On selling t-shirts at shows and markets.

It's an interesting concept, this making things for Muddy Ground then trying to sell them at shows. You produce an original design, get it printed then set up a little stand to display your merchandise. It's a very "wearing your heart on your sleeve" way of doing things, and you open up yourself to complete strangers and their opinions. I'm not entirely comfortable with that aspect. I know, I know Dear Reader, MTFU Muddy Ground, but it's hard to open up like that. Go on, give it a try - draw some things onto a bit of paper, get them framed and try and sell them. Then you'll know.

Anyway, I've done a few of these things now - not many, certainly less than 20, perhaps 15 at a guess over the past two years - indeed thinking about it now 12 may be nearer the mark. Bit casual I am. Each time I do one, people ask how many I sold and tut when I give them the answer. Can do better being the sentiment. Quite possibly I could with a change here, a change there or a drop in price during the day. But what I find interesting to watch is when I get other people in to help with the selling, mainly my wife. She's always hyper critical, feeling that I should sell oodles pretty much instantly and retire to the carribean on profits. Others think a change to the display or my chat would make it easy to sell. It's interesting to note that the criticism isn't of me or the product - everybody likes my t-shirts, especially the quality. There's no shortage of helpfull advice, ranging from the way the stand is set up to including other designs [usually 2CV or Morris Minor], or a drop in price. All good stuff but unless you've actually tried selling from stalls completely useless!

I'll go through them.....
  • Generic designed images - so where's the USP and fun in that? And if I did do a bloomin' Morris Minor you can bet your bottom dollar even the person that suggested doing it wouldn't buy.
  • Dropping the price? Just tell them how much you've spent on stock, advertising, tax and stall rental! Invariably they then suggest a price increase - guarantee that one. £15 is way cheap for the quality.
  • Change in location - to where exactly? Kingston, for instance charge £70 per day and I've heard of £200 rentals being common - one stallholder I spoke to is paying £550 for three days at an event in London, another paid £600 for a weekend in Surrey. Sheesh! That's some stock to shift. Indeed the £600 guy only sold twelve items. I'd cry. Overall this guy had lashed out well over £20,000 to set up his t-shirt business and possibly got back less than you'd make selling junk at a car boot sale.

Bottom line being business is just plum plain hard these days. You can't just turn up, stand around and expect to sell. Sure you could be like the face painters and balloon blowers, give up after three hours as you've made £500 clear profit, but they are not scaleable models. You could change the location and do, say, car boot sales. They're cheaper, do not require public liablility insurance, and you don't have to book in advance. But then you're in some horrid car park suffering the fate of being haggled all the time. Tough crowd that.

And I don't think it fair to blame the recession for poor sales; that's just an excuse, and a lame one at that. If your product is good, it'll sell. Perhaps slowly, but it will. People make good money in recessions and come out of it strongly. My take on these things, this selling game, is that you need to have a base of loyal customers who not only come back to make repeat purchases, but who also champion your cause in some small way. You have to engage with people, be they the organisers, punters, stallholders or even the photographer guys walking around. Otherwise, without this loyal brand of followers, each and every event is effectively a new start. You're pitching your camp to strangers who are naturally wary of you. And the only way to achieve this support, these repeat sales, is to get out there, do events, say hello to people, be polite to those that will never buy. You need to be familiar, to become comfortable, a fixture of everyday life, someone to trust. For instance I did the community fair at Reigate. Sales were slow, but from my standpoint I saw quite a few of my t-shirts being worn by attendees. My kids as they ran around were saying hello to friends, their teachers and even strangers wearing my stuff. That's building a base, and that is what I think this is all about. It's also heart warming to see your own brand strolling about. Today I did the Gatton one. Different crowd, same sales, but some really interesting chat, especially with another t-shirt seller [www.twistedbeak.com] - how similar our combined experiences were.

And observations - food sells. Bhajis sell bloomin' well - £3.50 for four? Bit of cauliflower dipped in batter for £1? No profit there..... The burger lady shifted 400 baps in just over two hours at £3 a go. Want a coffee from an aerostream caravan? Well join the queue to spend £2.50 for coffee in a paper cup please. Conversely selling t-shirts is a breeze compared to being a photographer; tough call that one, real tough. Everybody owns a camera these days, everybody is David Bailey. One photography stall next to me took less than £6. Have you seen the price of professional photography kit these days? £6 doesn't go far, I'm not sure you could buy a lens cap for that. Yet the balloon guy could turn that £6 into £100 easily enough, probably more using nothing more than air and a twist. Our photographer friend has probably lashed out £30k to get going, takes £6 on the day, balloon guy invests £20 and gets £500 back easy. You go figure the maths. Wonder how much tax balloon guy pays?

But yes, the bottom line is to make money. If you're not making money, i.e. at least not breaking even, then the whole thing is pretty pointless. If you turn up to a show, sell so little so as not to even cover your stock plus stall fees and a bit of nosh, then firstly never go back to that show, waste of time. Secondly you really need to start to look at the type of event you are attending in general and whether it is suitable at all for your product. I did a few craft fairs last year, and whilst I sold some stuff my t-shirts were not of the type of product associated with those events. In other words no matter what the footfall at the event, my stuff was never going to shift as the demographic was all wrong. Even Gatton was wrong as so many people asked about how to design a t-shirt. It was an "how to make" event so my selling was wrongness. It may simply be the case that you're never going to hit the right audience through selling your stuff yourself; try instead to get it into a shop or two. There's the risk that they may rip you off, or that the product becomes too popular too quickly and blows you away - the shop asks for 20,000 next week; could you do it? Could you imagine it; you try to, but make, or fund, say 15,000 items. "That's not the contract we agreed to, sod off!" Oh dear, what now, I've just spent £45k on stock that I have no idea how to move on. Bugger.

So if you are getting a little dispondent, and feel that you're wasting time punting your stuff around little markets each weekend, well if it's original, you get positive comments and if you do actually sell some stuff, and still enjoy the creative side, don't give up! Keep at it. Make a few friends, give some away to key people, but never appear grumpy or miserable when behind your stand. Believe in your stuff! Good luck - by heck you'll need it, along with a bit of determination and pigheadedness.

And don't forget to smile at everybody, and engage in other stallholders or local traders. By that I mean BUY THEIR STUFF! At some events the only people that buy are other stallholders or those running a small independent business. Tit for tat really; you scratch my back. Example: At these events I buy coffee. One day I had the choice between Costa or a locally owned business. I chose local. He bought a t-shirt. It doesn't always work that way, but most of the time it does. Be polite, engage in chit-chat, spend some money folks.

Of course sometimes the location and the company are worth more than any amount of sales. This is us at Gatton. My kids went feral, spending more time on other stalls than mine, they got photographed for the local paper pulling the Radio Flyer, and who can beat such a setting? Come on, here's Capability Brown at his finest. Wonder if he'd buy a t-shirt if he was around today?