Saturday, November 17, 2007

Retail 101

As we waited in line to get a spot, one of the more seasoned Eastern Market vendors guaranteed me that the one thing I would learn today was what it was like to be on the other side of the sales counter. Was she ever correct about that!

I showed up at around 7:30 on a very cold, gray Saturday morning. As I attempted to unload my card table and chairs, an authoritative voice (that of another vendor) told me I could only park there (in the public street) if I had a permanent place. I quickly got my things out of the trunk and moved the car. That was not an auspicious start.

As I walked back to the craft sales area, I noticed a line of chairs stretching from the main door. None of them had a person sitting in it, but I could sense they were significant. My first vendor friend explained the chairs were to establish an order for space assignment, so I put my chair at the end of the line. Soon thereafter a Hispanic man put a brick next to my chair, explaining that he had no chair. I spoke to him in Spanish and offered him the use of my second chair to hold his place in line.

My new friend gave me a rundown on the squabbles that are currently plaguing the market. It seems some vendors are not happy with the way space is assigned, others are irate when new people offer goods at lower cost, and the vegetable vendors would like to take over the craft area. I hoped not to offend any of the warring parties.

It was like a UN of people there to sell everything under the sun. There were Asians, Hispanics, Africans, and people speaking a variety of other languages. I was one of the few Caucasians. It was obvious that for many of them, this was their livelihood.

As we waited to be processed at 8:00, the head guy explained that any first-timers would automatically get last placement, so I really hadn't needed to show up so early with my chair. At 8:30 a senior vendor asked to look at the “wares” of us first-timers to see if they were acceptable. By 9:00 I had a small space for my table and goods. It was actually just opposite the consignment shop on 7th Street.

Whereas some vendors had elaborate tables, stands, and tents which required time-consuming assembly, my simple table was ready in about 5 minutes.

The first dilemma came when I realized vendors had no bathroom at the market. My newest friend advised me to buy coffee at Port City Java across the street, thereby entitling me to the use of their bathroom. For $2, it seemed like a good solution. I asked a nearby vendor to keep an eye on my table while I bought my right to a bathroom.

My greatest good fortune was spotting a member of my piano group trekking up 7th Street with her morning baguette. I hailed her and within a few minutes had made my first sale. I offered her a discount as a friend which she politely declined, paying full price.

My second sale was also to a good friend who took the above picture. At that point I set my goal for the day of selling something to a stranger.

Several hours later I had sold items to not one but two strangers, for a grand total of 4 sales and $87. Subtracting out the $25 fee, that was a whopping $62 for a day’s work. Oops, I forgot to subtract out the cost of the materials. I’m sure I actually turned a profit on the items sold and I do have a substantial inventory left.

Interestingly the only people who were the least bit interested in what I had to sell were over 50 or under 10 years old. The 50+ crowd were however mostly “just looking” and the children were dragged off to the jewelry and purse stalls by their parents.

I had already determined that I really suck at selling anything, but I felt better when I struck up a conversation with the African guy next to me, who said he hadn’t sold any jewelry all day. Many of them called it a slow day and said business was definitely off.

But by 3:30 I was freezing cold to the point where it was difficult to walk when I stood up. I was quickly starting to evaluate my desire to return for another go next week, when it is likely to be even colder.

Several vendors stopped by my table to tell me not to be discouraged and to invite me back again. I really liked these hard-working people who brave the cold and rain and snow Saturday and Sunday every weekend to sell their wares. But I’m thinking the Spring may be a better time to try again.

What an educational day, even if it was painfully cold. Although I am now sure I was never cut out for retail, I do have a better appreciation of just how hard it is to sell a product of any kind. My hat goes off to independent merchants.


Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Your table was beautiful and I love my new sachets! You would not believe the dreams I had last night (tucked both balsam and rose petal sachets inbetween my pillow and pillowcase. Delicious!

I salute you for giving it a go. And for the stories, oh yeah!!

8:18 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- I'm so glad the sachets launched you into sweet dreams. I must say the tea you made at the end of my day was what helped me thaw out from my day of freezing.

Let's try it again in the Spring when it's warmer and you have photos for sale once again.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Pauline said...

it's a hard life, selling your own wares. good for you for trying

1:08 PM  
Blogger Ulysses said...

Sales to two strangers, doubling your goal on your first day! Congrats!

8:23 PM  
Blogger Ruth D~ said...

Sounds more successful that not! Profit! For next week get foot warmers for your shoes, the kind you put in ski boots.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I kept thinking about how horrible it was for people who were counting on the business to have an off day. For me it was just an experiment for fun.

Ulysses -- I was quite satisfied to sell anything at all.

RuthD -- I'm going to wait for warmer weather to try again.

10:11 PM  
Blogger riseoutofme said...

Well done for trying!

I can remember the first day when I did something similar, business was slow, it was raining and it was cold. But the second week, it was still cold but dry and we had great fun and practically sold out. Would you not consider giving it another go?

8:34 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think you have to grow up selling, learning it as an after skill is too hard. My Sudanese tells me how when he was a young child, his father would buy him a cart of apples or melons and he would to go to the market to sell them. He told me it was nothing to do with making money (but that was a bonus), it was about learning how to sell and negotiate.

I might sometimes think I am clever when I negotiate, but I am a rank amateur. I prefer to just pay the sticker price.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Rise -- I'll try again when it gets warmer!

Richard -- I agree that selling is a mentality that must be learned. I felt almost guilty accepting money from people I knew, even though I spent many hours making the things they bought.

8:28 PM  

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