Thursday, June 6, 2013

How to Be A Steampunk Vendor

At some point in a steampunk's development they will probably consider selling the things they make, often because people keep offering them money to make them things.  Some of us take the next step into setting up a table or booth at a convention and trying to make some money from our hobby (or at least make it a self-supporting hobby.)

My first time vending was about a year and a half ago, and though I'm still figuring things out every time I do it, I have been one of the more successful steampunk vendors at every event I've done.  So I thought I'd offer some tips, things that I think any steampunk vendor should consider.

Tips for Being A Successful Steampunk Vendor

1. Have a variety of items. - This is sometimes difficult when you are just starting out and are maybe known for making only one or two things.  You want to put out your best products, those you feel confident about.  That's understandable.  But if you only have one type of product, you are only appealing to one type of buyer.  Steampunk is already sometimes a niche market (depending on if you are at a steampunk specific con or a larger general con), try not to limit your audience further.  I like to think my booth has something that might interest anyone who likes steampunk: male or female, old or young, Victorian or Post-apocalyptic or RenPunk.

Constantly brainstorm ideas for new products.  What items do you not see other people selling?  For example I often wear some skirt hikes that I bought at a Renaissance festival with my steampunk outfit.  But no one was selling them at steampunk events.  And it was something easy to make with leather scraps and a few materials and within my skill set.  I'm constantly looking to the internet for new ideas, not only for products, but for ways to improve my ability to make products.

You can also carry items that might appeal to people who DON'T have any interest in steampunk.  I sell a LOT of both hand fans and buttons to non-steampunk passersby.  So consider anything to increase the percentage of people who stop at your table for a moment.

2. Have a variety of prices. - I absolutely understand that quality craftsmanship results in a product that has a high price tag.  I'm not arguing that you shouldn't ask a fair price for your work.  But I think an effective sales booth should have items that are easily affordable as well as pricier items.  Too often I see vendors with really nice stuff, but there's nothing on their table under, say $85-100.  Not everyone who comes to a con is prepared to make a major financial investment.  After all, they've just spent a lot of money to get in.  It's a lot easier to get someone to pay $10-30 than it is $110-130.

My cheapest item on the table at Comicpalooza was a button for $0.50. (My most expensive is $150.) I also had items for $3, $5, $7, $10, $15, and $20.  Do I even need to say that these were what I sold the most?  You may not think there's much point to making $1 profit on a small item, but that stuff seriously adds up.  Plus, it gets people to spend time at your table, rather than moving past quickly and writing you off as out of their range.  Many people expressed interest in buying something at a later date and took a card, but only bought a small item.  Plus selling a $3 fan every 30 minutes keeps me awake and happy during the slow times, rather than having long periods of making no money at all.

I also believe in keeping the prices for my larger items as low as possible.  I sympathize with people who can't afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a costume piece.  I specifically choose to make and sell things that I can afford to sell for reasonable prices.  I shop for deals on my materials and use what's available cheaply at the moment rather than whatever I feel like.  I'd rather sell three of something and make less profit on each than only sell one and make a little more on the item.

3. Look Fabulous.  - No, really.  If you are selling steampunk stuff, I think it is IMPERATIVE that you are dressed in steampunk clothing.  Preferably your best steampunk clothing.  And yet I see vendors in shorts and t-shirts all the time.

When it comes down to it, we are selling a steampunk lifestyle.  People see steampunks looking amazing, and they want to look that good.  So they buy something to help with that.  If you don't look amazing, why would they buy your stuff?  Even if you're not selling costumes, or not wearing what you are selling, you are still encouraging the lifestyle by what you wear.

I've heard vendor say they CAN'T wear their outfits and vend because their steampunk stuff is too uncomfortable.  Really?  Cause I load, carry, set-up, and take down my booth in full Victorian dress and corset, and I don't have a problem.  I'm very comfortable in my steampunk clothing, and if given my choice, it's what I'd wear most of the time.  Maybe with fewer layers sometimes.   If you're not comfortable in yours, I'd think about reworking some of it.

Alternatively, there are people who set-up and take-down in street clothes and then change into steampunk gear.  That's fine if you're more comfortable that way.  But don't let laziness keep you from actually changing.

4. Man your booth yourself. - How many times a day do I answer the question, "Did you make this yourself?"  People WANT to buy things from the maker.  They like talking about an item with the person who made it, who knows the most about it.  You will sell more if you answer this question with "Yes" rather than "No."

We all need assistance vending sometimes, because we all have things we need to leave to do, even if its only visiting the restroom.  Some of us lead and attend panels as well as vend, and it's always nice to be able to get away from the table for a while.  So you should have help.  But you shouldn't leave someone in charge who isn't really qualified, who doesn't know your products, who isn't a steampunk, or who has no connection to their production.

The maker should also be reachable by phone if they are away.  There are always questions that come up about custom orders, etc, that only the maker can answer.

5. Have clear signage and prices. - The more information the customer has about your products, without having to ask, the more interested they will be.  I've been told that someone assumed something was more expensive than it was, and signs will prevent them from automatically assuming they can't afford something.

I've found that the larger and bolder the signs, the better.  I had previously assumed small signs were enough, but people still miss them.  Signs also help to organize your items and draw attention to everything you have, rather than have everything jumbled together.

6. ENJOY YOURSELF and engage with people - In my opinion, the quickest way to not sell anything is to have whoever is sitting behind the table look like they don't want to be there.  (This ties into the above point.  If you've forced your teenager to man your table and they are miserable, it will affect your sales.)

The easiest way I know to look like you're having a good time is to actually be having one.  My husband and I have discovered we really ENJOY vending.  Some people loathe it.  If you're one of the latter, you have a problem.  Possibly this is a bad idea for you in the first place.  But if you're just intimidated and unsure of yourself, I think you can learn to be more confident as a vendor and have a better time.

The fun thing about being a vendor is getting to meet people and talk about steampunk all day.  You may have noticed its a topic I like to talk about.  But it's also an easy form of socializing that takes away a lot of the usual anxieties.  You have a script for the interaction. I usually greet people very simply by saying "Hi, how are you doing?"  If they are showing interest in a specific item or group of items, I'll throw out a general comment about the items, like the price(s), or something about their construction.  I try not to be pushy or too smothering, because lots of people will be turned off and chased out if you pay them too much attention.  You want to be friendly and approachable, in case they want help, but not scary and intimidating.

Sometimes vending is boring.  Slow times are the worst, when you're just staring blankly out at people, willing someone to show interest.  I think its ok to have something to keep you busy during these times, so long as its not so engrossing that you can't chat lightly when someone walks up, and put it down at a moment's notice.  Many people choose some form of crafting because it fits the bill.  It also can interest people in what you're doing.  Some people can read and don't mind being constantly interrupted, but I can't.  Just make sure you ARE constantly aware of anyone in your table's vicinity so you don't drive people away by ignoring them.

In short, find a way to make vending fun for you.  This might be calling out to interesting people as they walk by, cracking jokes (not offensive ones, ok?), making friends with your vending neighbors, finding a good craft to do, or just engaging in some good discussion about steampunk.

So I hope that these tips are helpful to some vendors or potential vendors out there.  Vendors are an important part of any steampunk event, and its important that the experience be positive for both the vendor and customer.   Anyone have any other tips or philosophies that they rely on?


  1. I've found that working on crafting one more of the same type item(s) that you are selling is a good way to demonstrate the product. People see that there is time and effort and skill that goes into your craft and that almost always increases both their respect for it and their willingness to pay a decent price for it.

    1. Very true. Since most of my items are machine-sewn, it's not as possible for me as for others. But I DO recommend it if you can.

  2. Hello Violet,
    Thank you for your posting. I am one who is gearing up to do my first SteamPunk show. It is a while off yet and I am doing some testing at a few free street faires. I have been testing various both set up ideas. Any advice, tricks, do's, dont's for booth set up. I have been a lurker with SteamPunk but now I want to stop lurking and participate. Working on my character and outfit.
    Thank You
    Siouxzie AKA Novalyne Bonney

    1. Booth set-up is challenging, since it depends so much on what you're selling. I've tried a lot of different things and it's only my last event where I was totally happy with my set-up.

      It really depends on how much space you're given and what you have to display. My biggest tip would be to use as much vertical space as possible, with the help of wire shelves or other tiered display spaces.

      But mostly it's trial and error. There are also lots of posts out there about craft fair displays, although they usually involve more ornate displays than are possible at most conventions, so don't feel overly pressured by them. But they can give you ideas.