Saturday, 2 February 2013

Bigger and steps

Once you start selling at fairs and markets in your local area, it is quite natural to think about where you can go next with your business.  There is no pressure to expand, if what you are doing suits your lifestyle.  That's the benefit of working for yourself - no targets to meet and no managers breathing down your neck.  Over the years, I have found I have peaks and troughs in my activity levels - sometimes, it suits me to do very little; other times, I am fired up and out and about at lots of events. 

So, what are the next steps you can take, the pros and cons and the costs involved.

Firstly, and very simply, you could just increase the number of local fairs that you do.  Your early research will have given you some ideas about the best local fairs and markets.  Perhaps you are doing one monthly event and could manage another, without it being a massive workload.  Ideally, try out a fair with a different audience to your regular spot.  Otherwise, you are not widening your potential customer base and will be showing the same stock, at twice the costs, to the same people.  This might involve going out of your home county, to another big town or signing up for an annual event that attracts a big following.  This shouldn't involve a huge amount of extra work although you will need to buy in more stock.  The benefits of trading at two fairs is that you can rotate the stock between them; what doesn't sell at one might be the item that sells quickest at the other.   And you will expand your customer base and contacts by going to a new fair.  The costs of a stall might be more expensive for a one-off fair and the travel costs higher, but by now you should be making some profit.  Some of this can be invested in buying into a new fair and increasing your stock levels.  Many traders make a good living by trading at local fairs within a small area - this can be a stable and satisfying way of doing business.  Or you can be more ambitious and think about travelling further afield.

If you love the vintage scene, the specialist vintage festival might appeal to you. In recent years, a variety of Vintage Festivals have sprung up, bringing together music, dance, food and stalls selling all kinds of vintage homeware, clothes even bicycles!  These are great events to go to, usually over a weekend in a pleasant setting such as a racecourse or a country house estate.  People often attend impeccably dressed in their vintage gear, looking for all kinds of items to add to their homes and wardrobes.  Some people style their homes entirely in keeping with a period such as the 40s or 50s  even TVs, fridges and cookers.  These festivals can be great places to sell, if you are willing to put in the work required.

One successful organiser is Discover Vintage  - they hold big festivals at York and Sandown racecourses.  The benefits of selling at festivals is that everyone there is committed to the vintage way of life and the footfall can be in the thousands, putting you in front of a massive potential customer base.  Festival goers will be having a good time and in the mood to buy wonderful vintage goods.  There are a few things that could work against selling at these events, though.  Firstly, they are a big investment both in terms of cost, but also of time and preparation. The commitment to be there for a weekend, and sometimes the day before to set up, is much greater than a local one-day fair.  Plus, you will need plenty of stock to ensure you have sufficient available for the whole event.  You may also need to stay on site or close by the event, if it is too far to travel to and from each day. And trading for two days can be pretty gruelling - so try to enlist help, if you can.  As you can see, the costs are beginning to stack up but the returns can be high.  Other organisers of big vintage festivals and fairs include - they run fashion, furniture and kilo sales - the last is ideal for buyers of fashion items if you trade in this.

The other big factor is weather - summer 2012 showed us that we cannot rely on sunshine and dry conditions at outdoor events.  Even if you are in a marquee or have your own gazebo, if the weather is poor, people don't always turn up or stay around and sales will be affected.  However, there is the peculiar British thing of being out in all weathers, which can work in your favour.  Last year I did a particularly wet fair in July - our gazebo was crammed all day with people sheltering from the rain and spending their money.  The mud was on knee high but somehow we all had a great day!  Very much a case of keeping calm and carrying on.

If you are at a large event, the design and layout of the site will have an impact on footfall.  Make sure that your stall or site will be located near to other attractions or where plenty of people will pass by.  Not much good to be tucked away at the bottom end of a field, if nothing else is there to draw people over.    With other events and attractions laid on, the stalls are in competition to grab attention.  Also, you will be in competition with many other stalls, so you will need to think about how to make your's stand out.  Having a stall at a festival can be a lot of fun and financially rewarding, but be prepared to work hard for your dollars!

If festivals aren't your bag, you might be tempted to sell at one of the large antiques fairs such as Ardingly, Newark and Swinderby organised by IACF .  If you have visited these to buy, you will know how busy and exciting they are and how varied the stalls can be.  Again, this involves a higher stall cost than you might usually pay for a local fair.  You can keep costs lower by trading outside, rather than in the more expensive indoor spots or tented areas.  Actually, it's great fun outside, but do bring a gazebo, waterproofs and suncream!  You will probably plan well in advance to take a stall, to give yourself time to acquire plenty of fresh and exciting stock.  This will be on top of the stock you take to your regular markets.  Price and pack as you go, so you don't have a massive task just before the fair.  These fairs can be quite frantic at first - driving around to find your spot, unloading and setting up usually as quickly as you can go.  If you can, take a friend to help, it's advisable to do so - you will need breaks and loo trips and time to look around.  Be well prepared with food, drinks and anything else you need.  These fairs are advertised internationally and attract masses of buyers - the trade days are usually the best for sales.  Only committed buyers will pay the high admission charges and are definitely there to find the bargains.  Many traders I know who do these big fairs do so well on the first day, that they don't always go back on the second day.   But, this does mean missing out on potential sales, unless you have sold out of stock!

If these big scale fairs sound a bit daunting, then there are many really good one-day fairs to try out.  These might be purely antique or vintage fairs, or part of another event such as an agricultural or country show, a homes and gardens show or even a wedding fair.  Depending on what you sell, you might want to explore these avenues for something different.

A great one-day trade fair to sell at is Sunbury Antiques at Kempton racecourse.  Held twice monthly, this fair attracts buyers from all over the world, and is fantastically cosmpolitan and exciting.  You can buy a ticket to sell outside in advance from the organisers - this means you are financially committed whatever the weather.  Tickets sell out quickly so book well ahead for the fair date you want.  Or you can take the more spontaneous approach of being a "casual" - just turning up on the night and queueing to get a spot.  If you do this, find out from the organisers what time to get there to queue.  Many people arrive in the very early hours and sleep in their cars and vans, as the fair opens at 6.30 am.  There are also indoor spaces, but many are occupied by regulars and you may have to wait a while for a space to come up.  Outside is fun - you unload straight from your car onto your table and start selling straight away.  The trade buyers are quick and focussed, so it can feel quite rushed.  The public arrive later, when things are less frantic.  If you have unusual stock or a lot of things to sell, this fair is the place to be.  Give it a go if you can.

In some areas of the country, some more exclusive fairs have sprung up in recent years.  Often stallholders are invited to exhibit by the organiser, rather than just applying and being accepted.  These are often held in private country houses and attract a very affluent group of customers.  As these fairs are curated, rather than open to all-comers,  the quality of stalls and stock tends to be very high.  If this type of event interests you, it is worth visiting a few to see the high standards and gorgeous pieces avaiable.  One such fair is the wonderful Decorative Living fair on the Eridge estate in Kent.  This is held in May and brings together superb purveyors of textiles, painted furniture, gardening antiques, beautiful clothing, French antiques and much more.  It is a feast for the eyes, as every stallholder competes to win the Best Dressed Stall crown.   The organisers may invite you to exhibit, but you can also put yourself forward with photographs of your stock.  Many of these fairs change their stall holders each year to provide variety, so don't be too deflated if you don't get invited.  The work involved in producing a stall for these exclusive fairs is considerable and investment in good stock quite substantial.  You can follow Decorative Living Fair on Facebook; other events of this type include the Avington Brocante, also in May and a wonderful Christmas fair organised by Betty and Violet at Woburn

Having to apply with photos of stock to exhibit at fairs is not uncommon, as organisers want to ensure quality and provide a good range of items to attract customers.  There are some outstanding fairs such as the Country Living Fair and The Wealden Times Midsummer and Midwinter Fairs, that have a strict application and acceptance policy.  Even many one-day fairs are taking this approach, with the vast number of people wanting to sell their wares.

If you have ever been to one of these fairs, it is tempting to think about applying for a stall. To be selected, you have to provide photographs of your stock and convince the organisers that you have something different and special. If you do apply,  it may take a few attempts before you are accepted.  The organisers can afford to be very choosy. The costs of a stall can run into hundreds, so it is a big financial commitment.  Plus the fairs run over three or four days, and a set up day and some even open in the evening.  Your stamina will be tested by the long hours, the pace and pressure of such a large event.  Again, you may have to stay near the fair venue if you cannot travel to and fro each day; plus you may have to hire help to cover some of the sessions.  These types of fair are the ultimate shopping experience - with the right stock and a fantastically styled stand, you could do very well.

If this sounds a bit overwhelming, you may want to investigate the Charity Gift Fair circuit.  These tend to run through spring/summer and then another season in the autumn for Xmas gift shopping.  You will have to apply and may be vetted for most of these fairs.  Many work on the basis of charging a stall fee plus a commission on sales and often a donation of an item to the charity raffle.  These fairs are held in country houses, beautiful barns, hotels and private homes and can attract large numbers.  However, they are usually open to sellers of all kinds of items, so you may be next to a stall selling cheese, wellingtons or children's toys.  Small items, such as jewellery, silver, cutlery, pretty glassware, serving dishes can be popular buys.  They can be a little hit and miss though, as many visitors will not be interested in vintage or antique items.  If this is something you wish to pursue, there is a Charity Fairs Association to help sellers and organisers

In the summer outdoor events often invite traders to take pitches - some are themed such as Garden and Produce shows, Steam Fairs, Agricultural Shows and Car Rallies.  If you have items that will interest people who go to such events, you could find them a very good outlet.  A trader friend of mine exhibits at a Rare Breeds show and over the year collects up all kinds of agriculturally-themed items - these go down a storm at this specialist event.  If you have a particular interest such as gardening or cooking, taking along your vintage gardenalia or kitchenalia to a gardening show or a Food Festival could work really well.  If you trade in a niche area such as dog or horse-related items, then taking a stand at Crufts or Olympia horse show could work well.  But this requires very diligent and exhaustive buying to build up a mountain of stock to take to these busy, national events.

There is a fair or market out there for everyone - you may prefer to be inside at a high-end fair or outside in a gazebo at a big summer show.  Until you try, you won't know what works best for you, but there is an abundant choice.  In my next chapter I will talk about the pros and cons of being in or running a shop.


  1. Hi Julia
    Love reading your blog very informative. Just to let you know that Country House Vintage in the South West have ceased, its a shame as they were such lovely locations and fairs. See you soon

    1. Thank you for the information Jill. I have taken out that reference and replaced it with the website of another organiser who arranges country house fairs. Thanks for your kind words and help.

  2. Yet another great instalment, packed full of invaluable insider tips. Thank you so much for sharing


    1. thank you Moyra...glad you find it useful.