Coffee at Kavarna (and it's good and strong), music is from the cd that accompanies the book R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country and it's very 1920's/'30s and GREAT. Thank heaven for strong coffee as my body is beat to sugar from me dragging it back and forth across the country and three time zones twice in a month. But enough about my old and tiredness: Let's get on with it, let's do the annual ACRE (American Craft Retailer's Expo) review!
I am not going to pull any punches in this post. There is a lot wrong with the wholesale show market right now, and I have my own theories on why and what I need to do about it for my business. But let's start with the positive...
Set-up--in spite of me not shipping the clear acrylic stands to hold the work on the wall panels--was really short. We were done by 5:00 on Friday (and we had finished at 7:00 the night before) for a total of 14 hours--down from 23 last year. I had the box of extra stands and Todd wired me up a bunch more so we were able to get all the work up.
The first day was slow and the orders were small. Most of my buyers were new customers for me, and the best-selling work was Todd's aluminum and glass (especially the people). The second day was pretty dead, and the third day I only took one order, but it was a really good re-order from an existing customer. The bad news on that order was that I had been playing phone tag with them for a month about the order and they would have placed it had I been at ACRE or not--which is the same information I got from a new buyer who said she'd started an order for me several times over the past month and never gotten around to finishing it. Now let's go into raw numbers.
The first year of ACRE was 2007. My numbers were pretty dismal, but I didn't expect anything big: It was a first-year show, my location wasn't very good, and my booth layout was good, not great. ACRE 2008 was my blow-out year. My average sale was $1,041 and 83% of the sales were to new customers. It was my best wholesale show ever. Then came 2009. While the number of sales only dropped 6%, the average sale dropped to $559 (down 46%) and the gross sales were down 49%. The number of new customers dropped 53%. Whew. But we all knew the economy was shot to sugar in 2009, so we put on our big girl panties and forged into 2010 determined to survive and grow. But though the economy seems to be making little gains (my data is from my numbers at the February BMAC show and the cautious optimism I am hearing in the voices of the buyers placing orders with me outside of shows), ACRE was down in every way for me this year. I felt I had the largest body of work and one of my strongest booth layouts ever (debuted at the BMAC in February), but the sales did not match.
Though new customer orders were up 15% over last year, the average sale dropped another 22% to $433 (number of sales only dropped 6%) and the gross sales were down another 29%. I left the skew of the two big orders from existing customers in the mix, and even with that advantage, the numbers are not telling me a good story about my future at ACRE. There seemed to be far fewer buyers than ever before (I am waiting for the official attendance numbers to be published on the ACRE site to validate that feeling), and of the buyers who were there, I didn't feel that my work was a good match for the majority of them--for type or price-point
What I took away from the show is that the people who shopped at ACRE had small budgets and were looking for low-cost gifty things. I hate to say it, but when I walked the floor I felt that their expectations were met by the work represented there. While there were a few artists with incredible work (Lynne Meade, the potter in the booth next to me immediately jumps to mind), I did not see enough fine-craft artists. I felt there was a disproportionate amount of country, cutesy, or both. When I went looking for a gift to bring home for Dave I had a hard time finding anything that I couldn't live without. I do not take it as a good sign when one of the artists has an "everything at under $30 retail" sign in their booth.
THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM OF ANY ARTIST'S WORK! There is value and beauty in *every* labor of love and they are all desired by different people at different times no matter what the price. What I am trying to point out is that a show needs both homogeneity of expectation and caliber AND diversity of work to be successful. Let me explain....
It is important for everyone's success (vendors and buyers) to be well-matched at a venue. One of the big complaints that American craft artists have of other large wholesale shows (gift shows, I mean you) is that many of the vendors are there with inexpensive, mass-produced goods from overseas and because of the preponderance of them, the buyers who attend the show also favor them. Think about it: If you are a buyer, you are going to attend shows where there is a lot of what you're looking to buy. If you can't afford/don't sell high-end craft, you won't attend a show where that's mainly what you see. If you are looking for unique, high-end American craft, you don't want to go to a show where there are booths and booths of little gifty items made in East Somewhereovertheristan.
When a new show comes out, it takes a few years to get the vendors matched to the buyers. When ACRE started, the organizers heavily courted (and still do) the fine-craft artisans who produce unique high-end work, and some of them came to the first shows. But (AGAIN--ALL MY OPINION HERE) the promoters also had to fill the floor space, and to plump up the show they took a lot of work that did not interest the fine-craft buyers, and annoyed the fine-craft artists who came. In 2008--the biggest year of the show so far for buyer attendance--I heard from over 15% of my buyers that they were disappointed in the quality of the work at the show. I still get repeat orders from those buyers, but they don't attend the show anymore. Likewise, I heard from several fine-craft artists (primarily in glass) that they were disappointed in the other work represented at the show AND the quality of the buyers (high quality = big budget, big piece buyers).
Yes, people were born to complain. There is always someone who has something negative to say, and artists are more cantankerous than most people. However, cranky or not, I think there is some grain of truth to the criticism that each year ACRE has an increasing representation of cottage craft over fine craft. In the organizers' favor, there were several really promising emerging artists this year (I wish I could remember the name of the woman who had the fused glass bowls that were frit and chunk and layered and transparent and beautifully coldworked). But I was still left wanting at the end of the show. Wanting to buy something special for Dave, something that caught my eye and made me covet, and it just wasn't there.
So where am I going with all this? "It's the economy, stupid" doesn't seem to be the answer to the questions why are many fine-craft artists making less and less at wholesale shows and why are fewer of them doing the shows. The BMAC has also suffered greatly in the wake of the economy. The attendance at their last two shows--both artist and buyer--has been down too (though that was partly the fault of the weather in February--see the bicycle at left). However they seem to have been able to maintain a higher proportion of fine-craft to cottage-craft artists for their shows and a higher number of fine-craft buyers. Don't get me wrong--I think they're limping along too, but they seem to be faring better than ACRE is. Is that surprising? No, they've been around longer, they have more reserves of buyer and artist credit to burn, and burn it they are.
In a time when sales at shows are plummeting, both the BMAC organizers and the ACRE organizers are increasing the number of shows they put on--and pissing on each other's turfs (and by consequence on the artists) in the process. There's a new ACRE show in Orlando at the end of January--right before or maybe even at the same time as the February BMAC (if the timing of the BMAC show is changed to the end of January as rumors predict). There's NICHE the show (aka BMAC west), which was just held in Vegas concurrently with the ACRE show--ostensibly to piggy-back off of the JCK show. All this scrabbling for turf and buyers is doing is squeezing the artists. Our show expenses have not gone down. I was encouraged to do *both* ACRE and NICHE by show staff. Can you imagine? It costs me about $5,000 to do a show and I did not even make that amount in gross sales for ACRE!
Conclusions? Unless I am given a really compelling reason (and I mean seriously compelling), I am not doing the ACRE show again next year. I am doing the BMAC in Baltimore this summer, and I have no expectations for it. The show staff for it has just spent all their time and effort since the February BMAC on NICHE the Show, and they are just now shifting to the summer BMAC which is less than three months away. It is being held in a new venue in a new city. One of my BMAC buyers placed an order two weeks ago and said "See you in Philly in August" at the end of the call. When I asked her didn't she mean Baltimore, she was dumbfounded. She didn't even know about the change of venue. Color me underwhelmed.
I think I may have a better place for the $15,000 in marketing money (not to mention all the time and energy) I spend a year on the three wholesale shows I do. That's what it is, after all--marketing money. It's not like you get it back in wholesale. More on that in another post. I've been working on this one all day and I'm tired.