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15 things I learned from my first art markets / craft fair — it's Christmas market season!

Doing Christmas markets is officially my new favourite thing to do during Advent as an illustrator. The people, the mood, the opportunity to set up a mini boutique with my illustration work (aka market booth) — I honestly find it all to be the most fun I have had in years!

There is not much you need to start exhibiting at a market, but if you like the first taste of it like I did, there are many things to learn and "improve" on in order to make it more fun, and hopefully also to make more sales.

Now that I have done four markets in total, I thought I'd make a list to share with you. A list of things I noticed about my own market setup, preparations and overall experience at the markets themselves. It is partly written as advice for whoever is reading, and partly as my own reflections. There is no particular order, but related topics are mainly grouped together. Let's get started!

Craft show table of artist Oda Lilleaasen, with art prints in different sizes and a letter board.
My non-perfect, but improved table at Blank Page Oslo's Christmas market in 2022.

1. Start preparations early

It seems obvious, I know, but it can be difficult to get started early enough. All my four markets so far have been impacted by illustration jobs that took more time or energy than expected, and them I got a late start to preparing for the market. Especially having my prints ready and packed was the biggest challenge for me, as I had ordered them at the last minute and did not have the time to pack them up beforehand. That threw off my whole table design, which meant I had to improvise and make do with a much less functional setup. Now I know that I want to do more markets in the future, so I am continuing to get market-ready whenever I have the time instead of waiting until a few weeks before an event.

2. Find new and old friends

Before the market opens, make sure you go around the room and say hello to your fellow exhibitors. After opening, it can be hard to get away from your table, and the others may be busy. Having friends who are also doing markets is the best! I have gotten a couple new friendships and a few new acquaintances from these events, but I really wish that I had gone and talked to everyone and looked at their work.

3. Plan your setup

Have a clear plan for your setup, as it makes the whole process easier and less time-consuming. It also lets you know beforehand how the customer experience will be. Test it at home a few days before. And a hot tip: plan your packing-down routine too, as you would often have less time for that.

Sketch of a craft show stand.
Sketch for my craft show table.

4. Research different retail design

Knowing about retail design is a major win when setting up at a craft fair. Using a well thought-out design with a bit of layout/composition work will help you guide the eyes of your customers. You already about composition in image-making, and you can use the same theory for your craft fair design.

5. Have a solid table design

This means two things: You want your setup to be aesthetically pleasing and functional, and you want it to be sturdy enough. It needs to be solid/sturdy in the sense that you are not worrying about something being damaged or blowing away, and importantly so that your customers will not get spooked away from picking up your products to have a look. (Holding an item in your hands makes you more likely to buy it). I myself saw that a lot of people would pick up one card from this rack I was using for cards, and then they would knock over some of the other cards and quickly put them up nicely again too. And then they would sometimes walk away because they were scared of knocking over more things on my table, or the knocking-over had distracted them from actually looking at the cards. A solution for this is to have a solid container for each card design instead. I invested in a magazine basket that has room to display my six different card designs, and saw a big improvement in how people interacted with my cards.

6. Chatting with your customers

A human connection means the most, and this may be my favourite part of the whole event (aside from designing my art and setup). I simply love meeting people, and it is strange but nice to see everyone interact with my art in real life. Saying hi and waiting a bit before saying anything more, gives them a while to browse at their own pace. If they come back to looking at the same item several times, I often mention in a quick comment some relevant information about the item, which is most often followed by questions from the customer. Then I tend to just talk with my true enthusiasm about the piece in question, or we find something to bond over, and those conversations make the whole market experience so worth it!

7. Packing for travel

I live in a country with excellent public transport, which means that I don't have my own car, and I can still get around doing markets if I pack most things in a big suitcase. However, that puts some limitations on what I can bring along. To create my dream setup, I will have to borrow a car or get help from a friend to travel with me, as I want my display to include several wooden crates and some shelves that I simply cannot bring along on the bus or train as just one person. So I realized that I had to plan a separate table setup that is simple enough for me to travel with in just one suitcase.

8. Bring your own lighting

You won't buy a thing you can't see, and good lighting is basically everything when it comes to retail design. You don't know how the light will be in your corner of the room, so bringing a lamp or some decorative string lights can be a real saver. Bonus if it is powered by batteries, as power sockets are not guaranteed.

9. Framing

Have recommendations for framing ready. I have several times been asked about where to get a frame, either pre-made at a low cost, or if I know of a professional framing shop locally. In the future, I will also make my own framing guide to post on this blog, so that I can refer to that post on my website when asked. I also make sure to inform my customers about the prints being in standard formats, meaning that finding a frame in the right size should be easy.

Having some pieces on display in picture frames is also a good thing, as many will love to buy an already framed piece, and for the rest it can help to visualize the art in their own home. I will be investing in some frames for future markets.

10. Stay comfortable

I was very happy for bringing a pillow for my chair on my third and fourth market, as those foldable plastic chairs are cold and uncomfortable. Bringing enough/the right clothing is also essential to having a good day.

Also remember to see to your basic needs. Take those breaks, eat that lunch, and remember to stay hydrated.

11. Have a carrier bag to offer

Have something for customers to carry their new art in. This can also make or break a sale, as few people buy things that they cannot bring safely home. It also gives a more professional feeling to the transaction. These last two markets I had simple white plastic bags, and I have now planned to make my own paper bags, as the plastic ones kind of break the spell of the rest of the shopping experience. Packaging matters.

12. Good item packaging lifts the impression

I found it very helpful to package my prints with cardboard and cellophane in advance, an improvement from my first two markets where I only had my posters laying flat on the table due to my not starting preparations early enough. For my first three markets, I used a portfolio dossier to showcase my larger prints, and while it does work, and those who leafed through it got to see my art, it felt a bit too flimsy for me. So now I prefer to package them flat on cardboard, ready to be browsed through in a crate, and ready to be taken home by a happy customer.

13. Proper signage and price display

I recently invested in a letter board, and I'm so happy about it! For my very first market on the other hand, I didn't even have my prices decided before standing there, and just had to scribble down something on a piece of scrap paper. Now I have this pretty and very practical sign where I can change the prices during the day if I need to, without having to leave to print out anything new or write it out Next time I will also have prices on each item, as I believe ruling out uncertainty about pricing helps to secure sales with those who might not dare to ask.

I have always had my business cards to let people know who I am and how they can reach me, but having one or more bigger signs giving that information is also very helpful.

14. Bring a camera

I regret not taking the time to take more photos and video og the events. I had my phone, but that camera quality is not anything to write home about. So I really want to do that for future markets — bring a camera and remember to use it.

Another point to remember is to ask some friends / other exhibitors to take your photograph while you are working at your art stand. These pictures will be useful to promote your future markets and pop-up shows!

15. Make your art visible

Bring display items like crates and shelves, so that your art can be shown at a more vertical angle and you can use your limited space more efficiently. Show as many pieces as you can, as most people will take a gander at your table but not look through all pieces in a crate or portfolio. When the right person sees the right artwork and falls in love with it, you almost have that sale guaranteed. If they can't see it, they keep walking instead.

So there they are, 15 of my notes from my forst four craft shows. I hope that they can be of help and inspiration for you! Please do share this post on Pinterest or send it to a friend who might like to read it.

— Oda


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