Lea Lerman's Tips for Selling on the Streets of New York City
>> Lea Lerman, who sells her own line of accessories in a variety of New York's street markets, periodically teaches a Learning Annex class entitled "Make Great Money Selling at Fairs, Festivals, Flea Markets, and Through eBay." She gave Littleviews permission to report on her recent class and you'll find her suggestions, along with our own ideas, directly below.
Littleviews is interested in the subject of selling on the street because we believe that New York's streets are the perfect place for people to test their selling skills as well as develop products (handmade or manufactured) that make an impact.
Many Americans, unlike people from the Middle East, the Mediterranean countries, Asia, India, Pakistan, China, and Africa, are not used to the idea participating in face-to-face bazaars or trading, and we'd like to change that situation.
Historically, it is at the bazaar (a street fair) where fortunes are made and family specialties are formed. Many of these specialties become family crafts, with tips and techniques past down through generations. The bazaar is always a colorful place, filled with creative people who vie for your attention. It is a good place for a "hands on" business education as well as for (yes) making money.
Americans who sell their work through street festivals tend to do so at craft fairs, leaving most other street-selling opportunities to importers from other countries, where talent, ideas, energy, enthusiasm, and craftsmanship runs high. Generally, the people who sell at street fairs rely upon themselves (rather than on employers) to make a living.
From what we've seen of New York's street selling opportunities, New York provides fertile ground to expand merchant, craft, and business ideas for Americans as well as for seasoned importers. Whether you take merchandising seriously or dabble in the subject, you will find that New York's streets carry hundreds of thousands of potential customers for your endeavors and its street fair booth rental is relatively low.
For more information on how to participate, see Littleviews' "How to Become a Vendor in New York's Street Fairs, Flea Markets, and Holiday Markets". Also see our article on a street artist's experiences.
Lea Lerman's Street-Wise Tips
- Keep Record Keeping Simple: While you can invest in a full-blown, computerized accounting system, at minimum, you need a simple notebook in which you track your expenses, sales (income), and profits. Also keep an envelope to store your expense receipts.
- Picking What You Sell: You have choices between creating things yourself (manufacturing) or reselling items you've purchased at wholesale. If you sell your own items and they're hot, you need to figure out ways to keep up so your sales area is always full! If, however, you resell merchandise, you're in luck. Almost every product that enters the American market is wholesaled in New York City and the supply is plentiful.
- Learn By Attending: Attend street fairs, flea markets, and holiday fairs. Observe what booths look like. Strike up conversations. Of course, don't ask vendors for a crash course on selling. Instead, ask how they feel about long hours outside and find out why they like doing what they are doing.
- Wholesale-Retail: All of New York (and Brooklyn, and frankly, a even a good portion of New Jersey) is filled with wholesalers. In New York, you'll find many along Broadway, especially between 35th and 25th Streets, on adjacent side streets, and on 6th, 7th, and 8th Avenues. It is up to you to walk around to find opportunity! And lift your eyes, too, because many wholesalers reside on upper floors or share offices. Of course, there is Chinatown, with well known locations in and around Canal Street (check the indoor market at Broadway and Canal), and little India, and little Africa. Frankly, if you see any vendor, and you want to buy bulk, ask for a wholesale arrangement.
- Be Prepared and Have Your State's Resale ID: If you do shop wholesale (which means you buy items in quantity), bring your state's resale ID. If you plan on selling in New York, you'll need New York State's resale ID, too.
- Attend Trade Shows: Always review what is going on at the Jacob Javits Center and attend whenever possible to learn more about what you can sell and how to sell it. For many trade shows, you'll need a business card and some identification that shows that you are actually doing business (such as a Resale ID). Also consider joining trade associations to unearth even more opportunities.
- Check the New York Times Classified Section: If you can't find an appropriate wholesaler on the streets of New York, then check the New York Times Classified Section. In New York Times Online, opportunities are listed in the Classified's Marketplace area. Click "Business Opportunities."
- Invest in Business Cards: Check local services for business card printing. If you are computer savvy, try companies like VistaPrint, which continuously run printing specials, including free cards. Make your cards descriptive and easy to understand.
- Know the Difference Between Street Fair Types:
Flea Market: These are held on a lot of some type, such as a playground, a pre-construction site, or a less-traveled street. They make an excellent place to get started as the pressure is less intense and fees are relatively low. Flea market products, however, emphasize pre-owned things, generally categorized as "antiques." Re-cast antiques (such as repainted or reworked objects) are popular. For success, try to be different from other vendors. A plus is to focus on a specific type of antique collection (reworked or not), rather than lay out a table of unrelated old stuff.
Block Party: These usually take place on the street of a single block. Obviously, they attract neighbors, and are very social events.
Street Fair: These are three to four blocks long and are a great place to get started selling. Entry costs around $100 for a 10x10 foot booth area.
Street Festival: These are around 20 blocks long and cost $200 or more to join. Every New York City avenue has a festival and these draw hundreds of thousands of browsers. Given the traffic, these festivals are best for experienced vendors.
Craft Show: Participation in craft shows tends to be more expensive, and many show organizers are highly selective about what can be sold. Prior to exhibiting in craft shows, try other street venues to see how people respond to your crafts, get used to the outdoor selling scene, and fine-tune your display.
Green Market: These focus on East Coast produce and are similar to flea markets in that they take place on lots or parks, rather than on streets. You do not need to represent a farm to participate, but must sell farm-related products. For more information, contact Council on the Environment of New York City - CENYC.
Holiday Show: These shows run for days and should only be considered if you are extremely experienced, have a good sales team (you can't leave your booth unattended), and are committed for the long haul. Some Holiday Shows are more selective than others, so if you've been a success on the streets, use your bookkeeping reports to help persuade Holiday Show promoters to let you in!
- Buy Several Spots: Highly experienced vendors buy several spots in a single fair. Unfortunately, too many repeat booths make for a boring consumer experience because it dulls the market place. It is done, however, and you should know about it.
- Locate Next to Similar Spots: Sometimes the similarity between booths creates exciting sales opportunities. Not sure? Look at how similar stores cluster in New York neighborhoods. Make friends with other vendors and see if you can set up a pact to display near one another. If you are an artist or craftsperson and want to create a "craft's showcase," join with friends to set up side-by-side booths.
- Location Location: Generally, you can ask for a specific booth location (or locations). Aim for the most central location(s). Before you commit to a location, find out what is nearby. Try to avoid being next to cooking areas as smoke and fumes (including garbage on a hot day) can impact the desirability of your spot. If you feel the location is a problem, ask to be reassigned or consider skipping that show. And, of course, be aware of which side of the street is in the shade. The best locations are snapped up quickly, so register for shows very early in the year.
- Set Up: Often flea markets provide tables and canopies for a low fee. These are not available for larger venues, however, so be prepared to schlepp your booth-needs around. All fairs impose precise times for setup, show, and knock-down, and you must not challenge these rules.
- Signs: Make your signs large and inviting. Tell your story plainly. If you have a great price, say it large. If you have an interesting product, put a big picture of it on your sign so people can see it from a distance. Remember, for most vendors, products are more important advertised on signs than a business name.
- Be Friendly and Interactive: Demonstrations rule! And so do friendly people who invite conversation. And remember, if appropriate, have a sign-up sheet so you can contact your buyers when your merchandise changes. Having a related storefront on eBay is a big plus!
- Welcome All Forms of Money! Sign up for a merchant account so you can take charge cards. Intuit, maker of Quick Books, offers a merchant account program, and you can find others on the web as well as through your bank. Also, consider taking checks (personal and traveler). If you use a business name, rather than your own name, make sure you have a business account. Banks won't accept checks made out to your business name through your personal account, even if you endorse them as a DBA (doing business as). Last, make sure you have enough cash for making change and keep that cash next to your body, rather than in a cash box of some type.
- How Much Can You Earn? What you earn depends on your determination, your mark-up, and the popularity of your products. Because you can introduce unique products (minimizing competition) and build up a clientele who you can later sell through the Internet, sales at fairs that attract tens of thousands of people can net enough to be considered a lucrative, full-time career. Of course, you must work hard and smart, but remember: many of New York's biggest stores started with individual proprietors who were street-cart merchants.
- Find Other Venues: Once you are used to the ebb and flow of street selling, you'll become aware of (or be invited to) other special selling events. These include fund rasing events hosted by most of New York's hospital auxiliaries, spaces in building lobbies, and public areas like those in the NY NJ Port Authority and Penn Station. When you see a group of vendors in an exclusive building, ask them how to participate.
- Spin-offs: One thing leads to another. When you participate in street sales, you might find yourself also drawn into private party selling, office selling, wholesaling, mall booths, and joining with other vendors to create your own shows!
Karen Little, Littleviews
Lea Lerman, President,
Jewelry by Lea
Article on tips provided by Lea Lerman and photo by Karen Little. First published on 5/28/2007. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.