I see by my church bulletin that it's bazaar time. Across North America, church basements everywhere will soon be hosting the annual Christmas Bazaar. Tables will groan under the weight of home baked goodies (some of them more like home baked baddies, but for the most part alright), goods knitted by the parish grandmothers, and the white elephant table, filled with the sort of stuff that people could not sell at their garage sales. And there will be the craft tables.
I used to try and sell my woodworking at bazaars in years gone by. I was... less than successful. It is a hard way to make money. First, you spend a lot of time and effort making speculation items, which is a way of saying you make a ton of stuff in the hope that a pound of it will sell. You have to pay for the wood and the finishes and tools that you need to make the stuff, plus the cost of the table, plus the cost of gas and so on. I think, in the end, after crunching all the numbers, I was a little bit better than even, but not much.
I faced three major problems: Myself, competition, and other people.
My first failing was my inability to predict what people would buy any given year. One year, I sold a bunch of spin tops. The next year I came back loaded with tops, and didn't sell a single one. I hauled the tops around for four years, then sold them all again. I could make a lot of good quality products, but if no one wanted to buy them, they would not sell.
The second problem was my competition. I did not- and still don't- want to admit that I was in competition with a large manufacturer of cheap wooden furniture (let's just call it "Nordic Surprise"), but that was the reality of the situation. I would make small furniture items, shelves and such, out of real wood with solid joinery, and people would come by and say things like "I can get something just like that at Nordic Surprise for a lot less." I could try and point out that, as a matter of fact, Nordic surprise does not sell anything like this, as this will last and theirs will disintegrate shortly after purchase, but it never worked. The saw the similarity in shape and the dissimilarity in price, and took their money elsewhere. To be competitive with Nordic Surprise, I would have to pay myself roughly ten cents an hour.
The third problem was other people. Sartre once famously noted that Hell is other people, and anyone who has ever worked retail knows the truth of that statement intimately. In addition to people who thought my prices were outrageous, I faced a litany of other problems. all stemming from the attitudes and actions of the people to whom I was trying to sell my goods. One year, I was at a bazaar at a church that was next to an old folks home, so much of our customers would be coming from the home. I hoped to cash in on nostalgia and made a bunch of old style wooden toys. It sort of worked, and sort of backfired. The people that came by fell into roughly three categories: nice old people, lonely old people, and bitter old people. The conversations went like this:
Nice old person: "I haven't seen one of those in years! I used to have so much fun playing with it with my friends. My grandchildren will love it. I'll take two." It goes without saying, these were my favourite of the three.
Lonely old person: "I haven't seen one of those in years! I used to have so much fun playing with it with my best friend. We were such good friends, we did everything together. I remember the time we went down to the creek and etc etc. But then he moved away to Calgary, and I didn't hear much from him after that, but I did hear that his son got into trouble with the law, which is strange, because he was such a nice fellow. It just goes to show you never can tell, can you? I was saying just the other day that..." I try to be polite, but while they are talking, other potential customers are walking up to my table, but unwilling to interrupt the conversation, walk away. In the end, the lonely old person walks away making no purchase.
Bitter old person, almost always male, usually sounds like Homer Simpson's dad, and you can spot him quickly, because the first thing he will mention is price: "I haven't seen one of those in fifty years! You used to be able to buy three of them for a nickle! What are you charging?" Me: "That's ten dollars." Him: "Ten bucks?! I wouldn't give you a quarter! That's what's wrong with you punks these days! You roll out of bed and think someone owes you a dollar! See that?" Points at his hand. "See it? Know what that is? It's a callous! Know how I got it? Hard work! That's something you punks don't know nothin' about!" At this point, I am willing to pay him money to get away from my table.
I could write a book about the rude and stupid things people walking past my table have said to me. "Do you enjoy deliberately making ugly things?" Answer: "Yes. care to pose?" (I can do rude, too.) (I wonder if that was a mortal sin? I am supposed to turn the other cheek, after all.)
Another, speaking about my carved walking sticks: "I can get sticks like that on any walk through the forest."
"Really? Pre-carved walking sticks just drop from the trees in your forest?"
"Oh, the carving is nothing."
At this point I had to resist the urge to leap over my table, grabbing a chisel as I did so, and plunge my chisel repeatedly into her forehead, seeking, in vain, for a brain.
A constant refrain from the people passing my table was: "Oh, your stuff is just lovely, but it's too expensive for me." Average price was ten to twenty dollars. I thought my prices were ridiculously low for the work that went into them, but, as I said, I was up against Nordic Surprise and the local dollar store. To the would be customers, my prices were ridiculously high, though not as high as other, more successful vendors.
At the last Christmas bazaar/craft show I did, I was surprised to see a cousin across the hall from me. She was selling angels and wise men, quite large, as well as a smaller items. She had assembled parts bought from a craft store with a hot glue gun, then spray painted the whole thing gold. I imagine the entire process took maybe five, maximum ten minutes per piece. I noticed quite a few people carrying her stuff around. During a lull in the crowd, I went over to her and spoke to her. "How're you doing today?" I asked.
"Not so good," she said. "I've only sold about two thousand worth of stuff."
For me, a day when I sold five hundred was reason to pump my fist in the air and cheer out loud. I looked at her table. Her prices were huge. The large angels were going for around seventy five bucks. The wise men were going for around one fifty for the set. People were buying them, one after another. The people who passed my table and said "Fifteen dollars for (that thing you spent four hours building out of solid wood, which, with a little care, will last for years and may even become a family heirloom, passed down through the generations) seems a little steep," were going to her table and saying "A hundred and fifty for (something shiny you glued together in five minutes from plastic and paper parts bought at a store and which will probably not last out this Christmas season so I will have to replace it next year)? Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. I'll take two." Don't get me wrong: I actually respect her. She did the one thing I never could do, and figured out what people were willing to buy at a price that made making and selling it worthwhile. It still rankled. I was a skilled craftsman. She was a women with a glue gun and a Michael's credit card, and she kicked me to the curb. It was what the people wanted: shiny crap that won't last a year, so they can go to another show next year, and buy something else.
I could go on about bazaars and craft shows. For any readers out there planning on going to one: Browse as much as you please, but, if you don't plan on buying anything, don't waste the vendor's time. Compliments are nice. Cash is better. Remember that while you may be comparing the stuff the vendors have made with their own hands with something available at the local stores which was made in some distant Crapistan by some five year old chained to a machine, to them there is no comparison. Never make that comparison out loud. Remember this is an adult trying to get some cash, often to support or at least get a little extra for themselves and their family. Treat them as such. Some vendors are open to negotiations of price, but don't be insulting. If you see something you sort of like, but would like something slightly different, feel free to ask the vendor if they could make one with adaptations. They made the one you almost like; they can usually make another one more to your liking. Usually they will ask for a deposit so they can buy the materials. Don't expect the deposit back if you change your mind, as they will be stuck with the materials and no guaranteed sale. Be friendly, and enjoy yourself. As I said, be friendly to them, but remember, they are there for money.