Interdisciplinary. Community. Advocacy. Humor.
Stacey Lee Webber and Joe Leroux in their booth at the 2016 ACC St. Paul show. Great display job that Joe is largely responsible for. They both have a wicked sense of humor and are lot of fun to hang with. (Sorry that the image is a bit dark. My fault. - BM) Photo: B. Martin for crafthaus.
Continued from (10) Layout, Booth Assignment, Handmade-Policy, Booth Set-up and Take-down
Crafthaus: What are the some of the misconceptions people have when it comes to putting up the ACC show in Baltimore?
Melanie Little: One of the things people like to suggest is that we change the show date. What they fail to understand is that I secure dates 10 years out, I've put them on hold, and so do all the other groups and organizations that are holding space in the same facility. That is a firm commitment. You can’t just move the show dates on a whim.
The other misconception is that people think I can make big changes to the layout and to the move-out procedure. People think we could just do anything we want, but there are limitations. We've been discussing the move-out and the layout already and I hope that explains things a bit more. I mean, I get it, the show is over, everybody is tired and people just want to go home. But they have to remember: four days move-in, one night move-out. That’s just how it’s going to be.
Crafthaus: What was the most difficult situation for you to handle at a show and how did you handle it?
Melanie Little: I’ve been doing this for a while now, so there have been a few difficult situations for sure. The most current one was last year, moving the Wholesale/Retail group of artists to a different location within the venue. I spent a lot of time explaining things on email prior to the show. Then on site, I didn't get to see any of the retail show, because I had to spent every moment of every day going around and talking to the artists in that group to try to get them to calm down about the move I had to make. The other thing was that the artists were standing in their booth looking really angry and guess what, as the customer, I'm not going to come into your booth and buy anything if you have an attitude. I had to do spend the whole show walking around calming people down, and reminding them that they are still trying to sell.
And occasionally, I have to deal with disputes between artists. That is something I'm used to, I'll handle that. But last year was the top year in terms of difficulty, having to spend all my time with the one group of artists.
Crafthaus: In contrast to that, what is your favorite story from all the shows you organized?
Melanie Little: My favorite story goes back to 2005, and I think about it to this day. I even have videos that were sent to me about it, and I still sometimes pull them out and watch them.
The council had gone through kind of a black spell back in 2003 and 2004. Artists’ spirits were really low, things weren’t going well. We're at the Baltimore show on a Friday night, it might have been around 6 o'clock in the evening with three more hours to go for the show that night. A long-time artist comes over to me at the ACC booth. Next thing you know, there's another artist that comes over, and then somebody else comes by who is playing a musical instrument and then, I think in the end, there had to be probably sixty artists that were all gathered. We just all began to dance and connect and laugh. We carried on until the show was closed, and we were having a great time. That was a really good bonding moment that needed to happen and it was one of my really fun moments, especially at a time when things were not going well.
Crafthaus: What your story tells me is that there are people in the field who understand that this is not an "us versus them" situation. We all want the same thing, namely, we want this to work for as many people as possible. We want this to be successful for the artists and we also want this to be successful for the show organizers, because if this is not successful for you, you can't continue to do it. So, we're all in this together. I like that story.
Melanie Little: That's true. I think if you asked most artists I’ve worked with they’ll tell you that I shoot straight from the hip. I'm really honest with them and I always tell artists to just contact me with anything they have questions with. I'm open. I'm there. I try to get around on-site to see and greet everybody, but at the Baltimore show in particular that’s really hard to do because there's so much going on behind the scenes, I am being pulled in a million directions. It is hard for me to greet six hundred and seventy people, and I know some artists are upset about that. I just have to apologize. It's a large show. But I always say that people can pick up the phone and call me, or send me an email. They should not be afraid to reach out and ask me anything. You can't keep saying it enough, but we are all in it together.
Gloria McRoberts, fiber artist, in her booth at the 2016 ACC St. Paul Show. Gloria won an ACC Award for Excellence in St. Paul for her work.
Crafthaus: If you were able to give three suggestions to participating artist that would enable them to have a better craft show experience, what would those be?
Melanie Little: My first would be to ask artists to create something new, every year. Some artists are just bringing the same work. Always look to create new work.
Crafthaus: That's a good one. Two more?
Melanie Little: Two more...They need to reach out in advance to their local customers and they should be thinking about the booth they are creating. Really think it through. Stand on the other side of the counter and look in as if you were the customer. Make that booth inviting. Make it so that people will walk out of the isle and step into your space. I think that's really huge. Lastly, think about your presence in the booth. Don't be sitting there in the back corner reading a book or a newspaper. That's not inviting to me.
Melanie chatting with past exhibiting artists on her walk through of the 2016 ACC Show in St. Paul. Photo: B. Martin for crafthaus.
Crafthaus: Those are great suggestions. Now, how about three suggestions for a visitor. What suggestions do you have for a visitor, be that a first timer or repeat guest?
Melanie Little: Well, this is something I always do when I go to the show: walk in and go left, not right. When the majority of the crowd wants to go right, you should go to the left. Also, go to our website before coming to the show and research artists by media, look at who you absolutely don’t want to miss seeing. And allow yourself more than one day to visit.
Crafthaus: Here are a few questions people on crafthaus wanted me to ask you: In your opinion, has the wholesale segment and the craft market overall changed or shifted because of the internet?
Melanie Little: Yes, to both. However, we at the ACC will continue to do wholesale shows for the foreseeable future.
Rita Vali and Steph Duce's booth at the 2016 ACC St. Paul show. Photo: B. Martin for crafthaus.
Crafthaus: When it comes to better booth display, what is your opinion of having a Tim Gunn-style critique at your booth, would that be helpful? When would be the best timing for such an event, and how should this service be offered?
Melanie Little: I think it would be helpful, but it would have to happen away from the public eye in order to be effective. It could probably happen on the setup day and people could pre-register for that kind of help during their registration process. We are currently thinking of offering webinars about better booth design that our artists could watch in preparation for the show, but we could also bring someone in, or do both. I’ll look into it.
Crafthaus: What do you think about having music in the background at the show?
Melanie Little: That’s difficult. I understand some people like some kind of noise in the background, but musical tastes differ greatly and the chances are too high this would go wrong.
Crafthaus: Will you increase the number of Hip Pop booths?
Melanie Little: Maybe, but only slightly. I am more interested in keeping them the way they are with a diverse group of artists in them.
Karen Morris's booth at the 2016 ACC St. Paul show. (This booth made me wish I could wear hats, but unfortunately, I can't. I'd look like a dork. No Ascot horse races for me.) Photo: B. Martin for crafthaus.
Crafthaus: When it comes to bringing in more buyers to the show, someone remarked that another group is hosting buyer groups and pays for their hotel fees. Is this something the ACC could do?
Melanie Little: We are a non-profit organization, unfortunately, we cannot do this.
Crafthaus: An artist asked if the ACC could provide food to boost artist morale? Or would it be possible to give artists food and snack tickets they could use or pass on to their customers?
Melanie Little: I can talk to catering, see what we can do here.
Melanie Little jokes with jeweler Tim Turner and a friend at the 2016 ACC Show in St. Paul. These two are too funny for words. Photo: B. Martin for crafthaus.
Crafthaus: Alright, last question. Let’s say you had a trainee for your position. Somebody who should at some point step into your shoes whenever you retire which, hopefully, won’t be for a long time. If you were looking to hire someone to help you with your job, what traits and abilities are you looking for in that person?
Melanie Little: I think the person would have to be very, very even tempered and able to immediately handle a variety of situations that come up. That person should have a very good knowledge of budgeting, because especially for this show, that's huge. Honestly, I think a pleasant personality is always important in any job, being able to handle pressure and be diplomatic.
Crafthaus: How about having a sense of humor and being good with people?
Melanie Little: Oh yeah, I think a sense of humor is very important.
Crafthaus: It helps in all kinds of situations, doesn't it.
Melanie Little: It really does.
This segment concludes the series "Crafthaus goes to ... ACC Baltimore." However, if there are still any questions you'd like to ask either of Laura Jaklitsch or Melanie Little, please feel free to post them in the comments, or message me privately and I will get you some answers.
I hope you enjoyed this series and found it interesting, fun and useful information. The next 2 crafthaus' series are already in the works and will be posted shortly. Something to look forward to!
Crafthaus Founder & Editor
crafthauseditor at live dot com
This series has been interesting to read. Thanks Brigitte for putting this together.
Love that you picked up and asked this question. "When it comes to better booth display, what is your opinion of having a Tim Gunn-style critique at your booth, would that be helpful? When would be the best timing for such an event, and how should this service be offered?"
I have seen plenty of booths that could do with a little on the spot editing...moving items around...turn down your music.. get rid of that clutter...ideas that could be implemented on the spot. Then the Tim Gunn person could give some ideas for next time. Tim Gunn always says "make it work," but why let the person go through 3-4 more days with a bad booth.
This was a fabulous article.
I'd like to point out that though the "craft" shows are not doing well, general retailing is not doing well either. Macy's to Nordstrom's as two examples are all talking about fewer sales in clothing, and hand bags...two of their merchandise categories. NBR (Nightly Business Report) just had an segment on this topic, retail is down. http://nbr.com/2016/05/10/transcript-nightly-business-report-may-11...
Excerpts below: The point of mentioning is that we have to up our game in some super smart way.
Shares of Gap posted disappointing earnings...The company issued a
profit warning as well. Gap (NYSE:GPS) has been hurt by weak demand at its
Banana Republic and Old Navy stores.
"...department stores have seen better days. Traffic is down,
so is revenue, and growth.... "
" It`s not as if the last several quarters have been great for previous standouts like Macy`s
(NYSE:M) and Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN). But many retail watchers suspect
something further has been happening recently. It doesn`t bode well for
department stores` results this week.
"...department stores have spent more than $4.5
billion in the last several years investing in their own online shopping
initiatives but the return on that investment is uncertain, if not
unfavorable so far."
" Knowing the parent of stronghold Victoria`s Secret and Bath & Body Works is
faltering adds to mounting concern ahead of Macy`s ... "
"This in response to a report last week suggesting the retailer was
instituting wide cost cuts which caused shares to tumble. Macy`s (NYSE:M),
once a favorite retail pick for investors, is the first of the department
to report and it`s not expected to be good."
I'd add that about two weeks ago Nordstrom's was cutting jobs.
If major retailer's can't understand how to sell to the consumer....with all their professional experience...the craft's retailing need to think outside the bell curve of average, and way to much merchandise at the craft shows is "average." And most of the retailing display doesn't even compare to the sophisticated display at most retailing malls.
We can't stand on "handmade" any longer because that prop was stolen by other brands (like cars, and craft beer) that do it so much better than the folks that really are making it by hand.
Sorry to be so frank. I am a big advocate for "Craft", but look for fear that we are becoming an experience economy because that is the only thing that sells.
Thank's Harriett, I am not sure of the answer, and I could write pages on my opinions about why it is this way, I am not sure anyone who makes their craft by hand ever did really well financially on the endeavor. I think if people are told over and over that orange dodo deep fried on a stick is delicious, they will come to think so too, and demand it.
How to create that demand without money is a problem, and whether the public knows it or not, artists touch every part of their lives to make it a bit more pleasant.
The stagnation, and now attrition of the craft market has been progressing for many years now. It is merely a symptom of larger economic issues, albeit the one that hits us the most deeply and personally. We are part of a larger economic ecosystem that is playing our around us. The notion that we can design our way out of the financial situation we all find ourselves in with better booth design is a distraction. Before this, the idea was that if only we could "educate" the buyers about how passionate we all are, surely they would spend the extra money to buy our wares.
Of course, this approach has been exemplary of the adage that "when all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail". The contraction in the larger commercial retail sector, who employ the best professional display designers in the world, has not been averted.
The problem is complex and has many facets: we all sell luxury goods priced for the most part at a middle-class audience. Our livelihoods are dependent on discretionary spending. While the desire to buy our wares is still there, the purchasing power to do so has evaporated. Our typical buyers have to make more careful choices in what they buy. In many cases, they don't have a choice at all.
Because the desire is still there, buyers will seek alternative products and outlets that better align with their financial circumstances. This is the intersection where things like international trade agreements start to impact you, the maker, directly.
Another key point working against makers is a business environment which includes insurance, tax and zoning regulations that heavily penalize artisans.
The point here is that more craft shows, better booth design, or educating the public will not affect anything because none of it addresses the cause. I know many of you are thinking "we're just artists, what can WE do?". For starters - organize. There's a reason "united we stand" is printed on our money. Makers have already taken this important first step to organizing. Every field, including metals, ceramics, glass, fabric, even "craft" in general, has an existing organization. But not a single one of those organizations has the mandate to do anything other than providing you with a few shows and a conference that focuses on aesthetics.
For our part, as makers, we need to change the mandate of the organizations that serve our field. Shows were good when times were good. Times have changed. We need to change with them.
I don't really think the economy is a factor, though it is the excuse always used. I still see people lined up out the door on almost any given evening at a sit down chain restaurant. Craft beer is everywhere, and it must sell, or the restaurants would not invest in the expensive equipment or training. What someone spends on eating out, they could spend on a piece of art that will last them a lifetime. Naturally I am talking about the average price point of most artists at a fair, at least the ones I am familiar with.
Somewhere along the line, people became afraid to buy art, or anything they hadn't been told over and over again was OK. Before craft pizza, craft beer or craft coffee became something an entrepreneur wasn't afraid to invest in, the public had to be assured it was OK, and not a waste of time, even though the product was quite common someplace else.
Even though there was plenty of advertising in the 70's and 80's, I don't think it was as pervasive as it is now, and considered the only way to get information of what to buy.
I think 'poor economy' was reason enough to explain falling sales a decade ago (back when I was a young gal breaking my first saw blade), but I don't think that can explain it anymore. We are definitely in an economic upturn. I'm not an economist by any means and don't make a living off of my work, so feel free to contradict me (just offering my perspective), but it seems like a product of shifting shopping trends. "Nobody" (as the kids would say) goes to department stores anymore - they shop online. And while people may still shop at department stores online, online presence has been edged out by companies that were "born online" and feed on social media and the advantages of online sales. They aren't trying to bring brick and mortar to the already antiquated interwebs, they are starting fresh with an eye on Facebook and Instagram and BuzzTweetSnapWhatever. Stores like Zulily, HauteLook, Fab.com, Joss & Main, etc. have stormed the marketplace with the concept of "flash sales" and can reach people on the screen they spend the most time with. Hell, cable television is considered ancient these days because of Netflix and Hulu. So while I, personally, would much prefer to spend a weekend cruising an ACC show (aka Heaven on Earth), perhaps there's an online revolution that needs to take place to reach that other audience and help artists support themselves (in addition to traditional shows, or perhaps in conjunction with). That *was* Etsy - revolutionizing the buying and selling of handmade objects - but their poor choice to open the floodgates on manufacturing has destroyed the integrity of the site, for buyers and sellers. So, dunno. Wish they hadn't done that because they really do have the name recognition that's hard to achieve.
As Dickens so aptly wrote, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."
We do ourselves a disservice oversimplifying our condition as a result of "the economy". Obviously, there is a segment of our society that is doing very well, thank you. More to the point, how are YOU doing?
The answer to that question is connected to specific aspects of economic trends and policy - International, National, State and Local -that impact your ability to earn a living as a maker or artisan of any kind. The answer is not going to be simple because the problem is not simple. Moreover, once the problem sets have been identified, we as a group have to muster the will to take action to attempt a solution. If you are waiting for your Congressman, Mayor or Supervisor to do this for you, plan to be waiting a very very long time.
So, what ARE some of the problems that contribute to our inability to sell enough goods to support ourselves?
1. Not many people want what we sell. Yeah, you are passionate, and its HANDMADE! No one cares. People in the US spend more money on imported jewelry items in a month than our entire craft market generates in a year. You cannot compete on price. You cannot compete on volume. You cannot compete on distribution. You cannot compete on marketing. Happily, a few of us do manage to find market success. They are the exception, not the rule.
2. This points to a severely flawed business model for most practitioners in our field. What!? You say you don't have a business model? Well, that would be a place to start. Unfortunately, many in our field are crippled by foolish ideas that business and the arts are incompatible. Dispelling that notion and minding your business would be a place to start.
3. Now that we're talkin' business, let's take a closer look at that bastion of the "handmade", Etsy. It is a sales channel for many of us, albeit an increasingly ineffective one. Etsy spent $66.8 million dollars in advertising last year to drive buyers to its site. Authentic handmade products accounted for about 4% of sales. 96% of sales were generated by resellers offering mass produced items. That should inform you as to why Etsy has turned its back on handmade.
4. What it doesn't answer is why buyers have largely turned their backs on handmade. Argue all you want that, people "need" craft, they don't. We, as makers have an intrinsic need to make craft. It's not the same thing. Yes, people still do buy our wares. But in alarmingly decreasing numbers over the last 20 years. The decline has accelerated within the last 5 years. Not coincidentally a graph of the decline in sales of craft (and arts in general) mirrors the decline in real income growth for the majority of Americans over the same period. There are simply less people with the discretionary income to spend on our wares. So we are all left to compete for the shrinking pool of buyers that remain.
So, what do you think we should all do about this?
Perhaps if Crafthaus, AJF, SNAG and other craft organizations had a Go Fund Me pool for advertising. A vote on where to put that advertising, say USA Today, to get buzz, so then it is talked about, and reporters start to look for stories. A catch phrase "Artists do it for you".
Advertising is needed to assure the public it is OK to buy art. The only way I can think of to get the money is to pool it with something like Go Fund Me. I belong to more than one craft group, and I am sure most of us do, so they need to band together to make our voice heard.
thank you brigitte for all the work you did to put this series together. took me awhile to get thru it, but i'm there!