12 Business Lessons From the Minnesota State Fair
Great Lakes booth in the Grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair.

12 Business Lessons From the Minnesota State Fair

First-time vendors share their insights from the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

In this era of pop-up retail experiences, there’s no bigger place to pop than the Minnesota State Fair. There’s also no retail platform more labor intensive, with hours longer than any mall and crowds far larger than Black Friday. We checked in with several local businesses selling at the fair for the first time this year. Despite the exhaustion, uncertainty, and commuter headaches, they’re all on pace to make a profit and they all agreed: doing business at the fair is worth the effort.

1) It can take years to get to the Minnesota State Fair.

“We’ve been trying to get in the fair for the last three years so when we finally got the call this summer we couldn’t have been more excited.  Great Lakes was inspired by our experiences growing up here, so it’s the perfect opportunity to get in front of a ton people who have a shared love for our lakes.” — Spencer Barrett, co-founder of Great Lakes Clothing (Grandstand, upper level)

2) But sometimes, getting a State Fair booth happens quickly.

“We were accepted within three weeks of turning in our application. We find that once people hear our story—that we are high-end outdoor furniture that is direct to consumer from factory and our prices are significantly less than our competitors—they almost always buy from us. So we submitted an application to the State Fair to tell our story.” —Jay Dillon, co-founder of Yardbird patio furniture (Grandstand, lower level) 

3) Set up costs more than the State Fair booth fee.

“There was kind of a big financial investment for me as a small business because you have the booth fee, staff expenses, tickets for each day for each person that works a shift that day, signage, booth decor and ingredient/container costs. Beyond that, it was mostly time and product costs. I put a lot of time into getting ready because I make and label all my product.  I had A LOT of help from family and friends to make sure I was ready.” —Lauren VanScoy, founder of EssenceOne natural beauty collection (West End Market)

4) There is no grace period for newbies.

“It’s been hard for me to figure out the logistics of each day and how to find parking as a vendor unloading product before a road closes and then parking each morning has been a challenge.  Just when I think I have it figured out, traffic changes, two cars crash into each other in front of me or there is a race.” —Lauren VanScoy, EssenceOne

5) The world doesn’t stop for the fair.

“When I am here, the normal everyday still happens with business, and as the owner of the company, I still have to make sure things are moving along. As long as the hours are at the fair, my days don’t always end at the close of the Grandstand.” —Sairey Gernes, founder of UrbanUndercover, a travel apparel and accessories line (Veranda, second floor of Grandstand)

6) No amount of business experience can prepare you for selling at the fair.

“We laugh among ourselves in that we were wrong about everything. We thought that weekends would be busier than weekdays. Not so. Products that we thought would be best sellers are being eclipsed by products that we didn’t think would do well.  From talking with other vendors who have been at the fair for 3-plus years, this is par for the course. Everyone learns and tweaks year after year. So, the State Fair is best considered a multi-year endeavor.” —Nichole Smaglick, founder of Cooper & Kid, a subscription box aimed at fostering imaginative play for dads and kids (Grandstand, upper level)

7) Get comfortable with guesswork.

“It’s an extremely unique shopping experience having a lot of people in a confined space, so figuring out how to merchandise efficiently and plan inventory accordingly was probably the biggest hurdle. It ultimately boiled down to a lot of educated guesses. We’ll inevitably make mistakes but we’re treating it as a learning experience and we’ll improve for next year.” —Spencer Barrett, Great Lakes

8) Think about inventory needs beyond the fair.

“There is a lot unknown the first year—no numbers to prep for. The nice thing is that we are getting ready for holiday season, so we bulked up a lot knowing that if we don’t sell certain things, Christmas is coming. I think I’d have a harder if this were a spring fair.” —Sairey Gernes, UrbanUndercover

9) Bump up production on the XLs.

“If you plan to sell t-shirts, you can skip the smalls and ramp up on the XXXL. Live and learn! —Nichole Smaglick, Cooper & Kid

10) Fairgoers will loiter.

“We were somewhat naïve about the crowds, as crazy as that sounds.  We essentially placed 20 plush seats out in the open, which attracts a lot of people for lounging, eating, and apparently napping!” —Jay Dillon, Yardbird

11) Listen up—the fair is market research gold.

“I love how many people come to the fair, how many touchpoints we can have with our customer; hear their reactions, feedback, thoughts about our brand and products. It’s been overwhelmingly awesome. As a small company, we don’t have the funds to do mega consumer research, so an opportunity to talk to this many people, is priceless. They tell us their stories and pain points as travelers, which is useful to hear, because that’s what our aim is: to help solve the travel dilemmas of urban travelers with stylish and functional solutions.” —Sairey Gernes, UrbanUndercover

12) Sweet Martha wasn’t built in a year.

“While we have had some sales, it is really a multi-year effort.  People see you multiple times and remember you – we heard that from the people near us selling flag poles, saunas, and mattresses.  We will certainly cover all of our expenses (booth rental, design/curation and staffing) but we are not making Sweet Martha reconsider her business.” —Jay Dillon, Yardbird