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Cashing In: Simple keys boost outdoor show sales

There’s a science to selling at antique shows, and one of the key elements of that science is practicing smart preparation during show set up. In his latest Behind the Gavel column, Wayne Jordan shares some secrets and valuable truths about shows.

Spring is upon us and soon many dealers will “hit the road” in search of extra sales and profits. Temporary outdoor and indoor flea markets and antique shows — those that set up for a weekend or a week — attract crowds of people looking for entertainment and

San Bernardino Outdoor Show

The hustle and bustle of the San Bernardino Outdoor Market, in San Bernardino, Calif. Held most Sundays. (Photo courtesy RG Canning Attractions)

bargains. The opportunity to promote our wares to crowds of people in a spending mood is too good to pass up for dealers who have been cooped up in their stores during a long winter.

Some dealers come away from shows smiling all the way to the bank. Others wonder why they made the effort, because they didn’t sell much. Why do some dealers do well at shows year after year, while others struggle? We’ve all heard (and used) the excuses: It’s the economy, the crowd, the weather, our inventory, or our location. At one time or another any of these excuses (or all of them together) can be valid reasons for not doing well at a show. But even when a show is “bad,” some dealers sell more than others.

What are the “secrets of success” of the dealers who do consistently well at shows? I’ve interviewed about a dozen of them, and the points below were common threads throughout or conversations. Here’s what they said:

Regarding booth space:
Display at well-known shows. There’s too much work involved to move inventory and set up a booth to take a chance on an unknown show. The cost of space is peanuts compared to the cost of displaying. When approached about a new show by a promoter, attend the show as a visitor before you agree to set up a booth.

Make sure your products are a fit for the show. If you sell high-end antiques, collectibles, or furniture, you don’t want to participate in a show that’s mostly local garage-sale fare. Although you may luck out and find a few customers for your high-end merchandise, most of the attendees at a show like that are garage-salers looking for bargains.

"Use large, readable signs as sales tools. Your signs should answer your customers' most commonly asked questions."

A good booth location within a show can boost sales by as much as 50 percent. If possible, stay on the right-hand side of the grounds (relative to the direction of traffic coming through the main gate). As attendees come through the main gate, most will turn right and travel around the perimeter of the show grounds moving up and down the aisles but always returning to the perimeter. By the time attendees make the loop around the grounds they are tired, spent out, and in a hurry to get home.

The best locations are on the corners where an aisle meets the perimeter because you will have traffic from three directions (front and both sides). In a retail store, such a location is known as an “end cap.” If you can’t get such a space, then the second-best spot to be is on the perimeter. Avoid setting up a booth where you are in the middle of an aisle; you will only have one side to sell from, because the other three sides will be filled with other booths. Better shows will sell these spaces early; often a year in advance. Such spaces will also cost more. But, a bad space at a good show is still a bad space.

If the weather forecast is bad, be prepared. Bring a bale of hay to cover muddy spots on the ground. Make sure your canopy is securely anchored and that you have adequate space under the canopy to hold a crowd when the rain comes down. I heard repeatedly from dealers that when their booth is filled with customers trying to stay dry, sales were made (and some dealers had the foresight to sell inexpensive umbrellas).

Regarding booth setup:
Don’t place nice merchandise on a beat-up table. Use a cloth table cover, preferably

Show set up tips

Vendor set up at the Milton Antique Show in Milton, Delaware. (Photo courtesy the Cape Gazette)

one that covers most of the table legs as well.

More people will walk past your booth than will come inside, so make sure that your merchandise can be seen by passers-by. The best way to do this is to set your display tables along the traffic aisles rather than recessed inside your booth space.

Attendees walking past your booth will glance in your direction to see if you have anything of interest to them. If nothing “grabs” them they will keep walking. If you want your goods to be noticed, don’t lay them flat on a table. Instead, use some sort of shelving or raised display to bring the merchandise roughly to eye level. Always display your best-selling merchandise where it can be seen.

Regarding selling:
All prices should be clearly marked. Use large, readable signs as sales tools. Your signs should answer your customers’ most commonly asked questions. Shows can get busy and booth operators can only juggle “so many” conversations at once. Let your signage do some of the work.

If you spend any time at all with a customer and they don’t buy, they should always leave with your business card containing your web address, email, and phone number. Don’t have a website? Shame on you. Get one.

At least one person should be on their feet selling at all times. Nothing is more off-putting to customers than to walk by a booth where the operators are seated comfortably in their lawn chairs. Yes, I know that it’s tough to stand in a booth for 12 hours a day. So, if you must sit, sit on a tall stool near your displays so you can move when you need to move.

Get more valuable business insights from Wayne Jordan.

Don’t eat meals in your booth. Most people are polite, and no matter how interested they might be in your products they are not going to want to disturb you while you are eating. Take your meals elsewhere.

Along these lines, make sure that you have access to decent food. You’ll need to keep your energy level up and that’s hard to do if all you’re eating during the show are corn dogs and funnel cakes. When the crowd thins out and things get slow, re-arrange your booth. There’s magic in this; try it. The energy you expend moving around your merchandise and displays attracts attention and will bring you customers.

For those of you signed up for a few outdoor shows this season, I wish you luck. To those who have considered selling at outdoor shows, visit as many as you can this year and see how the above suggestions apply to the shows you visit.

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