Monday, 7 January 2013

On your marks, get ready....

Now, for some research and preparation before launching your vintage or antiques stall.  If any of the advice falls into the "teaching granny to suck eggs" category, please accept my apologies.  Hopefully, there will be a couple of hints or tips to take away...and if you already know all of it, then stop reading and get blogging!

So, your house is overflowing with so much stuff you want to do a fair before you become the subject of a Channel 4 documentary on hoarding. Or you've been buying or renovating and upcycling things ready for your trading debut.    Before signing up to a fair or market, it's a good idea do some basic market research and check out a few possible events in your local area.  It is probably wise to start your venture at a local fair to keep costs and stress-levels down.  I would visit at least three local established fairs, to gauge what is being sold and if there is good trade to be done.  As fairs are usually busy first thing, try visiting later in the day to get a sense of how much business is done after the morning rush.These are some of the things that I would think about when checking out potential fairs;

  • Is the event busy and thriving, with a good range of customers for most of the day?  Ideally, you want to be rushed off your feet making lots of sales, but having a steady flow of customers is great.  Most fairs have their peaks -  such as first thing in the morning and mid-afternoon -  and troughs - lunchtimes can often be quiet and late afternoons.  Of course, you might make one big sale on a slow day, but statistically a busier fair will be better for business.
  • How easy is it to park and unload when you set up? Personally, I loathe having to carry heavy boxes up flights of stairs or from faraway parking spots.
  • Is the car parking for traders free or in an expensive public car park ? This can be a nasty surprise  if you are there for a long day, particularly in a city centre where parking costs £s per hour.
  • Is there good parking for customers and is the venue easy to walk such as in a town centre or close to shops or other attraction.  If  in a country location, is it near or in a busy village, near a tourist spot  or easily accessed from a busy or major road? Some fairs are part of a bigger event such as a country fair or agricultural show.  If you plan to try one of these, check that your stall will be around busy areas, not out in the boondocks away from the main flow of people.
  • Does the stock at each fair look inviting and varied  and would you feel comfortable selling at this event?  If you have very expensive stock, a more prestigious or specialised event might be a better bet; if you are just clearing out unwanted household goods, clothes and toys, a boot sale is more suited to your needs.  If there are only a few stalls with lacklustre stock, it is unlikely to be a thriving event with plenty of customers. 
  • How is the fair advertised - are there plenty of  fliers, posters, local paper ads about the event, is it advertised on local radio; is the fair well signposted on the approaches to the venue?
  • Can customers buy lunch or light refreshments so they linger longer? On a weekday if the fair is in a town centre or near offices/workplaces, good refreshments often attract the working population at lunchtime who will also browse the stalls.
Most likely you will get a gut instict about the fair which you feel suits you best as well as meeting your other criteria.  It is important that you feel comfortable and confident as a trader when you start out, as it can be quite daunting at first.

I find chatting to friendly stallholders pretty useful -  you can subtly find out how they rate the fair, if it is busy and if they attend on a regular basis.  Most will be fairly forthright if the fair is no good, too quiet or not well organised. 

Look carefully at what kind of goods and items are on sale at the various fairs you visit. Will your stock be complementary to what is already on offer or stand out like a sore thumb.  Very specialised and expensive goods may not do well at a local fair, where most customers do not expect to spend too much. If you sell something along those lines, a specialist fair will be a better option (there fairs for postcards, cameras, stamps, fine art, coins, medals and militaria, to name a few examples).  A few organisers will limit the number of sellers of items such as jewellery or cupcakes, to ensure there is sufficient variety of goods on offer.  You may have to wait for someone to drop out, if this is the case. Wherever you go and whatever you sell, it will be a case of "suck it and see" as trading in antiques and vintage is not an exact science.  Maximise your chances of a good day, with varied, fairly priced and interesting stock.

Do have a proper conversation with the organiser,after your recce, if the fair looks promising.  You might be able to catch them at the event, but if they are busy or distracted it is better to speak to them at a quieter time.  As well as checking availability - good fairs often have a waiting list and some have a selection policy - and the cost of a stall, find out how the fair is promoted and how many people usually attend.  If the public pay an entry fee, the organiser should have a very good idea of numbers; free entry events may not be so well monitored or recorded.

Some of the best vintage fairs in my home county of Sussex are organised by Love Lane Vintage.  The two organisers distribute 1,000s of fliers, advertise in local press, put out huge banners around the venue in advance, get all stallholders to promote the event to their clients and contacts and use Facebook and Twitter to get people talking about the day.  This takes a lot of time and effort, but is reaps benefits for the organisers and stallholders, as the footfall is consistently high.  By contrast, another organiser of a recent village hall fair only managed to print some fliers for local shops and cafes; they decided against advertising in the local press and very poor signage around the hall on the day meant there was little by way of passing trade.  Disappointing for the organiser and stallholders who had travelled some way to attend.

Once you have signed up for your first fair, you can start preparing your stock. Expect to pay around £20-40 for a stall at a one-day local fair - which is not too great a financial risk.  Stalls/stands cost a lot more than this at the major fairs eg Newark or Ardingly Antiques Fairs or a "by invitation to trade" country house fairs such as the Decorative Living Fair at Eridge in Kent.  Little fairs such as school or village fetes can be cheaper, but in my experience are never that great for selling antiques and vintage items.  The more expensive the fair, the more the organiser should be advertising and marketing the event to generate the footfall.  Some more exclusive fairs may not publicly advertise, but will have private databases and client lists of high profile and affluent buyers.

I would urge you to have a practice run at home, setting up your stock as if at the fair.   Most tables provided are a standard 6 foot by 2.5 foot trestle or you may just be allocated a space and no table.   Set your table with a clean and generously sized cloth, cotton bed sheet or even a curtain.  I sometimes use a piece of hessian for fairs where I sell garden-related items for a nice rustic look.  Some traders use old fashioned wooden trestle tables of their own; often painted in the shabby chic/distressed style.  

To create visual impact, your stall should have one or two "crowd-pullers" -  unusual eye-catching items that create a talking point.  Also, if you can vary the height of items on your stall by using props such as wooden crates, tray tables, little cupboards and small shelves your display have more impact.  Very busy, colourful and cluttered stalls can be exciting, hinting at hidden treasure.  Beautifully displayed and styled stalls will always be admired and sometimes having a few distinctive items can work well.  There are no hard and fast rules here. Find the style of display that suits you and will make your stall unique, rather than copying everyone else.

There are hundreds of interesting ways to display things, these are a few ideas to consider or adapt:
  • use a vintage mannequin or dressmaker's model to display jewellery - hang necklaces and pin on brooches for a flamboyant effect;
  • use an old fashioned fairy cake baking tin to display buttons and earrings in each section;
  • keep old jam jars (those with checked lids look particularly nice) to store and show off bits and pieces - great for old haberdashery products;
  • find a pretty glass fronted cupboard, to sit on your table as tea sets, glass and ornaments look great displayed on shelves; you can paint the cupboard if you want it to look more vintage-y;
  • beg some wooden wine boxes from your local wine merchant and use these as display shelves - and also for transporting stock  - they can be used in a variety of ways stacked, standing on their side or upside down; paint them to match your cloth or keep them natural, for a more earthy look;
  • use an old mirror to display small items such as silver, jewellery and glass on - the reflected light and shine really brightens up a stall and draws the eye;
  • use a child's chair or table to display toys or lay out vintage games; 
  • drape battery operated fairy lights around your table in amongst your stock to brighten things up; a vase of garden flowers or a potted plant such narcissi, geranium or lavender look lovely at a spring or summer fair; in the autumn, golden leaves, conkers and acorns are free and attractive as decorations; Christmas fairs give you carte blanche to go for it, decor wise. 
  • some traders stick to a colour scheme for their stock - one trader I know sells only grey, cream, pink and white items, with the occasional blue and white piece as contrast, which looks amazing. I have also seen red and white, which is very eye-catching, on another stall.  This does involve a bit more effort and time, so perhaps an idea to develop as you progress.
If you "rehearse" your stall you will be able to work out how much stock to take with you, with a bit in hand to fill gaps. If you can use the floor space in front of the stall for small furniture you can flank the table to maximise your selling space - double check this first with the organiser if you don't know this is allowed.  Anything fragile or valuable is best kept in a locked cabinet or on a high shelf so that you can keep safe - sadly, items do get pinched at fairs, even low value things.  Once you are happy with your layout, take some photos for your records and if you are using Facebook, post them on your page as a bit of pre-publicity.  

You now need to price and pack your stock.  Sticky labels or tie on tags are available from most stationers or from Ebay - or you can even make your own, if you have the energy.  Having your stock priced and labelled in advance means you won't make the mistake of asking a low price on a good piece in the first rush of unpacking and trading.  When you get more experienced, you may decide not to price everything - many antiques dealers don't, as this allows them a bit of flexibility at trade markets.  However, having clear price labels helps you and the customer. Not all customers will ask for a price, as they don't want to be embarrassed if an item is out of their price range and it appears they can't afford it!  I will cover how to work out the price of your stock in another chapter in more detail.

Wrap your stock up carefully - nothing is more annoying than getting to a fair and finding things chipped, cracked and unsaleable. This eats straight into your profits.  Bubble wrap is best for breakables - you can buy it, or often find it given away on Freecycle and other recycling websites.  Clean sheets of tissue paper are great for wrapping textiles (acid-free is best for anything very old and fragile) and glass. Newspaper is horrible - it makes the stock and your hands filthy, so only use as a last resort.  Books should be stored carefully to avoid damp and damage to spines or pages.  Suitcases or those huge plastic laundry bags sold in discount stores are great for textiles, clothes and cushions.  If you don't want to spend a lot of money, supermarkets give away cardboard fruit boxes with are great for packing and stacking.  Don't overload your boxes and try to keep the contents level, so that you can stack in your vehicle.  If you want to spend out, then plastic crates with lids are great.  I also scrounge the plastic crates used to deliver online shopping - these are sturdy and have handles.  Remember, for the sake of whoever is doing the lifting and carrying, make it as easy as possible and don't overload the boxes.

Loading up the car is the next job.  As most fairs start early, I try to load the day before to avoid a frantic morning rush.  There is an art to packing a car which you will soon perfect.  Stack any level boxes and flat, heavy items first - make sure that the fragile stuff is on the top!  Odd shaped baskets, bags and loose items can be packed around and on top of the base layer. Do wrap loose things in blankets or sheets to avoid other items being scratched or damaged in transit.  Keep your tablecloths, price labels and any documents you need on arrival in a separate bag or basket on your front seat for ease of access.  If you are at an outdoor event and taking your own tables, gazebo or covers, make sure you can get to these first.  Roof racks are ideal for this purpose. Be conscious of safety and avoid the risk of items falling on you if you have to brake sharply.  Really heavy things should be secured or tied, preferably under other items.  Your car will be heavier than usual, so check and adjust the tyre pressures.  Also, I cover my stock with blankets and park securely - if you are only able to park on the road, it might be advisable to load just before you go.

Another obvious point is to work out your route to the fair and the likely traffic conditions.  If it is local, you will probably know the route and time it will take you.  If you going further afield, do have directions on hand.  I don't use satnav as this is often unreliable in the countryside, but you may find it fine .  AA route planner works well for me, with its detailed list of directions.  I always allow loads of time to go to a new destination. If you are stressed, having a rushed journey will not helpl.  If you arrive too early, then you can always have a cup of tea, read the paper or have a rest!  Also, you can park as close as possible and check out your stall location without being in a rush.  Sometimes, organisers don't allocate stalls and you get to pick  - but normally stalls are allocated in advance.

Unloading and unpacking is a very hectic time for everyone.  If you can buy or borrow a trolley to cart stuff in, then it does save time and effort . Or find a willing helper to assist you  - I have been known to rope in loitering teenagers to carry stuff in on the promise of a decent tip!  If you get hot and bothered easily, you might want to arrive and set up in some comfy old clothes.  I always take a clean top/outfit, a handtowel and some toiletries with me, to freshen up before the public arrive.  Being a lady of a certain age, I always get too hot and having a wash and brush-up helps me to look halfway normal!  Some traders even dress in vintage style fashion, which can look fabulous and sets a great tone for their stall.

I also highly recommend taking a picnic with you - buying food and drink all day can be expensive and eats into your profits.  Also, leaving your stall to queue for food can mean you miss potential customers.  You can always treat yourself to a cake in the afternoon, if you are having a good day! You will need an energy boost after your early start and unloading, so having some snacks and a hot drink/bottle of water available really helps.

One thing that will make your day go smoothly is to befriend your neighbouring stallholders. Everyone finds it stressful getting ready, but a bit of give and take between neighbours does help.  If you are on your own, a friendly neighbour will keep an eye on your stall if you need to go for a tea break or a wee break! And you can learn a lot from chatting to other stallholders - details of other fairs, where to buy nice stock and so on.

Whilst you unpack, many organisers will allow dealers in early to get the first pickings from the stock on offer.  Some people really don't like this, but dealers are good customers with money to spend.  Most will pay in cash and are decisive about what they want to buy.  If you have attractive pieces, they will buy from you on a regular basis or even ask you to look out for items on their behalf.  Be prepared to haggle on price with them, but don't let your star pieces go too cheap!  At many fairs, you will find the best sales come first thing in the day with the trade buyers.  Some fairs do not allow early entry and in that case, you will be able to unpack with no distractions.

Once you are set up, and with a few minutes to spare, then make sure you have a chair to sit down on when things go quiet; change into your clean top/outfit if you have one; get out your cash float and put it in a safe place ie in a shoulder or bum bag or a cash tin hidden away.  Make sure you have packing and bags on hand for wrapping up purchases.  Keep a pen and notebook available to record your sales.  The customers are in the hall and the race is on!

Just before I close, just a few words on the thorny question of what makes an item antique, vintage or even retro!

Antiques used to formally be defined as things aged 100 years and over; these days there is a bit more flex in the definition. Items from the Art Deco era of decent quality would probably be described as antique but are not yet 100 years old. Antique would usually refer to something of a reasonable quality to something rare, precious or unique with some age to it.  Pricewise an antique could be 50p - say for a Victorian button, to sums in the thousands or millions for a rare Chinese ceramic or an Old Master painting.  Antique prices fluctuate, just like property, and there are fashions and trends in antiques.  Years ago, copper and brass items were hugely popular; now you are hard pressed to sell these even for a few pounds, unless the piece is very rare and unusual.  These days, people don't want to spend time cleaning and polishing stuff.

Vintage items usually date from between the 1940s-1980s and are often goods that would have had a modest price tag when produced.  For example, the famous and much-collected black and white Homemaker china, which originally sold in Woolworths in the 1950s.  Vintage describes just about anything that is pre-owned or loved, that people want to collect.  Popular vintage items include painted furniture, enamelware, prettily decorated tea sets and dinner services, old toys, mass manufactured or homemade fashion clothing and accessories (not usually haute couture), old kitchen utensils, furnishing textiles, colourful theatre, cinema and travel posters and advertising memorabilia. There is also a growing interest in twentieth century technology such as manual sewing machines, typewriters, old calculators, phones and even computers. And of course, vintage cars, motorbikes and other forms of transport are enduringly popular and often very expensive!   Vintage celebrates the ordinary objects that would have been enjoyed and used by our parents and grand-parents. Because the majority of these items were not particularly rare or expensive, they were also easily disposed of - hence hearing so often "my granny had one of those but chucked it away"!

Retro is another category covered at some specialist markets mainly in cities such as London, Brighton and Manchester,  for the dedicated followers of this style.  The focus is on great design, beautiful materials and cutting edge style from the 50s-80s.  Retro encapsulates the most innovative and forward looking designers and manufacturers of the time.  Specific brands, such as Ercol, G-Plan, Midwinter, Hornsea or designers such as Terence Conran, Lucienne Day and Jessie Tait are highly sought after.  Scandinavian style from the Mid (twentieth) Century is also popular, particularly furniture, glass and ceramics.

Do be aware of the masses of "vintage style" products on the High Street and sold at online auction sites. Many fairs and markets allow traders to sell these vintage-style goods which can be bought from wholesalers and warehouses. Of course, there are some well-known brands that produce some gorgeous vintage style pieces and revive forgotten patterns and designs with a modern twist. Selling reproduction items knowingly as antiques is tantamount to fraud.  Sometimes a vintage-style product is more practical than a fragile or rare original; others are just cheap imitations and look shabby, without the chic!  If you are going to sell these new items, please be honest about what they are - if they have the "look" then some people are happy if the price is right.  Others prefer to buy genuinely old stuff.

Next time, I will talk about the selling process and the kinds of customers you might encounter.  

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