Selling Furniture at a Street Craft Fair

A craft fair is no place to sell pricey furniture. However, they do offer opportunity for some. August 3, 2009

I exhibited at a local street/craft fair in my area recently and I thought I would fill everyone in on what I learned from it. It was a $300 educational expense and this fair was a big one with two stages, local politicians, the whole bit. They market themselves as the only truly handcraft fair in the area (SW Virginia).

I brought several well made small tables and one of those TV/AV cabinets that are popular right now, along with some chessboards and a few other fancy things. I figured I may not sell everything but these people would be the types who would demand custom cabinetry in their homes.

I didn't sell one thing and interest in my service was lackluster at best. Watching people go by for seven hours and talking/listening this is what I found out:

- People go to these fairs with a mind-set of spending $20-$80 max.

- The per capita income of this town is $20,091. I figured there would be enough upper income people mixed in. I was wrong.

- Being an obnoxious salesperson works. The guy across from me was selling $8 bags of coffee on a 93 degree blazing hot day. He was calling in every person that walked by and it worked.

- Taste in furniture is directly related to income. I saw a lot of people going by with that pine stuff you see at fairs obviously thrilled with their new masterpiece.

- Unless you are upper-middle class or rich your are not going to spring for custom cabinets or furniture. People do not seem willing to save up for and spend on quality in this dept.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor D:
Congratulations! You have gained a valuable insight and not become cynical. Now the challenge is to define what you want to be as a woodworker, then do the research (at less dollars, time and effort than your fair experience) to become that business. This will need to be done before the cynicism sets in, or poverty takes you out.

There a few - very few - craft fairs that showcase furniture. These are juried (entry) and significantly more than $300.00 to get involved. But the shops that show well at these generally can work for a year on their exposure. They also demand good design and craft, as well as the level of professionalism that you found lacking on the street. As I said, work backwards. Define what you want to make, and then find the ways to do so. Random forays into the void, while educational, will wear you down. You need to plan first. Or you could rent a clown costume.

From contributor C:
I have a friend who went whole hog for craft fairs. He built beautiful pieces, bought a covered trailer and took to the road. His wife carried along some croker sacks full of corn shucks and made corn shuck dolls while she waited. The first show she sold 1,200 dolls at $2 each and he sold nothing. They now glean fields for corn shucks and leave their trailer at home.

From contributor J:
I'm thinking furniture making is tough because most people don't care about it enough to seek non factory stuff, rich or poor. A sales approach exaggerating low quality design and materials may work on some. If I had the money I'd run a print ad using this idea and find out. The craft fair failure was probably a function of the areas per capita income more than anything else. To find out you would have to do one in an affluent market and see or research in some easier way. At this point I have gone long enough without any appreciable success that I can't think straight about it anymore. How much is a clown costume?

From contributor B:
I have close to a decade of craft show experience. The first four shows I did resulted in zero sales. I didn't stop, and as mentioned above, I took every show as a lesson in marketing.

Lesson 1 - people may take your card, you may get a commission later, but fundamentally, they are not going to buy a piece of furniture as an impulse buy. Make things they will buy - this is primarily about a price point - $10-$100 seems to be a sweet spot, with the $50-$60 range being the place to shoot for. Work efficiently, manage your time, track your time, and track all of your expenses - materials, heat, light, expendables, finish and so on.

Make products you like, out of materials that will resonate with the customers, and keep selling. The pushy sales guy routine is a good way to go - trust me - being sullen or ignoring passersby is not a good idea. You must be extroverted. If that is not something you are comfortable with, then find some other way to sell. I try to strike up a conversation with everyone who walks into the booth.

From contributor W:
I have been making seating for about 15 years (4 plus as a serious hobbyist and the last 11 as a pro). I have only done (done in by) one street fair and that was with a large state craft association. Fine furniture and outdoors do not mix. In the term "Street Fair" Fair is the operative word. People come to be entertained and mostly entertain their children and grandchildren. If you want to make fine furniture, I agree with the other opinions given here. Make what you want to make, at the highest level of quality and go to where the market is. Most likely, if people have to pay a fee to get into the show, they are interested in the work being shown and there will be less children to deal with.

When buying higher end work, people want to get to know the craftsman so you must be willing to talk with (an important concept) them about more than just selling them something. Find out who they are and in passing they get to know you a bit. Then work with them to make something they will want to have in their lives for 30-50 years.

From contributor M:
I have displayed my furniture at a local (agricultural based) fair for the last five years. It has always paid off for me. It costs me $265 for the space, which is inside in a high traffic area. The fair runs Monday through Saturday. I make a lot of contacts. Check out "other furniture" on my website to see the displays. I do not do the obnoxious car salesman approach. I find people are more likely to come in and browse if I am sitting there reading a book. I will say hello, and let them ask questions. Most are just there to look. I've only ever sold one item at the fair, but every year I get enough orders throughout the year to keep me going.

It's also like a mini vacation for my wife and Ii. I put cards out for people to take. I started using magnetic cards two years ago. I figured these are less likely to get laundered or thrown away. This is the only fair/show that I do. It is also very satisfying to have countless people admire my work all day long. It is a gift to be able to craft stuff from wood. Much the same as an artist is born with the gift to draw or paint.

Good luck, it only takes one contact or one job to make that fair worth it. I have grown my client base significantly from referrals from clients that found me at the fair.

From contributor J:
Glad to hear some people have had success this way. I wasn't there to sell furniture even though I had some to offer. I was on the lookout for people who were considering and/or could afford carpentry/cabinetmaking services. There were few.

From contributor M:
95% of the requests I get for furniture is in oak. Not sure if it's just this area or not. I happen to love the look of it. It gets such a bad rep becausec it's cliché' and not high end. I make just as much money on oak as what I would cherry, but the cost of my product is more affordable to the people, therefore I am selling stuff and making a living. The pine stuff was a "favor". I hate working with it. You even look at it funny and it dents. If i tried to sell cherry, walnut, or some funny named/expensive exotic wood in this area, I would be stuck with a bunch of stuff like you are. You have to cater to the people of your area.