Can a Virtual Minnesota State Fair Save Summer for Merchants?
Better days: I Like You owners Sarah Sweet and Angela Lessman at their Minnesota State Fair booth in the West End Market in 2019.

Can a Virtual Minnesota State Fair Save Summer for Merchants?

Small businesses hope online exposure through a State Fair marketplace will help them recoup some of what they’ve lost due to Covid-19.

There’s nothing like a deep-fried Dilly Dog and a bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies to put 2 million sweaty people in the mood to shop, and so hundreds of merchandise vendors selling everything from miracle mops to wooden paddle boards rely on the Minnesota State Fair to boost their bottom line in a way no mall or other brick and mortar retail experience can these days. For many small businesses, those last 12 days of summer are the bridge that carries them through to Christmas. Now, with the 2020 fair cancelled, many merchants are banking on a virtual State Fair marketplace to recoup at least some of what they’ve lost due to Covid-19.

The Minnesota State Fair plans to announce details of its online marketplace next week. Spokeswoman Lara Hughes said the fair “has plans to support the hundreds of merchandise vendors by creating an online marketplace as an online hub for fair guests to patronize and support these vendor businesses during a year without the fair.” The fair has already created a Fair Food Finder to point people to food booths popping up around the Twin Cities and is planning a drive-thru Food Parade in August. The fair’s Fine Arts Exhibition went virtual. Shopping represents the next major pivot.

Several local brands confirmed that they have paid a fee and are planning their merchandise assortments for the Minnesota State Fair online marketplace, which will run from early August through December. The question is, far away from the Grandstand crowds and without any promise of a roasted corn chaser, will would-be fairgoers log on to shop?

“If the marketplace can offset our losses by 20 to 40 percent we will be very grateful,” said Spencer Johnson, founder of Sota Clothing, whose signature blue trailer filled with Minnesota-themed apparel and accessories has become a fair destination in the last four years. Johnson said in a typical year, the fair results in about 15 percent of his brand’s total sales and a it plays a major role in marketing efforts. “We admire the Minnesota State Fair for thinking outside of the fairgrounds and putting together a digital option so fairgoers have a way to support their favorite vendors and find new ones as well. This is the time to get creative to drive business and keep a tradition going in some way.”

Essence One soap on a stick, a hot seller at the Minnesota State Fair.

Minneapolis-based beauty brand Essence One has a store at Rosedale Center, an active e-commerce site and had been on the pop-up market circuit pre-Covid. Still, State Fair sales typically add up to nearly a quarter of the company’s annual revenue, said founder and owner Lauren VanScoy. She hopes the online marketplace will help to retain customers who stock up on Essence One soaps and lotions each year at the State Fair. “It will not take the place of the State Fair fun or income, but we hope it can help bring in a little of the income that we are used to during that time of year.”

Both Sota Clothing and Essence One, like many online brands, experienced a major spring spike in online sales while people were sheltering at home due to the pandemic; Sota Clothing was up 50 percent for April and May compared to 2019; VanScoy said EssenceOne online traffic this year is up a staggering 239 percent. But that still doesn’t compensate for a decline in retail and wholesale sales for most product lines, or the loss of face-to-face opportunities to connect with customers.

“Adapt or die is the only chance for anyone to come out of 2020 alive,” said Tia Scott, whose Fox Run mobile marketplace made its Minnesota State Fair debut last year. “The virtual fair is the adaptation.”

Fox Run showcases products made by 25 small businesses and relies on special events and community fairs to sell its goods. Last year, Scott worked 36 different shows and events for a total of 100 sale days. With all of those opportunities shut down for 2020, Scott proceeded with plans that had been in the works since November 2019 to open a store at Shops at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove. Also taking a chance on the virtual state fair is a bet on the power of the fair’s name.

“We know the fair has a tremendous reach and I’m hoping to boost our online sales and presence,” Scott said.

Like many participating vendors, Fox Run is planning a “Fox Run Box” that will be exclusive to the fair marketplace and filled with local brands. Others are planning to use the State Fair spotlight for new product launches.

And if there’s a silver lining for Twin Cities retailer I Like You, which has run a State Fair booth since 2009 that generates around 10 percent of annual sales, it’s the opportunity to showcase more items than can fit in a booth just 10 feet wide. “We put most of our energy into t-shirt sales and the booth leaves little room for anything else,” I Like You co-owner Sarah Sweet said. “I hope shoppers [of the virtual marketplace] find a lot more than they expected.”

The cancellation of the fair was a gut punch to local merchant Sairey Gernes, whose Urban Undercover store at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport has been shuttered for months. Gernes designs and sells her own line of travel apparel, accessories, and totes. Part of her success at the fair in past years she attributes to customers “actually interacting with the brand and team. You just can’t do that as easily online.” Nevertheless, she’s trying. Gernes is in the process of redesigning her website with the goal of pushing it live before the virtual fair marketplace launches. Said Gernes, “I’m counting on the fair platform to drive some awareness of our brand and traffic to our website.”