Why Retail Works at the Minnesota State Fair
Better days: I Like You owners Sarah Sweet and Angela Lessman at their Minnesota State Fair booth in the West End Market in 2019.

Why Retail Works at the Minnesota State Fair

In a time of retail disruption, the fair has become a more reliable marketplace than the mall.

Back in 2009 when the owners of I Like You decided to temporarily close their funky Northeast store on the first day of the Minnesota State Fair and set up shop in the Grandstand, it was a novel, and somewhat crazy-sounding thing to do. Why would retailers with their own brick and mortar store want to sell at the fair, land of miracle mops and tractors? It had to be a decision born of excessive Minnesota pride or one too many corn dogs, and not an actual business strategy. After all, “I Heart MN” t-shirts aren’t exactly Sweet Martha’s cookies. Right?

A decade later, the State Fair has become the ultimate and most enduring pop-up shopping experience—a place where both national brands and local startups go to introduce products and connect with consumers. A place where you can buy everything from essential oils and upscale furniture to handcrafted paddle boards. A place where an indie shop can draw the sort of traffic retailers only dream about on Black Friday (if even, these days). Suddenly I Like You owners Sarah Sweet and Angela Lessman seem like visionaries.

Locally based brands including Hagen and Oats, Great Lakes Clothing, and Sota Clothing have all become State Fair regulars, and made it cool for a new generation of digital-first consumers to shop at the fair. For Minneapolis-based artist Adam Turman, whose illustrations of local landmarks and legends including Paul Bunyan can be found on t-shirts, socks, and mugs sold by dozens of gift stores, the State Fair is “Christmas in August,” says studio manager Sarah Allen. Not only are the sales “amazing” at Turman’s Grandstand booth, Allen says the fair serves as a litmus test for future product ideas.

This year, GoodThings, a lifestyle retailer with seven stores across the metro from White Bear Lake to Maple Grove, is at the fair for the first time with a booth in the new North End. GoodThings owner Tyler Conrad says he’s ecstatic to be part of it. “What better way for us to expand our brand in front of 1.2 million people?”

Actually, it could be more than 2 million if last year’s record-breaking attendance holds. Mall of America aside, shopping centers are drooling over those numbers. And remarkably, fairgoers come to shop. “We get people at the booth who say they’ve finished their Christmas shopping,” I Like You’s Sweet says. “There’s no other place you’re going to do the business that you do at the fair. It’s like landing on a different planet for 12 days.”

Christmas still results in a higher grossing month for I Like You, which also has a store in St. Paul, but the 12 days of the fair are nearly as lucrative as other big gift giving occasions like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, Sweet says.

Admittedly, she and Lessman were victims of Sweet Martha-level delusions that very first year at the fair. “”We thought we were going to be rich.” They barely broke even. Their booth was too large, and not a perfect fit in the Grandstand. They moved to Heritage Square in year two, and then to the fair’s West End Market when it opened six years ago. They’ve figured out the right product mix: heavy on t-shirts and Minnesota trinkets, with many products only available at the fair. Lessman says the payoff continues year-round.

“It’s important to introduce yourself to your audience. The fair is a totally different clientele. We have repeat customers year after year, and sometimes they’ll come into the store six months later, or even years later.” Online orders through I Like You’s website spike following the fair as well, Lessman says.

Given their State Fair success, I Like You started participating in mall pop-ups a few years ago, including the first couple of holiday markets at Mall of America and a seasonal booth at Ridgedale Center. But Sweet and Lessman saw diminishing returns. “Mall pop-ups are over for us,” Lessman says. “I don’t kmow what way pop-ups are going to go. It’s so hit and miss. The market is saturated. It’s hard to set up for a show that doesn’t pan out in the end.”

But the Minnesota State Fair is different. It remains a place people will go out of their way to show up, despite lines and crowds and heat. It’s not about the most streamlined buying experience, but meeting the sellers and touching the merchandise. It’s a place where optimism and joy triumph, and people spend like it might be there last chance.(Indeed, eat enough fried fare, and that could be true). But for 12 days at the end of the summer, the Internet takes a backseat to a grandstand full of shops run by passionate, exhausted humans who love their goods and thrive on human connection. There’s no better place to be a retailer.

“We will always do the fair,” Sweet says. “As long as the fair lets us in.”