Selling jewelry at national craft fairs and trade shows has become a primary source of income for an increasing number of contemporary metalsmiths. Today’s fairs have left behind their amateur image of psychedelic vans in back alleys and wobbly fleamarket cardtables, as evidenced by the more than $8 million in sales generated by the markets in the Rhinebeck, New York area in June, 1983. The challenges for craftsmen participating in one of these large shows go beyond the usual concerns of selling from a private studio. In addition to putting together a line of work that generates sales, show participants must also develop other marketing tools to help their work reach the buying public.
A key component in effective selling and professional presentation of the work is the display setup. The larger fairs and shows often feature several hundred artists conducting business from small 10′ square booths. When laced with aisle upon aisle of artists from which to choose, buyers must make split-second decisions about lingering a few moments to more closely consider an individual’s work. The small scale of most jewelry places even greater demands upon a strong visual display, since the work itself cannot draw attention from a distance. Sellers have but a few moments to entice potential buyers before these customers stroll off down the aisle.
While most metalsmiths who participate in these marketing events acknowledge the important role a well-designed booth can play in their overall success, many also admit that booth design is often an item left for last-minute consideration. Faced with increased production demands in preparation for an event, participants often neglect to spend adequate time designing and constructing an attractive and effective selling area. Veterans of the larger craft markets in Baltimore, Dallas, Rhinebeck (now West Springfield) and San Francisco—sponsored by American Craft Enterprises, Inc. (ACE), the marketing subsidiary of the American Craft Council—also acknowledge that the needs and function of an individual’s booth often evolve over a long period of time. Conversations with several participants in past ACE fairs and commercial trade shows reveal that some basic understandings about the form and function of booth displays can alleviate many frustrations and lead toward better sales.
The jewelry sales booth, like the work itself, must be a delicate balance between form and function, appearance and practicality. The booth must present the work in a favorable manner without hindering the physical tasks of selling. Philadelphia jewelers Caroline Strieb and Eric Russell explain that the atmosphere of the booth must match the nature of the work. States Strieb: “Your booth represents an integral part of the image you present to the public, and it must coincide with the nature of your work. Someone doing Colonial blacksmithing is not going to do a high-tech display.” Noting that “even the best work in the world can look like a rummage sale if it is just thrown into cases,” both agree that a simple, uncluttered display showcases jewelry most effectively.
To create visual interest from a distance and draw people into their booths, many artists use oversized photographic enlargements of their work on back and side walls. These images call attention to the work and also give customers a better idea of what the jewelry looks like on the body. Potential buyers are subtly, if unconsciously, transported to the world of high-fashion glamour by identifying with one of the models in the photographs and considering a jewelry purchase. Other artists use actual works to create attention. Russell and Strieb, for example, have constructed a series of three 4′ wall cases which prominently display their one-of-a kind necklaces and pins. Although a bit unwieldy, Russell notes that the cases serve them well, allowing visibility through a crowd of people. “In the cases it’s easy to view the work whether you’re 5’3″ or 6’3″,” he comments. A key part of their case system is its interior fluorescent lighting, which eliminates the two major problems of other kinds of illumination: harsh glare from glass surfaces and shadows created by customers leaning over cases to view the work.
Often it is a general ambience which draws customers into a booth. Working on a limited budget, Deborah Ann Garrison of Ellicott City, Maryland hunted antique stores and flea markets for appropriate yet inexpensive cases. After discovering several imported reproductions of antique curved glass cases in a New Jersey warehouse at a good price, she opted to thematically focus her booth on a cozy, at-home environment. An oriental throw rug, an antique arm chair, small end and side tables and a few plants all combine to create what Garrison hopes is a “comfortable and confident atmosphere in which to purchase jewelry from me.”
Making the customer feel at ease is only half the challenge when working the long hours a major show demands. Many of the larger wholesale/retail events can run for three to five days, and to survive the grueling demands requires careful planning. In addition to the general tips on color, texture and scale mentioned in the booth display guidelines circulated by ACE, exhibitors are encouraged to consider flooring and lighting requirements. “Standing on concrete and under hot lights for five long days can turn even the most polished salesperson into a Mr. Hyde,” comments one experienced fair participant. “Having a carpeted space not only enhances the booth visually, it also helps maintain one’s energy level,” he adds. A comfortable, high chair, preferably at the same eye level as the passing crowds so that a psychological rapport is achieved, is another basic.
The best booths serve exhibitors during every part of the show cycle. Displays must be portable and compact enough to fit into cars or vans. Ease of transportation is often balanced with setup and breakdown time requirements; the smaller the booth can break down, the longer it usually takes to reassemble. Austin, Texas metalsmith Vernon Reed takes his booth of aluminum C-channel, rip-stop nylon and acrylic with him as airline baggage when he flies to distant fairs. While he is pleased with its portability, he also admits that it requires six hours to erect and fill with stock if he is working alone. Similar portability, with an urban flair, is achieved by a pair of New York City metalsmiths who traditionally do the local Lincoln Center craft show: they roll up to the trendy neighborhood with their entire booth display and work in a borrowed grocery cart.
Physical ease in selling should also be a primary consideration. Cases must be designed for easy and quick retrieval of work to present to eager customers, and prices should be in plain view, either in cases or on a price list. Space for displaying business cards, brochures and other printed materials must be designed so they do not hide the work. A separate surface on which to write orders must also be provided, even if it becomes something as mobile as a clip board. Miscellaneous supplies need a storage area hidden from view.
Most of all, display booths must be able to withstand the crush of the public. Horror stories abound of seven-year-olds doing chin-ups on metal display struts and frantic games of tag being played up and down the aisles. Traffic flow must be designed to allow for bustling crowds carrying packages and pushing baby strollers. Access to the work must be easy for the seller, yet protected from theft. Large wall cases must be designed so that all the work is not vulnerable when a single piece is being removed. Cash boxes must also be secure, yet accessible. The public safety factor when dealing with crowds leaning on glass cases in small spaces should also be given careful consideration.
Designing all of these elements into a booth does not necessitate a huge financial outlay, although most show participants realize that the money is a well-spent investment in their business. For the ACE 1984 Dallas fair Vernon Reed abandoned his aluminum and nylon booth for a newer, more substantial display. “Over the past year I have been increasingly aware that my booth, while more than adequate for selling cheap production jewelry, tended to make everything in it look cheap. It did not create a suitable psychological setting for the presentation of state-of-the-art cybernetic jewelry,” he explains. “Since that work is important to me, I decided it was time for a new booth.” Hiring an outside contractor, Reed spent nearly five times what the former booth cost, creating a monolithic display that has little in common with the previous lightweight unit. Reed noticed the difference after the Dallas fair, stating that the new display showcases the work better and attracts “a better quality buyer. It does exactly what it was designed to do,” he adds.
Another artist willing to take the financial plunge is Whitney Boin, who has participated in the Jewelers of America (JA) international trade shows since July, 1983. Boin, who lives and works in New York City, has created a line of production gold and diamond jewelry aimed at the high end of the market in small jewelry stores throughout the country. He knew that to penetrate the traditional, close-knit jewelry trade in New York he needed a display which presented his work well. After investing two months in designing and nearly $10,000, Boin came up with a stunning display which helped him win the designation of 1983 New Designer of the Year, as well as the President’s Award for Best Display of Merchandise. The booth was designed on a diagonal axis for a standard 10′ square space.
By altering a commercial Abstracta display unit, Boin created a back wall grid which holds an 8 x 10′ photographic mural of his trademark image of a man wearing his cufflinks and a woman’s profile showing one of his earrings. A track lighting system, suspended from the back grid and a central mirrored column, dramatically spotlights the space. Floor cases are faced with enlarged photostats of Boin’s graphics which prominently display his name and the pinstriping motif which reappears in his jewelry. “Even though the expense and time in creating this booth was phenomenal,” Boin explains, “l felt it was well worth it. I knew I had this one chance to present myself to the trade in a professional manner, and I was unwilling to let it go by, or to gradually improve my booth over the next few years of doing the show.” Like Reed, Boin feels confident that his investment will serve him well, and that it is flexible enough to change as his work develops. “The whole atmosphere of the booth could change with a different photographic mural and graphics,” he adds.
While not as expensive, Sandra Zilker’s booth also features flexible modular units which allow her to create several different layouts. A two-part curved countertop combines with wedge-shaped cabinets to become either a modified S-shaped display or a circular format. The units rest on felt-covered sono tubes and the work is shown on custom-made wood and plastic units. Such flexible approaches also enable exhibitors to adapt to a variety of floor spaces; while the standard booth size is generally 10′ square, variations of a foot or more are not uncommon and can make havoc with a display if it is not planned accordingly.
Outdoor booths present another set of demands based on weather factors. Displays must be stable enough to withstand strong winds or the weight of water on canopies. Air must circulate from front to back, but the rear must not be accessible to the public. (A roll-up bamboo screening backdrop was one exhibitor’s solution.) Plastic sides that can drop quickly in case of an unexpected shower are also a good design element. The extension of the roof line to direct water away from the cases is a necessity. Speaking from experience, Eric Russell suggests at least a 10″ overhang. “When people are looking at your work and water starts dripping down their necks, they go crazy—and they leave immediately,” he explains.
For most craftsmen, booth displays evolve as marketing experience grows and discoveries are made about what works best. While booths must be designed for durability—knowing that paint chips and plexiglass scratches—displays should also allow for flexibility and expansion. Few booths emerge completely resolved for a first-year exhibitor. In fact, many participants acknowledge satisfaction from the challenge and excitement of keeping their booth design current. As Caroline Strieb comments, “Eric and I felt we had put together a good booth at the 1983 Rhinebeck fair when so many of our fellow exhibitors complimented us on it. But when buyers who had been our customers there the previous year began asking if we had done the fair before—we knew we finally had a booth which made an impact!”
Arts marketing specialist Teryi Lonier writes frequently on topics about the arts and business. She also edits the annual Journal for NCECA (the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts).