Applying to craft marketplaces... an amateur's tale and suggestions
I'll be honest... I wanted to do craft marketplaces long before I applied.
People are always telling you to "get out of your own way." And for me, that was definitely true.
For years, I've gone on and off giving handmade items like candles, but I never took the craft that seriously. But after not being able to go home for Ramadan in 2020, I made and sent dozens of candles, soap bars, and body butters. Then, I got into candle making and soap making in a very serious way...
I reduced my hours at work a bit due to COVID's impact on our clinic, and our homeschooling was very heavy in crafts. We painted, we marbled, we made garlands, salves, candles, and slime. Periodically, a friend or co-worker would ask for soap or candles. I made some candles with family... and all this time, a little thought was tickling and nagging.
Maybe I could sell these at a marketplace...
I am fortunate to have a very supportive partner and kids who were in love with the making process. But I let the negative voice in my head be louder than what was happening. I heard her say:
-Your stuff isn't good enough to apply to markets.
-People just buy things from you because they love you, that doesn't make them sellable
-You have a job, you don't need to do this to survive
... and, ya know... all of the other negative BS you tell yourself so you can stay comfortable sitting in your anxiety chair.
I satiated my dream by visiting marketplaces... Farmer's Markets, Pop-Ups, neighborhood markets, street fairs... you get the picture. And I'll tell you, I wouldn't trade this 'research' for the world.
These types of marketplaces weren't on my radar as much before delving further into my hobby. I'm not sure if local markets like this are increasing, but as my passion for supporting local artisans (and being able to afford some occasional purchases), I looked for them more. And this slow entry taught me so much, and it's why, if you're an artisan thinking about applying to a marketplace, I encourage you to do the same.
Here's some things I learned, without really thinking about it.
My behavior as a customer
*From my own lived experience... yours might be different, and that's ok!
-I like the set up where the artisan is behind the table, so there's a separation between us. I'm less intimidated about approaching the space.
-I like prices to be up front and easy to read. I feel more comfortable shopping if I can see the price right away. It sucks to hear about this amazing product that this artisan made WITH THEIR OWN HANDS, then learn it's $75 and I can't afford it.
-I'm more likely to approach a booth when the artisan is making eye contact and is emotionally present. I can't tell you how many times I see vendors engrossed in their phone. It is probably not intentional, but it can be a turnoff for potential customers. (This does not mean that you need to be "on" 100% of the time. I am exhausted at the end of the day after a market).
The 'Vibe' of the Marketplace
-Who attended? How busy was it? How did I find out about the market? What types of vendors were there? Do the vendors sell what I sell, and how is mine different? Was it a market for handcrafted items, or anything else?
-How did I like outside versus inside markets?
While I was a bit too shy to ask the vendors about their experience or let them know what I was about, I have been asked plenty while I've done markets by people looking to start selling. If you're thinking about this, I'd invite you to be conscientious of the artisan's time, and if they're talking to other customers. Also, if they sell something that's within your budget, purchasing that would be a great way to show your support. Following them on their social media, boosting their posts and sharing with friends is another great way to support vendors. More on this later.
Fast Forward to Summer 2021
I finally came out with my intentions, and should not have been surprised at the response. There was some confusion, but ultimately it was love and support. I decided to apply to a market I had visited that was in a neighborhood across the river from me in the Portland Metro Area that didn't seem too intimidating.
Applying for Markets
I have applied for my fair share of markets, and have had a pretty strong success rate. The vast majority of markets want your contact info, a blurb about your product and your story and your social media. Some request photos. If you don't have social media, I'd recommend a website that demonstrates some of your personality as well as the best that you can do with product photography.
There are some markets that have you apply, pay a fee, and then you're in. But this is the minority. Most are 'juried' to some degree or run through a market manager... I think about them like curators, and this helps me understand if I've been accepted or rejected.
Market managers, especially of the longstanding ones, have a good understanding of who is coming to their markets and what sells. They understand not to have too many of the same kind of product, and if they have duplicates, they want to differentiate between them. I've been one of several candlemakers at a marketplace, but where you could easily see a difference in our branding. (For example, pillar beeswax for one, soy candles in clear glass jars, and me with my marbled candles or colorful tins)
This is one reason I would recommend to put some time developing your blurb.
Finding Markets - and, should I apply?
I started out easy, by going to marketplaces and then looking for their website, if they had one. More and more, I find them on Instagram. Remember how I talked about following the vendors you meet there? Here's how that helps:
-You will see where they're vending
-Interacting with local vendors helps build your support network
-Support of local artisans can start to shine light on the value of intentionally well crafted items which benefits us all
-You will no doubt benefit from seeing others creative processes. I've had soaps inspired by books, bugs, and even pottery.
Over time, I collected hashtags that helped me find markets calling for vendors. Try ones local to your area and see what you come up with - on Instagram I follow some of my city hashtags and include # -popups, events, vendors, makers... as a few to try out.
I'm not as active on Facebook but I have found some events through there, or from local groups I've seen calls for vendors. This summer, I vended at a Ramdan bazaar that I heard about through Facebook and WhatsApp.
I'm not on TikTok and I don't understand Pinterest yet, so please leave me a comment if you've had success there.
95% of my markets, I hear about through Instagram and usually apply from a link right in the app. As I have my information saved in my phone, the application process is easy. It's just how much are the fees (insert scared emoji face) and the blurb where I get stuck.
If there are past event pictures or vendor lists available on social media or a website, check them out! It's possible you can check the pulse of the market and see if you'll fit in or stick out (in a bad way).
I should mention here... just because a market is charging you $500 in booth fees, does not mean you're going to be a smashing success out of the gate. I've found that there are some really well known ones here in Portland that I've vended at and did amazing and was well worth the booth fee. I've also been to free ones and sold amazingly. I've also been to free ones and counted ants crossing the street. If there is contact information and you choose to, you can ask about advertising, what's included (tables? tent? electricity?)
In our experience, the advertising has been almost exclusively done by the vendors themselves and limited social media posts. Some are better than others at sharing your involvement, but ultimately you have to participate and get some posts out there to tell where you'll be.
... and try to do better than me at sharing like a day before the event happens... k?
I haven't perfected this yet... I'll admit. But I'd recommend doing as I say and not as I do. In my ideal situation, you have a few blurbs about yourself ready to go, a 50 word, 100 word, and 200 word blurb for example.
Some of my catchier items and ones that I'm know for are my embed soaps and marbled candles... like this one...
But I didn't talk up as much that I developed my own coconut wax blend because it was so hard for me to find one that didn't contain paraffin. I talked about my candles having "clean scents" but not as much about that I was the one creating these unique blends... So you can't find these candles anywhere else!!!
Anyone else have a hard time selling themselves like this?
I have had a few rejections, and thankfully, this is not the majority of my experience. However, it still stings, and there's not a quick magic to ease the burn,
Some rejections have actually been helpful. For example, I did get a personalized rejection that told me why they didn't accept my application. Later, attending that market, I saw that it wasn't my aesthetic or 'ideal customer,' so maybe being there would not have been successful for me. In the end, it's better for me and that manager that I wasn't there.
Some are less helpful, in that you hear nothing. Not even a rejection letter, so I'm not sure if they met their quota on candle and soap makers, or they didn't like my dad jokes, or just that I don't meet their perceived customer need. In these cases, all you can do is your best.
Looking back, looking ahead...
I'm almost to the one year mark of opening my business at a marketplace, and we have grown a lot. While I'm no master of the marketplace, I've done over a dozen different market places and over 20 individual markets. I've been rained on, roasted in 103 degree heat, had last minute things pop up and had to cancel, been canceled last minute, been rejected, and been broke from the application fees.
But I won't go back.
While I know that when I started my ONLY goal was to be in markets, I'm now in stores, wholesaling, consigning, and private labeling. I have this website and a small offering on Etsy. But still, my favorite place to vend is right on the sidewalk.
With rare exceptions, my best sales have always come from in person markets... people can smell the candles, see the soaps, feel the textures and meet the maker... that makes the experience magical and personal. When I attend markets as a customer, I want to spend money with the vendors there and I'm actively looking to support my community in this way.
You may disagree with this, but over the past several months, I've made efforts to share vendor calls in my instagram stories. I send them via DM to my maker friends, even in the health, home, and beauty category. I trust market managers to curate markets for their best success, which means the success of their vendors, too. I don't really see this as competition.
Some things that will change going forward are -
-I am a bit more selective of where I'll apply. I've had enough experience to know where I may be successful. That being said, I've been to some markets that I knew would be slow just because I've had nothing else to do and I liked the people putting it on, and the vendors that would be there.
-I pay attention to how markets are getting the word out about their event
-I don't think I can make it in outdoor markets when it's over 90 degrees. I've ended up dehydrated with melted candles that I later had to work to smooth out the tops, and the markets in the Portland Metro area are pretty poorly attended when that happens. I've only canceled markets with plenty of notice (and this has only happened twice, thankfully), so I'll be really careful when applying to markets next summer as we see hotter and hotter days.
-Not really anything I've changed, but a recent change that I've welcomed is invitations to apply to markets. Increasingly, I've had market managers reach out to me to apply which is suuuuuper awesome. I've still had to apply but have made it in each time, and there's something to be said about already knowing that your vibe and product match what they're looking for.
-I'm being more careful about expensive markets. There are a few that I applied to that are on the pricier side and are known to bring a lot of traffic... however... as I've said I've built a nice and trusting vendor community, and many who have had their skin in the game much longer than I have shared that they felt that some days, market availability is saturated, and you might not have as many customers as before. Some feel that the last two market years have been a fluke due to COVID limiting travel and some interest sparked in communities supporting their own. I'm just completing my first year, so I don't have much to compare it to... but I will say... many of the free markets I've done have brought in more sales than ones I've paid into three digits for... they may not advertise or they may have limited advertising... but their curators have been amazing to work with, and with a good collection of vendors we're usually spreading the word about these marketplaces.
If you're reading this... you know who you are.
Right now I'm waiting to hear back from some Holiday markets in Portland, so now I'm just working on developing my product photography, and prepping for my next markets, which you can always find on the calendar of our blog section.
Thanks for reading, let us know if you have any questions about getting into markets!