want to break the silence by offering a few more details about your work, like where you get your materials, or how you make them, that’s great. You can also mention prices and even payment options. “I do take credit cards” is a good way to start making a sale. But it’s also okay to step back and quietly let your items sell themselves.
Keep a positive attitude. It’s a hard reality that most of the people you talk to at a craft market won’t buy anything from you. A lot of people will pause at your table for a few seconds, hear your spiel, and then keep walking. Don’t get discouraged. Instead, be genuinely pleased that they took even a few seconds out of their busy day to notice your work. Smile and thank them for stopping by.
I’ve learned something important about people who walk away: sometimes, they come back! Just because they didn’t buy something this time doesn’t mean you’ve lost them forever. I’ve had many people seek out my table at a market because they saw my table at a previous market and remembered it. So treat everybody with respect and kindness, whether they show interest in your products or not.
DO I NEED TO…?
After your first few markets, you may be left wondering about a few more things. Here are some questions I’ve had to ask myself over the past couple years:
Should I demonstrate my work? Some crafters–but especially spoon carvers–really enjoy demonstrating their work for potential customers. However, remember that doing your work and selling your work are two different activities. As a rule, if you’re busy making things, you’re not selling things.
I do, however, bring a few carving tools to show how I work. It’s fun to show people–especially children–how I can shape a block of wood with a sharp knife. But you need to understand that, once you start into a demo, you are probably not making a sale–unless you bring the prospective customer quickly back to the finished product on the table. Ideally, my demo-to-sale spiel sounds something like this:
“I start with a block of wood that looks like it has a spoon in it. I cut off pieces here and there with a few tools, like this hook knife [makes a couple cuts] and this spokeshave [takes off a couple shavings], and after a while, I have something that looks like this [picks up a finished spoon from the table and hands it to someone].”
Truth be told, I’ve probably lost a few sales because I got so invested in showing how I do my work that I’ve forgotten that I came to sell my work.
Can I take time to shop at the market myself? It’s ironic that, at any craft market, the people who most appreciate handmade goods are all stuck at their own tables all day.
While you should ordinarily give your table your full attention, it’s okay to leave your table for a few minutes to browse at other tables. (If you’ve been kind and friendly, the vendors beside you will probably be willing to keep an eye on your product for a few minutes while you shop.) Just don’t get so lost in that beautiful sea of handmade goods that you forget to come back to your own table.
As you look at other vendors’ tables, do take time to introduce yourself as a vendor. Compliment their work. If you can, buy it! I’ve found that other vendors are sometimes my best customers. They, too, value handcrafted items, but they are more likely to buy your items at the end of the market, once they’ve made a few sales themselves. (That’s a good reason not to pack up too early!) As long as you’re not neglecting your own table, it’s good to get to know the other crafters around you.
Even if you don’t sell much at a craft market, you can come away with something even more valuable than cash: good relationships. Most local crafting communities are fairly small-scale, and if you keep coming to craft shows, you’ll meet some of the same people again and again. You’ll find that some crafters are extroverts, and a few of them come to markets more to socialize than to sell. They’re fun people to have around, but they also tend not to sell much–and they’re genuinely okay with that.
I’ve benefitted enormously from relationships I’ve built at craft markets. I’ve been given materials for cheap or free, and I’ve learned valuable techniques that enhance my work. I’ve learned of up-and-coming markets, and I’ve had a lot of customers referred to me. People I’ve gotten to know have become repeat customers. There are many side-benefits to developing good relationships.
However, there is a paradox at work here: good things do come from good relationships. But if you aim only for the good things–the side benefits–you will never build good relationships at all. Most people can tell when you’re in it only for yourself. But if you genuinely value relationships, the benefits will come, too.
And maybe that’s one of the best things about selling your work at craft markets. You don’t have to choose between making money and making friends.