Learnings From My First Physical Retail Event
I recently ran a stall at a four day Christmas fair. So many people buy Good Wash Day organic jersey cotton hair towels as gifts (one customer has bought 28!) that I thought a seasonal event was worth exploring. As any founder knows, growth largely comes from experimentation, then doing more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. It was my first time exhibiting.
Here's what I learned:
Rather than focussing on whether to stand or sit behind your table, or reminding you to take food and drink, I wanted to write from the ‘does it make sense for my business’ perspective.
- Choose your events carefully. Check out the venue’s social media channels; are they creating some buzz around the event itself, and the companies attending?
- Carefully consider the location of the available stalls, and what type of business you’re next to. I only decided to attend the previous week and managed to bag a cancellation, so had no choice regards my pitch. I was in a walkway with people coming from both directions, so I really had to think about drawing people in from both sides as they weren’t seeing me from head-on.
- Ask for advice, from as many people as possible. You won’t use it all, but it will help spark creativity, and I guarantee there will be points you’d not even considered. Thanks to Eadiechops founder Emma, Claire from All Things Raffia, Rosie from The Filled Stocking Company and Nicola Webster for their words of wisdom.
- Create a spreadsheet setting out all your costs for each event; one-offs such as the venue fees, plus any stationery/marketing materials you have purchased; for example, I bought a branded table cloth, blackboard, blackboard pens and sharpies. I also had some customer reviews, customer survey results, and my ‘2023 Leading Haircare Product’ award printed onto A5 card. Include travel expenses; three hours’ driving per day for me which equates to £50 daily when using the standard expenses rate of 45p per mile. Put this through the business (I am rubbish at this but James is on it!). Factor in your time.
- I added break-even points to my spreadsheet; one for the cost of the venue and mileage (I saw this first event as a learning experience/marketing spend, but I at least wanted to recoup these costs). The second break-even point covered the reusable items detailed above. Obviously I won’t need to repurchase these for future events. I find this sort of detail really motivating, and analysing sales data can help you decide whether you would attend a particular venue again in the future.
- Fully research your online payment device. I ordered one by a well known brand first, but sent it back, because the website was hopeless regards registering my account. That didn't give me any confidence around taking payments and managing transfers. In the end I went with Square and am really happy with it.
- On that note, set your payment device up beforehand. Do some test buys. Let it perform any necessary updates as I wasn’t prompted to install these until a couple of days after receipt of the device. Make sure you know how to record cash payments (so that your inventory updates, and you can issue receipts). Around ten percent of my customers paid with cash, so I was grateful that my towels are a nice round £30. If you’re going to offer a multibuy discount code, set it up beforehand so that it’s quick and easy to apply at point of sale (but if you don’t want to/can’t offer a discount, don’t!).
- Ask the organisers if there is strong, reliable wi-fi. Be prepared to hotspot from your mobile if not, or take your own portable hotspot (iPhones have a tendency to nod off when hot spotting and there’s a lot going on so you might not notice). On day one a customer bought six hair towels. It took several minutes for us to get the payment to go through, and we ended up having to go into a separate room where the signal was stronger. It was stressful! It looked like it had gone through as an off-line payment, but it hadn’t. So I was £162 down on day one (I’m hoping the customer will realise and contact me). I was so grateful to Katherine and Jamie from katherinepartis.com, the stall opposite mine, who let me use their hotspot for the remainder of the event.
- Ditto lighting - is it provided/ample? Could you add to what's already there?
- Listen to what customers are saying. Early on I realised people were thinking my towels were scarves so I displayed them in a different way. My A2 poster was initially on a board behind my stall, but it was too high up/far away so I put it on my table instead.
- A well placed (glass) bowl of well-chosen chocolates is a great conversation starter. Don't forget to put them through the business.
- Once you’ve rested your weary legs and voice, take a look at that spreadsheet with your costs and sales, reflect on whether you enjoyed it, and consider whether that particular event is worth your time and effort next year. If it is, get your name on the waitlist so that you can grab the same spot, or a better one. It’s worth noting that it’s impossible to measure the actual impact (unless you use an event-specific code, but that requires a discount). Lots of people took my flyers away and some will most certainly order online.
- I would imagine it takes a little while to curate your best possible stall. And this will depend on the specifics of each venue. It's not going to look perfect the first, or second, time and that's okay. It's a good reminder of progress over perfection.
I'm exhausted. But it was fabulous to meet customers in person. One lady told me that she loves her GWD towels, and offered help at future events! And one was a hairdresser who had seen me on the FB live I did with Trinny. I spoke at length with many customers, including a lovely lady who had had surgery for a brain tumour. She felt she would definitely benefit from her new Good Wash Day towels. I connected with several people who work for cancer charities and asked them to get in touch if they ever need a raffle prize.
And finally, I was next to a group of retired English teachers who hosted Ukrainians and set up English classes for them. Now they raise funds to loan their new friends rental deposits so that they can move on from their host families. This is so difficult because many landlords require six months’ rent in advance, and competition is high. I found them really inspiring, and seeing so many people stop by their stall and chat and donate was truly heartwarming.
Would I do it again?
Yes - I'll be at the Farnham Maltings tomorrow and Thursday :-)