Challenges local online retailers face when selling in person

At Store Crossing our top goal is to help makers and artisans find physical spaces to sell their products in, especially the ones who are at the very beginning of their entrepreneurial journey. Over the past four weeks I spoke to about 60 local makers and artisans in Toronto's pop-up shows and holiday markets. The goal of going to these holiday markets was to understand and learn about the challenges these makers face in hosting a successful pop-up to sell their products in person to their customers so that we at Store Crossing can offer better alternative solutions.

Most of the sellers I spoke to in these seasonal holiday markets were small online retailers who didn't have actual physical retail stores in Toronto and used holiday markets as an opportunity to introduce their products to local consumers and ultimately get some sales. Although there were also a few who either owned their own physical store or are already selling their products in various different stores in the city. Here are the top challenges makers face in hosting a pop-up shop at a show.

Demographics: One of the most important factors online retailers consider when choosing a pop-up show is getting the right demographics and clientele. Makers and artisans usually have a good idea of who their core customers are. When it comes to deciding which pop-up markets to take part in, they consider age range, neighborhood, lifestyle, customer buying power and focus of the pop-up market itself. For example, a local graphic tee-shirt apparel seller will consider holiday markets that caters to young and local crowd, a health products related pop-up show will be more appealing to a maker who sells natural skin care products, while a comic artist is more likely to sell comic art in a fan expo. This also means that very often these makers have to wait a whole year or months at the very least to find a pop-up show with the right demographics.

Planning: Deciding to make a presence at a pop-up show or holiday market entails lots of planning. Firstly, the lead time required to register and sign up for these shows is on average 5 weeks. That means as a small business owner you need to plan out ahead - including work through extensive application forms (one for each show), pencil the dates in your calendar, and plan logistics. These are just a tiny fraction of all the things an online only retailer needs to think about to make a presence at a single pop-up show. Not to mention the time it takes away from these makers that they could otherwise use on focusing on their products and its sales. Some show organizers also have stringent requirements for the makers to conform to the market's theme and format. This puts a lot of pressure on someone who just wants to quickly sell their products in person.

Cost: To apply for being a vendor at these pop-up shows, typical costs vary but the prices I saw I came across were ranged from $100 to $200 for a single day to $2000 for 5 days. To a small business owner who is just starting off these costs must be quite discouraging to sell to customers in person. And if the sales are minuscule at the end of the show, chances of them ever returning to these shows are even lower.

Setting up the pop-up shop: Next piece of feedback I heard was around the amount of time and effort it takes to set up the pop-up booth on the day of the show. You even had to bring your own table to some of these shows and given that most of these makers and artisans live in urban downtown areas, bringing inventory and a table for the pop-up show means teaming up with friends, multiple Uber trips, and lots of lots of courage and patience. I saw this first-hand when my brother and sister-in-law were selling shoes last summer at a pop-up show - it seemed like a mission to bring everything to the show to say the least.

Weather: Last summer I went to Toronto's Queen West Art Crawl (pop-up show) to check out paintings by local artists. I didn't realize then how much of a factor weather played in the success of a pop-up show until I spoke to vendors in pop-up shows during these past few weeks. Any shows that were held outside, especially in the summer were at the mercy of rain. If it rained, it meant severely low turnout which ultimately resulted in low sales. Even if the market is in-doors, if it's a cold day, turn out is likely to be low. Since every pop-up show takes weeks and months to prepare for, weather is the unpredictable variable no matter how good everything else is.

Low foot traffic: Weather is not the only factor that affects foot traffic to pop-up shows. Pop-up market timings, days it runs on, accessibility, other events happening in the neighborhood at the same time, location of the event, and most importantly location of your booth within the event is critical to amount of foot traffic a maker gets at these shows. Although there are guidelines and price structure available in most shows for the amount of space you can have as a vendor, the critical piece of data these guidelines lack is accurate foot traffic. The show itself may get 500 people over the course of a day but if your booth is not in the right spot, you'll miss out on majority of the foot traffic.

Competition: Since most shows are theme based (think art and craft related pop-ups, comic pop-up shows), as a small business participating in one of these means you're competing against several other makers who sell products similar to yours. For example, candle makers. Customers at the show often are getting introduced to these brands for the first time and know little about which brand is better so if they are in the market to get a candle there's a higher probability they'll get one from a vendor at the beginning parts of their walking loop through the market than at the later part. Again, where you are in the pop-up market determines your luck.

Low sales: The most important metric that any maker or artisan uses to gauge success of their pop-up event is sales. Any of the above mentioned reasons can adversely affect sales. This makes planning and executing on becoming a vendor at a pop-up show a risky gamble. You could spend time and resources and may not get maximum bang for your efforts.

In summary, all of the above were exceptional insights into the key problems online only retailers and makers face when they sell to customers in person. But this is where Store Crossing is working so hard to solve these issues for local online retailers. We want to make it easy for anyone to quickly find the right space and foot traffic to sell in person without all the overhead friction that comes with traditional pop-up shows. Read how Store Crossing helps local makers sell in person to understand how you as an online retailer can use our platform to quickly sell to your customers.


22 December 2018

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