Tuesday, September 3, 2019

So You Want to Bring Your Business to the Fair? An Insider’s Perspective on Vendor Life at The Great Minnesota Get-Together®

It’s the day after Labor Day, and we’ve just wrapped up our second year of business at the Minnesota State Fair in what seems likely to be a record-breaking year for attendance. Our St. Croix Saddlery booth had a successful run with a decent increase in sales over last year, attributable to the combination of more educated buying, an improved setup, a strong sales team, and fantastic weather. We learned a lot in our first year that made this year easier, but the Fair is still a big deal with its own challenges. I know many other entrepreneurs dream of joining the Fair as a vendor, and I thought I would share just a handful of truths that I’ve learned in my experience.

  • It’s not a bonanza. We’ve all heard tales of the business owners who work two weeks at the Fair and get to retire the other 50 weeks of the year. Perhaps this is true for some of the most popular food vendors, but it’s certainly not the case for me or most other vendors. Our sales over 15 days at the Fair are roughly equivalent to one average month’s sales in our store, but there are a lot of expenses that go with that (see the next paragraph).
  • It’s expensive. In addition to paying a relatively high booth fee (it varies depending on your vendor category, location, and sometimes your total front footage), you also pay a significant assessment for utilities that is split among all vendors. On top of that, you have your own booth costs (for us, tents, lighting, and fixtures), huge inventory costs, admission for all of your employees (the Fair requires this, and the vendor ticket discount is the same as the early-bird discount at Cub Foods), parking if necessary, and of course wages for all the extra staff you bring aboard.
  • It’s exhausting. This is probably obvious. We are an equestrian-themed shop located outside the Horse Barn, so the Fair allows us to open three days early in conjunction with the hunter/jumper horse show that precedes the Fair. We begin packing and setup six days before that, so at this point, I have dedicated the last 21 days straight to the Fair, all outdoors in the elements, with 12 of those days spent surrounded by massive crowds of people for most of the day.
  • It’s very, very crowded. Did you know that Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has a maximum capacity of 100,000, and on an average day, 52,000 guests enter the park? In comparison, the Minnesota State Fair reported attendance of 266,412 on the second Saturday this year, its largest day. In other words, don’t plan to venture three blocks over for your favorite Fair food on your 30-minute lunch break; you’ll never make it.
  • Parking can be impossible. The first day of the Fair, we had some employees arrive over an hour late for their shifts because they couldn’t find parking in the new vendor parking lot (maybe 300 spaces), the public parking lots, or even local Park and Ride lots. We anticipated this challenge, and so we provided a free shuttle to our employees from our nearby house, primarily operated by my own father and father-in-law. My best advice is to arrive before 7:00 a.m. or plan for a ride. 
  • Your business at the Fair is heavily dictated by the Fair. When you apply for your Fair vendor license, you are required to list very specifically the items that you will be promoting or selling. If any of these conflict with or mirror other vendors’ offerings, they will likely be denied. For example, our equestrian store is not allowed to sell cowboy boots, leather purses, or unicorn-themed items, despite their popularity among crowds.
  • You are a tiny fish. There is no hand-holding at the Fair. You are responsible for reading the entire book-like vendor’s manual and knowing all the rules and requirements.
  • It’s not easy getting noticed. You know that handy Blue Ribbon Bargain Book that we all buy to save money at the Fair? If you want to offer a coupon in there, you don’t just get to send one in. You complete a lengthy application many months in advance, perhaps not even knowing yet what inventory you will have, and then you compete with all the other vendor applications to get in. In our case, our submission was not chosen, but we still had to answer to fairgoers every day who asked us in accusatory tones why we didn’t have a coupon. If you want to give away freebies at the Fair, participate in Thrifty Thursday or Last Chance Deal Day, or even hold a drawing, you have to apply to do those things as well, and your compliance is then monitored by the Fair. 

So why do we do this?

Great question! The biggest benefit to our store is probably the exposure, and my first priority this year will be to work on improving our website to service the hundreds of new customers who grabbed business cards from us.

Will we return? I might not be in the best frame of mind today to answer that, and it would be best to ask me again in a few months after I’ve recovered. I will admit that my husband and I were already self-proclaimed “Fair junkies” long before we had our own booth at the Fair, and that probably helps a lot. We have a ton of fun doing this, and we always create some great memories. We’re already talking about next year, and chances are we’ll be there again.

For now, though, I need to get over to the Fairgrounds to start teardown, haul the leftover inventory back to the store and unload it, and then get a decent night’s sleep.

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