The Minnesota State Fair is a legendary cash cow for food vendors. But for nonfood retail businesses, large and small, it is a gift that keeps on giving all year long.
The 160-year-old fair can ignite steady revenue for brick-and-mortar retailers in ways that social media and digital marketing do not.
“The State Fair is like a massive billboard that still works in the digital age,” said George John, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “You’ve got a million people walking past your stuff in a relaxed atmosphere. It’s the perfect place to expose your products to a willing audience.”
Connie Frederick, who started Ooh La La Boutique in Excelsior 22 years ago, opened a booth in the fair’s Grandstand building three years ago.
“Being at the fair absolutely helps my store year-round and downtown Excelsior too,” she said. “I promote the shops and restaurants in downtown Excelsior to people at the fair. And it works. Traffic at my Excelsior store has increased 50% since I opened at the fair.”
Lauren VanScoy of Essence One soaps and scents said fair exposure to her new business has been a game changer since she opened a booth last year in West End Market.
“It exploded my brand,” she said. “The fair increased my business by more than 100%. I went from having a business so small that I knew all of my online customers to knowing practically none of them.”
Since last year when fairgoers discovered her Minnesota-made soaps, bath oils and deodorants, her stores in Rosedale and the Mall of America have had much higher traffic.
New food vendors generally have as much chance of getting accepted into the fair as any individual has of winning a life-size teddy bear on the Midway, but nonfood vendors have much better odds.
Tyler Conrad, co-owner of five GoodThings gift shops and two former Bibelot shops in the Twin Cities, applied in January for a spot at the fair. Although it was his first attempt, the fair accepted his application, and he was granted a spot at the new North End gate.
“It’s a chance to sell our products to 2 million people and create brand awareness at our seven locations,” he said. “It’s not a big investment but it’s a huge opportunity.”
Conrad will spend about $2,000 to rent a tent over the fair’s 12 days.
What took Conrad and other small brick-and-mortar retailers so long to tap into the State Fair’s marketing muscle? Most assumed it would take a decade or so to get accepted so they never applied. But several retailers said many mom-and-pop retailers don’t apply because it’s a ton of work for a small business with a relatively small staff.
“You have to take time away from your regular business to run another business within a business,” Conrad said. That means identifying which products might sell at the fair, buying enough of them to keep the booth stocked, and finding enough staff to handle customers.
He and his colleagues chose bestsellers from GoodThings stores, such as Puzzle Twists and novelty socks, but also Minnesota-themed items such as corn dog molds, loon callers and T-shirts imprinted with “Pontoon Captain” and “Pontoon Girl” on the fronts.
Even after three years at the fair, Ooh La La’s Frederick said having a booth is very hard work. “I’m here every day and I only sleep about four hours a night during the fair,” she said.
Conrad hopes to improve the odds that his customers at the fair will find themselves at one of his family’s stores in White Bear Lake, Maple Grove, Minneapolis or St. Paul. Fairgoers who make any purchase at the GoodThings tent get a $10 gift card to use at one of the stores ($50 minimum purchase in store).
“That’s a really good way to get us back into the store,” said customer Beth Kolodjski of Roseville, who picked up GoodThings novelty socks at the fair on Thursday.