Lessons in capitalism at a craft fair

28 09 2010

I recently received an education in the principle tenets of capitalism and economic competition from an unlikely source. It wasn’t a Wall Street Journal article or a lecture from a business professor, but instead a visit to a friendly arts and crafts fair.

To be clear, it wasn’t a trip undertaken by my own will. As a hobby, my girlfriend loves to sew, and she recently started making her own clothes. She made some business cards, painted a sign and entered such a fair herself in March, but on this particular occasion we were just browsing.

After a few hours looking at various garments, mugs, prints and jewelry, I came to a realization. If you look past the hand-knit items and cutely crafted tidbits and beneath the kind of hippy vibe that hovers on the surface, these fairs exemplify a kind of ruthless, capitalism that would make Gordon Gekko smile.

Afterall, these aren’t cheaply pumped out products with national ad campaigns to trigger our consumer desires. These are hand-crafted, individually made items that in some cases took hours of work. They represent significant investments of time, money and dreams. If you go home without any sales, you go home not only broke, but heartbroken.


Remember that all the nice people at craft fairs selling stuff are potentially armed with deadly weapons such as scissors.

Each vendor’s space is stuck between two others selling another variety of cute knickknacks and across from three more. Hundreds of people pass by, some stop, some smile, but the vast majority just breeze on through.

Basically, it’s a tough scene. Out of this competitive crowd of cuteness, I’ve noticed that several of capitalism’s classic tactics have found new expression. Just because what you’re selling is cute, doesn’t mean you can’t get dirty.

Tactic #1: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

A particular item caught our collective attention at one of the first booths we visited. The vender had taken the front and back covers from a random assortment of old library reject books, replaced the inside pages with blank ones and then spiral bound it together to make a notebook.

At the time, it seemed quite clever as the books chosen were often amusing titles from children’s series such as “Nancy Drew” to introductory level science texts. My personal favorite was a 1980s-era tome simply called “Lasers” that featured colored lines zipping in and out of a transparent neon box hovering in outer space.

A few booths down, we discovered another vendor had the exact same item stocked as well. In fact, by the time we completed our circuit I would say nearly a third of all the vendors there had that item or one of its variations for sale. It reminded me of the free-for-all markets I often walked through in Asia where you had 16 vendors in a row selling the same pairs of novelty socks.

In many competitive marketplaces, innovation will breed copy cats, some of whom may end up producing a superior product. It was hard to tell who first introduced the old books turned notebooks idea to the craft scene, but, clearly, the item was a hit.

Tactic #2: Give me a sign

With the experience of sitting behind one of those booths while my girlfriend took breaks to try (vainly) to de-stress herself, I know full well how easy it is for someone to move past your location with no more than a cursory glance. In fact, it seems to me that the hardest part of securing a sale is actually getting people to stop.

Sure, you can show up, dump a pile of cute crap on a table and sit behind it with your face in a magazine, but the more innovative and successful crafters followed tried and true advertising strategies. This mostly manifests itself in large, bold signage to clearly signal to potential customers who you are and give them a feeling or image to associate with your products.

Although the goods are in many ways the work of people who consider themselves artists, it takes a business sensibility to really move some merchandise. Elaborate displays, funny posters, custom tags and more are employed in the hopes of creating the opportunity for a sale.

Tactic #3: Same, but different

As I alluded earlier, for a crafter to be successful, they must be able to connect emotionally with potential customers. It’s relatively easy to elicit “Oh my God, that is so cute” and much harder to add “I’m gonna buy it” to that statement.

The easiest way for most crafter to do this is to highlight the environmentally friendly nature of what they make. My girlfriend, for example, fashions the majority of her clothes from Goodwill donations or items leftover from a relative’s wardrobe.

However, I noticed at the fair this weekend that this has become so common that some crafters have found a way to differentiate themselves from the pack. While perusing the aisles, several vendors promoted the fact that their creations were made of “upcycled” materials. This new addition to the English language means, as far as my research could assess, the exact same thing as “recycled” or “reused,” but it certainly sounds a little snappier.

It’s also a little sneaky, a way of lifting oneself apart from everyone else’s equally green goods. So, if perhaps you have been considering moving your artistic endeavors to the marketplace, whatever they may be, I would suggest you take a course in “Business 101.” With competition like that, you’re gonna need it.

Note: An (heavily) edited version of this post was originally published in the Sept. 29 edition of The Kentucky Standard. I re-posted it here because the version that appeared in the paper was about 450 words shorter. Longer is better, right?

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3 responses

28 09 2010
lauren

“Upcycled” means to transform waste materials into a product of superior quality… as we mentioned before: How can we make a book better? Take the words out and put in blank pages.
Although it was a “cute” idea, something inside me made me cringe when I saw all those destroyed books. Kind of sad, really.

28 09 2010
relativepragmatism

True, it’s a term that makes a value judgment that I am not sure is really necessary.

28 09 2010
Mitzi

So, can the person for your Christmas gift exchange expect a Nancy Drew blank book?

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