As a buzz you can hardly beat it – a well organised British vintage fair is pure delight to visit, for sellers and shoppers alike. Like the perfect recipe, all the ingredients that should be there blend together to make a great nostalgic experience. Great things to look at and buy in a great venue, great music, great food, great atmosphere and – most importantly – great fun. Although organising a successful vintage fair is undoubtedly hard work, it isn’t rocket science either – so why does the UK vintage fair scene seem saturated with often lacklustre, poorly advertised, badly attended fixtures that make the good ones hard to find? I’ve had them all so far – the great, the good, the average, the poor and, shudder, the marketing car crash.
True vintage, or just old clothes on rails?
In the UK today, hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a ‘vintage fair’ being held somewhere between John o’Groats and Land’s End. For the vintage seller, like me, does this situation represent a golden opportunity to turn stock into sales – or a lamentable waste of time and effort? The answer depends on the vintage stallholder’s skill at weighing up several factors that make or break a vintage fair. I have to admit that when I first started out booking stalls at vintage fairs I didn’t see the early warning signs of an impending bad gig. It wasn’t until I had the experience of a good few vintage fairs under my belt that I could tell the difference between a successful venue and an indoor car boot sale.
So, for those vintage sellers who are thinking of booking a pitch at one of the myriad of ‘vintage fairs’ around the UK, what are the gems of wisdom that might save you from potentially wasting hours and hours of your valuable time for little or no profit? Lets see…….
Beware the Copy Cat. All too frequently, and often at bad vintage fairs, stallholders think to themselves “….I can do this for myself…”. But actually they can’t – well, not properly anyway. They book a spare room at a hotel or church hall, get a wad of A5 flyers from Vistaprint, then spend the rest of their time at other vintage fairs propositioning stallholders. Which leads me on nicely on to……
Beware the Copy Cat, Part 2. Then, having booked and laid down the deposit on a venue, our wannabe vintage fair supremo suddenly realises it will all have to be paid-for whether it is full of stallholders and punters or not. As the big day approaches with the prospect of a loss-making half-full hall, desperation then sets in. To make the numbers up, anybody who wants a stall can have one. Absolutely anybody. Del-Boy tat purveyors, charity shop recyclers, rag trade kilo rate peddlers, upcyclers, downcyclers – you name them, they all get an invite to help stave off the dreaded unpayable venue invoice.
Beware the ‘Footfall’ Trap. Footfall is a horrible word anyway in my book, but as one of the most misused and misunderstood words in marketing, its sinister undertones when uttered by an incompetent vintage fair organiser will certainly give you the night sweats after the event. “Last month we had x-thousand visitors through the door” is the oft uttered phrase. See the warning signs here, oh yes! Just what kind of people made up these ‘x-thousands’ then? Were they die hard and dedicated vintage-istas with money burning a hole in their pockets, or were they just disinterested folks sheltering from the rain with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning? 9 times out of 10 its the latter. If you want to entertain these casual browsers with a free trip down memory lane, fine, but I am working on the assumption you would be booking your stall with the intention of selling things instead. Either way, the ‘Footfall Trap’ is very closely allied to……..
Beware the ‘Low Entry Fee’ Trap. Low entry fees to enter a vintage fair only serves to feed the Footfall Trap – its a vicious circle. Free entry just makes the situation even worse. The only people you will have looking around your stall are people passing the time of day. Nothing on tv? Let’s go to that vintage fair down the road. Looking to get out of mowing the lawn? Let’s go to that vintage fair down the road. It’s only a couple of quid to get in. Less than a Starbucks. I have stood on my stall and observed them at length…….. old ladies who love to tell you how they ‘used to wear stuff like this once‘ and ‘can’t believe the prices they fetch nowadays‘ ……. impoverished students with a clean, crisp fiver they hope to spend on your prize 50′s couture cocktail dress …. dog walkers ….. kids …. dog walkers with kids ….. ohhhhh. They make your stand look busy, but thats all. The entry fees from those hordes of disinterested visitors with nothing else to do all day will only serve to line the pockets of the vintage fair organiser, but will just make you into a busy fool. The best vintage fairs I have taken stalls out at have been the most expensive to get in. Serious vintage buyers will always seek out serious vintage fairs. Period.
Trust Me, I’m Desperate! If the same organisers keep inviting you to book a stall with them every time they see you, its because they can’t fill their venue - not because you should be flattered by their attention. The best vintage fair venues are the ones you struggle to get some floorspace in. Earlier this year I was actually delighted to be turned down for a fair in Scarborough because there wasn’t space for me. You’d think I’d be miffed that I had to wait my turn until months later, but no – I saw all the right signals!
By now you are probably thinking how negative, bitter and twisted I am about the whole UK vintage fair scene (cue Psycho theme music) but – trust me – nothing could be further from the truth. I am actually upbeat about booking stalls at UK vintage fairs. They are often great fun. Yes, there are inept, greedy or unscrupulous vintage fair organisers who will treat your booking as pure revenue fodder – but there are also some very savvy organisers who really care about what they do. They are expert marketeers. They spend money on things that directly affect their bottom line, but that they know will enhance the atmosphere – singers and musicians being a good example. They will take an empty hall and create a brilliant atmosphere for all concerned. Most of all they want you to do well and they want you to come back next time too. The annual Festival of Vintage at York racecourse is a superb example of this – my floorspace is already booked and I can’t wait!
From experience, these organisers always do a great job:
Discover Vintage – Keeley Harris (includes the Festival of Vintage)
Rose & Brown Vintage – Caroline Brown
Advintageous – Debi Silver
Footnote: I genuinely believe that there is a place on the vintage calendar for someone who can organise a fair that costs at least £5 to get in and that has only has hand picked stallholders who really, really, really only sell genuine vintage (late ’60′s at the very latest) and rejects the temptation to make the numbers up with cupcakes and tat vendors will definitely be on to a winner – even if that means the number of stalls is small in number. It would be a big, brave step, I know – but a more elitist stance on the interpretation of vintage would soon earn a reputation from the discerning buyers it would cater for. It is not just because I believe this myself but because I have heard it so many times from true vintage buyers who have come on to my stall and told me so. If these true vintage enthusiasts could guarantee that they won’t have their time wasted, I know they’ll make the extra effort and travel a bit further to find that perfect vintage fair. Maybe I should have the courage of my convictions and do it myself? Hmmm – now there’s a thought!