Have you ever wondered about the people and companies selling goods at geek/nerd conventions like Comic-Con and Dragon Con? It isn’t actually that difficult to become a convention vendor and there’s quite a bit of money to be made if you do it right. It’s an especially good gig for people who enjoy traveling to different places on the weekends. Selling at conventions offers a lot of flexibility with scheduling, as you pick the cons you sign up for. It’s also an excellent marketing opportunity for people and companies who already sell items in a store or online.
I started selling at conventions in 2015. My first experience as a vendor was at XCon World, a small, annual comic convention in Myrtle Beach. If you’re in the surrounding areas, check out their vendor application sometime. Because the con was so close, I jumped into the fray without doing much research beforehand.
While I ultimately did quite well (better, in fact, that many of the other vendors nearby), I could have saved myself a lot of time and frustration by planning more. There’s a lot that goes into selling at conventions and none of it should be taken lightly. Seriously, it’s amazing how much work goes into setting up a 10’ x 10’ space!
But it’s often worth it.
If selling at conventions sounds like something you might be interested in, there are a few things you should know first.
It’s Not Like Attending a Convention
Selling at conventions is an experience very unlike attending a convention. While you often get access to the convention panels with your vendor pass, it’s unlikely you’ll get to see much that’s actually going on. Convention dealer rooms typically stay open throughout the entire day and someone must always be manning your booth. Shutting down early is never allowed.
Many con vendors do bring multiple workers so the hours can be divided among everyone evenly, but the more people you bring, the more it costs to attend. Not only do most cons charge additional fees per vendor (and some limit attendance altogether), but you’ll also spend more on things like travel, accommodations, and food. This can impact your bottom line quite a lot.
The moral of the story? Vending isn’t like attending. If you plan to start selling at conventions, you need to come to terms now with the fact that you’re going to miss out of the majority of the cool stuff going on.
The trade off? You make money instead!
You’ll Need a Business License
It’s import to realize that you can’t just walk in off the street and start selling at conventions. You need to be an established business before you can be considered a vendor. Are there ways to skirt the system?
Most conventions require a business license in order to vend with them. In fact, they often check to ensure you have a copy of it with you as soon as you get there. If you don’t have one, they aren’t usually that hard to acquire. They’re even free in some states!
Beware of companies that offer to submit the application for you. While it’ll do the trick, you’ll absolutely overpay for the process. Instead, do a quick search online; try something like “getting a business license in (insert state).” Once you find your state’s application form, just fill it out and turn it in. For most states, it’s pretty easy, can be done fast, and won’t cost much.
You can find more information about getting a license to sell and starting your own business by signing up for my free email course, Starting a Business for Beginners.
You’ll Need Products to Sell
Getting your business license is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to selling at conventions. You’ll also need to find products to offer at your booth. If you already have a brick and mortar store or sell online, this may not be a problem. If, however, you’re just starting out, this needs to be a consideration.
So where to people and companies find products to sell at conventions?
- This blog post! Here are a few good ones I know about. I’ve made orders from each of these at least once and can vouch that they are all legitimate companies. You will need a business license to open an account.
- Trade shows. There are multiple consumer goods trade shows a year. These shows bring wholesale vendors from all over the world to a single location – and you just shop! There’s literally thousands of wholesale options and you’ll absolutely find products appropriate for selling at conventions. You can make orders on site or just collect business cards and brochures. An added plus? They are free for attendees. Here are two I’ve been to:
- Google. You can do a search online. Identify a niche you like and look up wholesale companies that sell relevant products. This can be a little challenging depending on what you want to sell, but it’s always worth a shot.
- At home. Homemade goods are great for selling at conventions too. If you’re crafty and have a vision for a product you think people will buy, go for it! I’ve recently started my own line of Renaissance-themed, hand-poured, soy candles with a friend and couldn’t be happier with the decision. Just be careful about creating products that utilize other company’s trademarks. It’s not legal, for example, to sell handmade blankets with the Batman symbol on them, even if you did crochet it yourself.
You’ll Need a Way to Complete Transactions
You’ll also need ways to complete transaction made while selling at conventions. I say “ways” because accepting cash alone isn’t enough anymore. Most shoppers want to be able to buy products using their credit or debit cards as well. While some attendees will come prepared with cash, you’ll make significantly more sales if you take plastic.
There are a number of solutions for this. The two below are best.
I use Square for all of my in-person business transactions. It’s an incredible business tool and one that I use and highly recommend. The best part? When you sign up, you get a free credit card swipe reader. They also have a reader for microchipped cards (which is the safest transaction method) and it only costs $49.
I say “only” because PayPal Here also has a solution for microchipped cards, but it’s $79. It used to be more, but they lowered it to compete better with Square. The systems are ultimately pretty similar, but most of the vendors I’ve spoken with prefer Square over PayPal Here.
Finding Cons Isn’t Hard, but Getting to Them is More Difficult
The next thing you need is a convention! Ultimately, finding conventions really isn’t that hard, especially if you’re an experienced con-goer. Many people fall into selling at conventions by speaking with event creators and organizers. The best way to find them, however, is to simply do a quick search online. You’ll be able to locate vendor applications easily on the official convention websites.
Once you’ve vended at your first one, you can ask your neighbors for advice on future events. This worked really well for me. It’s also not uncommon for other con managers to give you their details while you’re vending and ask you to sign up for their upcoming events. I left XCon World with several leads on future cons I then signed up for.
I do recommend beginning with one near your home, as travel expenses add up quickly. Cutting out the need to pay for gas and accommodations is a huge help. Figuring out how to transport all of your product can also be a pain. I ultimately bought a small trailer and, frankly, it’s been a Godsend. I use it all the time and will be upgrading to a larger one in the next couple months.
Don’t start by vending at Comic-Con or Dragon Con. Just do not. Do not. Not. NOT.
Selling at conventions is hard enough without setting yourself up for failure. You may think that starting big will give you a good idea whether or not you like it or whether it’s a sustainable career path, but you will literally be blowing you and your budget up if you try it. Here’s why.
- Signing up as a vendor isn’t free and bigger cons come with heftier price tags.
- Larger events mean more buyers – more buyers mean you need more product – more product means higher investment because you have to buy it before you can sell it.
- And then what if it doesn’t sell? There’s absolutely no point in shelling out loads of money to vend at a big convention when you haven’t tested the market for your products yet.
So start with something small and local before diving face-first into murky waters you don’t know that much about yet. You’ll learn a lot from selling at conventions that are smaller the first couple times so that you’re more prepared when the next large convention rolls around.
Vendor Registration Fees Vary – A LOT
As I just mentioned, bigger conventions have higher vending fees. World, for example, costs $300, whereas selling at conventions like Dragon Con can run in the thousands. That said, even similarly-sized cons have drastically varied registration fees. I’ve seen vendor prices as low as $50.
Personally, I think $300 is a bit steep for a first-time vendor. I don’t like paying that much for a booth unless I know I’m going to make a lot of money over the course of the con. I recommend shooting for something in the $50 – $150 range, if possible. Just keep looking for good options; you’re bound to find one in your price range eventually.
Pricing Products is Really Important
I touched on where you can find products for selling at conventions, but we haven’t talked about pricing them yet. This is incredibly important. If you get it wrong, you won’t make any money, could potentially lose money, and the whole thing will be a bust.
This is something a lot of people have trouble with, especially when dealing with items they’ve never sold before. The good news is that if you make a mistake and sell something for less than you should have, you can change it right away. Another slice of good is that you’ll get better are pricing products with practice.
Looking for a quick, safe, and easy way to get started?
I’ll tell you my secret: I just double what I paid for it. I know it ain’t fancy, but it works.
As a general rule of retail, you should always strive to make at least 40% of whatever you paid for a particular item. So if you bought a Superman doll for $10, you would want to charge at least $14 when selling at conventions – except that doesn’t include the the cost of shipping, credit card fees, or vendor registration. That’s why I take the easy route.
Doubling what you paid wholesale for an item should account for all of the associated expenses. You can do the individual math per product if you want to (it’s certainly not a bad idea), but I’ve been very happy with the results of my x2 rule.
It’s also helpful because you still have some wiggle-room to lower the price if the item isn’t selling. I’d rather start too high and work my way down a little, rather than price too low, sell out, and realize I’ve just wasted a bunch of time and money in the process.
There’s Still More Stuff You Need to Bring
So you’ve got your business license, products, and card reader. You found a nice con in your area and you’re all signed up to start selling at conventions…but there’s still more stuff you need!
I know, that’s ridiculous, right?
Unfortunately, conventions don’t usually supply you with the things you’ll need in order to have a successful weekend selling. Things like tables, tablecloths, and even chairs are rarely provided. That means you have to bring everything you need with you.
Here’s a short list of what’s most important:
- Folding Tables – Tables are an absolute must. I use at least four 6’ folding tables when I’m selling at conventions. You may need more or less depending on your products. My favorite ones are black because, in theory, they still look fine without tablecloths. I’ve never tested that, but it would probably be doable. I also have a 4’ folding table I use when my setup allows. You can purchase them on Amazon; the price is there is relative to what you’ll pay at Walmart.
- Folding Chairs – You’d think this would be something convention centers would provide, but they don’t. In fact, it gets pretty darn hard to find a place to sit when selling at conventions. That’s why you should always bring your own chairs. Again, I prefer black. They have a nice set of four chairs on Amazon for a good price. I recommend you always bring at least two.
- Tablecloths – A cool thing about tablecloths is that they make them like fitted-sheets now. I highly recommend getting on for each table you plan to have. These from Amazon are a fantastic price, come in multiple sizes, and will allow you to hide extra product under your tables. I buy these anytime I need additional ones. While these tablecloths don’t have Prime shipping, the seller does offer free shipping.
- Shelving – There are lots of shelving options out there. The cubed wire shelves are probably my favorite, however. This is what I ultimately opted for, as you can change the configuration around as needed. They are super versatile and I love them. The only downside is that they can be a little heavy to transport and they do take a bit of time to construct before each convention.
- Clothing Rack – Planning to sell clothing? Then a clothing rack is an absolute must. This is similar to the one I originally purchased in 2015. It did pretty well, but I’ve since built my own out of 2”x4”s because it’s much sturdier that way.
- Money Pouch – You can totally buy a cash box if you want to, but I much prefer waist aprons for keeping track of cash purchases. I keep my small bills in one pocket, my big bills in the second pocket, and then slide my phone and card readers in the remaining pocket. You can find white ones at Walmart for a few dollars, but these 3-pocket waist aprons come in a variety of colors!
Obviously your needs will vary based on what you’re selling at conventions. Your setup may require more or less. Do keep in mind that your typical booth space is 10’ x 10’. Some cons offer single-table setups. These usually won’t do, however, unless you’re selling something like books or original drawings/paintings.
Order and Bring Business Cards
I know, you’re probably thinking, “How much more stuff do I need!?” Trust me, though, when I tell you that business cards are important, especially if you also plan to sell online. You’ll have a lot of people interested in your products but who, for whatever reason, don’t make their purchase while you’re selling at conventions. These people generally request a business card for future reference.
It’s also good practice to provide paying customers with a business card as well. It’s likely most of them end up in the recycling somewhere, but I’ve also made repeat sales because I hand them out regularly.
The best place for cheap business cards? Probably Vistaprint. That’s where I get mine and they usually have some sort of promotion going – often 500 business cards for $9.99. Not too shabby and great if you’re just trying selling at conventions for kicks.
No idea how to design a logo? I’ve got a solution for that too!
Try out Fiverr.com. I’ve used this for logo creation several times and they’ve always turned out great. The best part is that you can usually find some great designers for cheap.
Don’t Go It Alone
One of the most important things to remember your first time selling at conventions is not to do it alone. I’ve tried to make this work a couple times and it simply isn’t worth it.
For starters, you’re going to need to pee!
Seriously, though, you’re going to need a break at some point. While nearby vendors are usually very nice and will watch your booth for a minute or two when you step away, they won’t be able to do it for long or complete transactions for you.
The only real solution is to bring someone else along. That person can be a business partner, employee, friend, significant other, or even your mom. I’ve actually done that a few times and it’s worked really well. My mom has some trouble with the gadgets, but she’s always super willing to help and I never turn down good company/free labor.
You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to tag along just for the heck of it.
Want to Learn More About Selling at Conventions?
I’ve sold goods at a number of different conventions and festivals over the last few years. Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot – often the hard way. To be honest, it’s pretty hard work but it can also be incredibly fun and rewarding. If you enjoy the con atmosphere and people, it’s a good bed you’d enjoy selling at conventions as well. Give it a try! It may be the professional calling you’ve been waiting to find.