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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Experts say there's an art to doing well at craft fairs

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Michael Matsumoto used to give out his tasty steak seasonings to his friends after softball games.

A young shopper surveys ribbons at the McKinley Band Boosters' annual Christmas craft fair. Many vendors say the holiday season is the most lucrative, and they recommend booking early for fairs.

Advertiser library photo • Dec. 6, 2003

Now, 11 years later, he sells more than a dozen products, including sauces and seasoned flour mixes, at trade shows, craft fairs and farmers' markets.

And though the Som' Good products can be found in retail outlets, such as Tamashiro Market and Executive Chef, the bulk of his business comes from holiday craft fairs, which start this weekend.

"The last quarter is definitely the biggest push of the year," Matsumoto said.

For many small businesses in Hawai'i, the Christmas craft fair season is the most lucrative time of the year. Thousands of people flock to these annual fairs at churches, school cafeterias and community centers, looking for unique, handmade gifts for the holidays.

"For many small businesses, this is the only venue they have during the year unless they rent a store or warehouse. They don't really have any place where they can show their goods and have a lot of walk-by traffic," said Phillip Kuchler, who's running his own craft fair — Kuchler's Gifts, Collectibles & Craft Fair at the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu — this year. "This gives those people the opportunity to test-market their products."

Craft fairs are inexpensive ways for local artists and crafters to sell their wares. Prices for booth space can range from $60 to $300 per day, depending on size and location of the event.

And oftentimes, that investment can pay off.

"You can make a lot of money quickly if you've got the right product," said Linda Kawasaki who helps organize and promote Season's Best Craft Fair, which runs several holiday craft fairs on O'ahu.

"If shoppers like what you have, they'll buy it. ... The really hard part is finding that right product."

Advice from the experts

Here are a few ideas from craft-fair veterans to help your business make the most of the craft-fair circuit:

• Come up with new products: People who go to craft fairs tend to be repeat shoppers. They're looking for something new. Michael Matsumoto of Som' Good Seasonings tries to introduce at least two new products every year. "We have a great following of people who always come back," he said. "And they ask, 'What else you got?' That keeps us going."

• Book a fair early: Phillip Kuchler knows first-hand how important advance bookings are. Last year, he could only get into two craft fairs when he called around in mid-November. This year, he started his own fair — Kuchler's Gifts, Collectibles & Craft Fair at the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu — so he had a guaranteed space to sell his wife's gift books.

• Be professional: "Vendors need to be professional sales people," said Ann Asakura, who runs Trash & Treasure Craft Fair. "That their work is aesthetically charming won't sell if the person in that space sits and doesn't smile, doesn't make eye contact, doesn't have brochures, doesn't wear a name tag."

• Have a good attitude: "It's a lot of hard work, so you gotta love what you do," Matsumoto said. "You gotta make it fun."

Michelle Muraoka decided to target specific customers by being selective about which craft fairs she participates in.

This season she plans to sell her one-of-a-kind jewelry, under the banner EmiLani Designs, at just two craft fairs, keeping her costs and production to a manageable level.

"You have to know your market," said Muraoka, who works full time for the city. "My niche is that I make high-quality items that are unique but at reasonable prices people can afford. I like to shop around for deals, so I price my items at prices I would want to pay for. So I'm not necessarily making a lot of money in this. But I really enjoy creating."

Her four years of participation in craft fairs has grown her business. This year, she got orders for customized pieces for six weddings.

Some fairs are open to all vendors, while others screen participants. Trash & Treasure Craft Fair, a fund-raiser for the nonprofit TEMARI Center for Asian and Pacific Arts, requires that products be handmade works of art, preferably one-of-a-kind. A committee of judges decides which vendors can take part.

"People tend to do the same thing over and over, but not at TEMARI's fairs," said Ann Asakura, executive director of TEMARI who's been running Trash & Treasure for 22 years. "(Our vendors) try to do something different from what they've usually done. It's that creative spark that sets our fair apart."

The customers who attend TEMARI's fair expect unique, high-quality items, Asakura said.

"This has kept us in the forefront all these years," she said. "And with people still coming."

And craft fairs are a great way for businesses to test new products or get instant customer feedback.

"We thrive on that," said Matsumoto, who will participate in 23 craft fairs this holiday season. "What I like about craft fairs is we get to talk with our customers one-on-one. We can listen to what our customers have to say."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at 535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.