Calling All Geeks: How to Run a Dealer’s Table at Comic and Sci-Fi Conventions
Even if you don’t consider yourself a “geek,” you’ve probably heard of the big geek and comic book conventions, like San Diego Comic Con or New York City Comic Con.
However, nearly every major city has at least one geek convention of its very own, and even smaller cities are getting into the game. And nearly every geek convention has what’s called a dealer’s room -- a place where people sell their geek-themed arts, crafts, costumes, jewelry, armor, toys, T-shirts and other assorted wares to convention attendees.
These dealer’s rooms make conventions great money-making opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. Attendees often come to conventions with cash in hand, ready to buy geeky, fun stuff. By traveling to conventions and selling merchandise, you have the opportunity to make some extra money and to get involved in a great community of vendors, convention staff and attendees -- who will return to your dealer’s booth, year after year, to see what new merchandise you’ve added!
If you have interesting stuff to sell and you’re a good salesperson, you can make serious money with a dealer’s room table. How do I know this? Well, I’ve done it myself. I’ve made anywhere from a few hundred dollars to around $1,000 working dealer’s tables at conventions. If you want to get into the convention circuit, here’s my best advice.
How to Get Started
Since dealers’ tables tend to have a learning curve, it’s best to start small. Don’t apply to San Diego Comic Con during your first year as a dealer!
Instead, find a small convention near your hometown, go to their website, and look for the section on Exhibitors or Dealers. There’ll usually be an application form which you can fill out to get your table. It’s as easy as that!
Here’s a small sample of the geek conventions I’ve attended over the years:
Philcon, in Cherry Hill, NJ (originally launched in 1936, it’s one of the world’s oldest sci-fi conventions)
Intervention, in Rockville, MD
Norwescon, in Seattle (this year, George R. R. Martin will be Norwescon’s Guest of Honor)
Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival, in Las Vegas
Consonance, in Milpitas, CA
Con on the Cob, in Brecksville, OH
What Can You Sell at Conventions?
Just about anything. Chain mail jewelry, dragon plush toys, custom sketches, latex masks, even self-published paperback books. The sky’s the limit, so use your imagination.
Although you’ll sometimes see dealers selling items based on other companies’ trademarks, it’s best to come up with your own geeky ideas instead of copying other trademarks. Companies do send out cease and desist letters for trademark violations, such as the letters Fox sent to independent crafters who were making and selling Jayne hats from Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
How to Make Sales
My very first dealer’s table was at MAGFest, a music and games convention in National Harbor, Maryland. The person in charge of the dealer’s room asked me to choose which table I wanted. I picked the one right next to the escalator, because I knew that everyone coming down that escalator would see my table as they descended. Sure enough, tons of people saw it and many stopped by.
Being physically visible is one of the most important parts of selling your wares. When you are visible, it’s easier to make eye contact with potential customers and draw people to your table. I stand up, to make it easier for people to see me. If standing doesn’t work for you, arrange your merchandise so that nothing obscures your face and upper body when you are seated.
After all: Your goods may attract people to your table, but you are the person who closes the sale. So be visible, be friendly, and be ready to interact with your customers!
Set Prices High Enough To Make a Profit
I sell CDs, T-shirts and hoodies associated with my nerd band Hello, The Future! My hoodies cost $40, and people often ask me why they’re priced so high.
Well, if I didn’t price the hoodies at $40, I wouldn’t make a profit.
I order my hoodies through AKT, which I highly recommend. My per-unit price, before fees and shipping, is $20.50. That means I need to price my hoodies well over $20 in order to make any kind of profit. Pricing them at $25 isn’t enough; that would mean I’d earn only $4.50 per hoodie, and that’s before taxes.
When I price my hoodies at $40, I make $19.50 per hoodie (before taxes). I want my gross profit to be as high as the market will bear, because conventions also come with a lot of other expenses that will suck some of that money away before it ever hits my pocket.
Watch Your Travel Expenses
I’ve gone to a lot of conventions, all across the country -- and I’m going to my first international convention in April 2015. That means a lot of travel. I collect airline miles and travel rewards, take public transit instead of taxis, and pack granola bars to eat as meal substitutes, and I still pay a lot to travel to conventions.
Do whatever you can to bring your travel costs down. I’ve road-tripped with other people instead of flying, I’ve stayed at less expensive hotels or crashed on couches, and I’ve eaten a lot of granola bars and string cheese. Making money on the convention circuit means knowing how to travel on the cheap.
Be Aware of Other Hidden Costs
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that travel and accommodation will be your only expenses; these sneaky fees will eat into your profits just as quickly.
Dealer’s Table Fees
Dealer’s tables aren’t free. The convention makes back some of its operating costs by selling the tables to dealers, so expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 for your spot. Think that sounds expensive? The big conventions charge even more. This year, San Diego Comic-Con is charging $3,000 per table.
Credit Card Processing Fees
If you use Square, PayPal, or another credit card processing app, be aware that it will take a percentage out of every transaction. Square takes 2.75% off every swiped transaction, for example, which means that if you run $500 in credit card transactions, Square takes $13.75.
One of the best ways to be successful in the convention circuit is by getting to know the other dealers and convention staff. This means networking -- and yes, it’s the fun kind of networking, like going out for pizza after the convention is over, but it’s also going to cost money. Set aside some cash to spend on socializing and meeting other people at the convention. You can build friendships, share information and maybe even share a ride or hotel room at the next convention.
And, as always, be aware of sales taxes and sales permits, which often differ from state to state.
I’ll leave you with another great resource on selling merch at conventions: Spatial Anomaly’s Being a Convention Dealer: Tips and Advice for Getting Started in the Convention Business. If you have any questions about what to sell or how to get started, leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them!
Your Turn: Have you ever sold merchandise at a geek convention?