How to Run a Booth at a Fair
October 5, 2012 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever manned a booth at a carnival, fair, or expo? I'm running a booth and selling items at a weekend fair that will benefit a volunteer organization. What do I need to know?

We will have a cashbox and a jar for donations. It's under a pop-up tent. We will be selling $1, $3, and $5 items. I know to bring a couple chairs for volunteers who are working the booth and a cooler with drinks. I have my items to sell ready to go. I have my volunteer workers lined up. It's outdoors and there is going to be a ton of traffic. I have never done this before and want to make sure I am not missing anything. I am most worried about somebody swiping my cashbox or donation jar. Any tips or advice on running a booth appreciated.
posted by Fairchild to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Sunscreen, even with a pop tent, the sun'll get you.

Make sure there is always a reliable person at the booth (if you need a bathroom break) to watch the cash box/jar. I usually keep my cashbox under my chair and out of view until a purchase is made. It's not likely anyone will swipe a donation jar, but you can always keep it back further on the table.

Bring free candy! Buy a bag of assorted Halloween candy and put some on your table. People freakin LOVE free candy.

Make sure your signs are clear enough to be read from a distance and are eye-catching. If you can spring for them, balloons work great.

If it's a dog-friendly event, I usually put out a water bowl in front of my table to attract the dog owners.

Hope this helps!
posted by picklesthezombie at 8:09 AM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Volunteers are the most important part! :) If you can, have one person (you, if you don't know the other people well) whose job it is to watch the cash and merchandise and to not get involved with customers. They shouldn't be rude about it of course, just deflect questions/requests to the "counter people". If you have a tent that's open on any side (especially the back), this person also can make sure nobody who doesn't belong there ends up behind the table with you, either accidentally or maliciously.

Also, try to let people take breaks semi-frequently; working a booth requires an incredible amount of talking/moving/cash-counting and while it's fun, it can also be very tasking.

If you're really-really worried about the cash jar, it can be bolted to your table by its bottom (either through the table or with a clamp), or weighed down with something unexpectedly heavy. The cash drawer should be near someone's hands at all times, even if they're just casually standing there.
posted by teremala at 8:11 AM on October 5, 2012

I was going to say a lot of what picklesthezombie said. Sunscreen, water bowl for dogs, never leave the cash unattended.
posted by Sara C. at 8:15 AM on October 5, 2012

• If you can run electrical to the tent, a fan will come in very handy.

• Always, always, always, keep the cash box far away from the countertop and always in-sight. Always.

• Be aware of quick-change scammers. The guys who start paying with a large bill, then try to make a switch while getting change.

• Make sure your volunteers can actually make change. This day of computers and automatic calculators have made the skill of making change almost unknown. Double-plus-good, if the person actually knows how to count change back.

• Don't be afraid to tell customers to wait their turn. Another trick crooks use is to mass-attack a booth to get the people confused and flustered and distracted. Next thing you know, the donation jar is gone.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:17 AM on October 5, 2012

Make friends with the people on the booths on either side of you. At best, they could be someone who can watch your booth in a pinch if all your volunteers are on break and you suddenly have to pee real bad; at least, they'll be someone to talk to when it's slow so you don't go nuts from boredom.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 AM on October 5, 2012

Set up shifts and don't make them too long. Although you'll be providing chairs, once it gets busy your volunteers could end up standing for hours. People who aren't tired and achy generally make better salespeople.
posted by tommasz at 8:21 AM on October 5, 2012

Put clear price tags on every item. You don't want people relying on their memories about what everything costs.

When making change, always keep the bill that the customer gave you on top of the change drawer (don't put it away), so that you know exactly how much change to give.

Have bags handy. People expect bags, even if they're only buying something small.
posted by xingcat at 8:22 AM on October 5, 2012

Be sure to have plenty of free literature to give out to people who might be interested in your organization.
posted by mareli at 8:30 AM on October 5, 2012

Don't forget seed cash (bills & coins) for the donation jar and change (I'd take at least $50 in ones) for the cashbox and water for yourselves.
posted by likeso at 8:34 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, lots of small bills to start with. And seconding the "keep their bill out until you've given change". Keep an eye on your cash box at all times, and make sure it's not easy grabbing distance from the public.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:44 AM on October 5, 2012

Get bags to put your wares in!

If it's a charity thing, see if your supermarket will oblige, if not a warehouse store will have 5000 in a box and you'll have cat poop bags for the rest of your life.

I liked having a carpenter's apron for my cash, it's on me, I have easy access to it. You can get them at Home Depot for cheap.

Change, change, change. Come to my house. We have tons.

A radio with some nice music on it, unless there are live bands.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:58 AM on October 5, 2012

Watch customers if they put the money in the jar themselves. A surprising number of people will grab the bills/coins and pull them out. It helps to shake the jar so the bills float to the bottom, although I'm in Canada so bills are only $5 and up here.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:20 AM on October 5, 2012

Make sure your volunteers can actually make change.

For all that is holy, bring a calculator. Even if it's just the calculator app on your phone which you let the volunteers use.

No harm in using a calculator if it's early and the coffee hasn't kicked in yet.

I use a carpenters' apron for my cash, but if there'll be more than a couple people manning the booth at the same time, that gets expensive and complicated.

A bucket o' change is fine -- don't worry about getting it rolled or anything like that. Usually I just forage for quarters, nickels, and dimes.

Ones. Ones Ones Ones Ones. Fives you should have, but the name of the game is ones. I'd probably get $100 or more in ones, if you can swing it. On a typical Saturday selling flowers in the greenmarket, I go through at least that much in ones, though the purchases are bigger. If you're mostly selling dollar items, you might luck out and get lots of ones. Or you might not luck out and get a bunch of people wanting $19 in change. Don't worry about getting tens. You could probably start your day with two or three, if even.

Don't trust other people to watch your booth in a pinch. Not because they aren't nice people, but because they usually are doing their own booth and if they look away for a second, your money is gone. A better option if you need to leave the booth unattended is to bring your cash over to someone at another booth and ask them to hold it for you.
posted by Sara C. at 9:21 AM on October 5, 2012

Since it's for a volunteer organization, make sure you have your 'elevator speech' ready. You probably already have one of these, but if you don't, spend a couple of minutes coming up with a 30 second or less explanation of what your organization does and what the proceeds from the sales will go to. People will ask about a million times what you're up to, and it's just easier to be prepared with something that sells your org really well!
posted by itsamermaid at 10:02 AM on October 5, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you. These are great answers and very helpful.

I have signs and bags. I love the water bowl and candy idea, and I'm switching the cash box to aprons. Thank you very much! I will be sure to remind volunteers to keep bill out until change is given. Bringing plenty of change is a great suggestion. We did not have enough change the last time we sold stuff at a different event. Glad I asked this question. Thank you again.
posted by Fairchild at 10:02 AM on October 5, 2012

Tablecloth/long skirt to hide the legs and so you can stash stuff beneath in crates. Ground may be damp/muddy.

Trashbag/large box for debris and remind volunteers to keep the table surface tidy, ie brochures stacked neatly.

Nice round stones or something to use as weights if you think it will be windy.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:05 AM on October 5, 2012

Periodically empty the donation jar except for seed money to make it a less tempting target. Keep that money out of your general cashbox or you will be very confused.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:13 AM on October 5, 2012

Here's something that surprised me. You have to ask everybody who walks by if they want to buy what you're selling. I once sold fudge at an open-air market, and I was amazed at the number of people who would walk by the booth, look right at the fudge, be about to walk away, and then buy some when I asked "want some fudge?" It seems to be easier for people to buy something that's offered.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:28 AM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

If possible, height. A flat counter looks very dull and uninviting from a distance. If you get your wares up into people's line of sight you'll look a lot more attractive.
posted by Leon at 11:12 AM on October 5, 2012

I've manned many booths at conventions, expos, and similar events, and it seems I always need to do some sort of minor change or repair to my booth or signage. To that end, I always have a couple sharpies, some painter's tape or masking tape, and a good pocketknife with me. Depending on the booth setup, I may also throw in a bunch of long, sturdy zipties.

Sounds like you're already doing all the right things to make your volunteers comfortable. Since it's an outdoor event, make sure the cooler full of drinks includes some water, and bring some sunscreen along, too, for you and your volunteers. Don't forget to re-apply it, too. (I frequently forget, and frequently get burned.) Make sure you and your volunteers all have each other's mobile numbers.

Do you have business cards, palm cards, or flyers so people can take them with them even if they don't buy something? If you have a website, is it on those cards, or on a sign at the booth? Do something to make sure that people who are interested but don't buy on-the-spot can find you again.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:14 AM on October 5, 2012

Wear comfortable shoes! Seriously, you can expect to be on your feet a long time!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:24 PM on October 5, 2012

Hand sanitizer. Comfortable shoes. Water to drink. A stool to rest on. A schedule so you know when you can take a break and someone else can cover your spot. Avoid junk food. Get enough sleep. Take regular breaks.
posted by bigbigdog at 7:50 PM on October 5, 2012

If it looks like rain, make sure you have a clear plastic shower curtain or table cloth or tarp to throw over the whole thing quickly. That way the items are protected and you don't have to disassemble; the soggy and intrepid shoppers can still see the items; and if it's only a passing shower, you can pull it off and not have to set up all over again.
posted by peagood at 11:35 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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