Texas State Fair a Boon to Small Businesses

 Susan Milligan

FAIR PARK, Texas – Kenitha Humphries had developed a personal care product, and it wasn't the sort of thing that was easy to market unless people could see – and, in this case, smell – it up close. So the State Fair of Texas was the perfect place for Humphries to convince women to buy her all-natural serum, which battles intimate skin irritations and smells like cake.

"It brings a lot of business," Humphries says as she manages a booth crowded with people buying the small bottles of Panty Cakes. Humphries sells the product year-round online, but "I happen to think it's because of the state fair that we were picked up by Urban Outfitters." The store started selling Panty Cakes Aug. 20 and sold out within eight days, says Humphries, who is peddling her wares at the Texas fair for the second year in a row.

State fairs are notorious for their heart-unhealthy food offerings (deep-fried pico de gallo, bacon brittle and dessert nachos were new on the fairground menu in Texas this year), but commercial vendors count on the fairs for their business development all year. While the price of a booth outdoor space at a fair can be pricey ($11,600 for a 20-by-20 space at the state fairgrounds in Dallas for the 24 days of Texas' fair), vendors say it gives them a chance to introduce a product to a consumer, especially if the seller does not have a brick-and-mortar shop.

The Minnesota State Fair, for example, is what launched "My Pillow," the product sold on TV infomercials and online and that its creator claims is uniquely designed to provide a perfect night's sleep. "A large fair is no place to learn your business," says Jerry Hammer, general manager of the Minnesota State Fair, but the events can serve as an incubator of sorts for boutique-item businesses, he adds. And for Michael Lindell, the brains behind My Pillow, "it was this particular fair that really launched him," Hammer says. "He was going to different shows, but he says it was the Minnesota State Fair that really put him over the top."

State fairs are meant to both promote state culture and products and to generate money for the state. The Minnesota fair – which Business Insider this year declared the best in the nation – brings in about $250 million in economic development, Hammer says, calling the estimate a conservative one. Texas, meanwhile, host of the largest state fair in the nation, has come under criticism for overstating the event's economic impact: While the fair operators have claimed the event produced as much as $608 million in economic impact, a study by researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, found the impact was closer to $50 million.

And not all fairs are created equal for vendors, notes Julia Wakefield, spokeswoman for SmartAsset, a personal finance site. Lower admission costs allow fairgoers to spend more inside the fairgrounds, she says, explaining why the Mississippi State Fair with its $5 entry fee, won the site's "best state fair" award this year.

Meanwhile, unpredictable (or somewhat predictably bad) weather can reduce foot traffic, and with it, sales. "In Oregon, record-hot temperatures melted fairgoers' enthusiasm, while in Mississippi, rain put a damper on attendance," Wakefield says. North Carolina and South Carolina this year had to delay their respective fairs because of Hurricane Michael.

But despite the uncertainties, individual vendors say the state showcases can be a boon for business. The Texas State Fair is the country's longest-running, this year operating from Sept. 28 to Oct. 21, giving vendors a longer opportunity to sell their goods – or to create a customer base for future sales.

Top Dog Bakery, for example, sells natural treats for dogs, cats and horses at various expos, says owner Vicki Wallace, hustling to keep up with a crowd of people buying oversized doggy bones, dog "Happy Meals" and treats in the shape of French fries and hot dogs. She also sells at the state fairs in Kentucky, Indiana and Oklahoma. "We get a lot of repeat business now. People come every year" to pick up their favorite pet novelties, she says.

Jeanette Morris, who sells Touch of Mink skin care products, has had the same experience, and says the company has been selling at state fairs for 35 years. "It's a big part of our revenue," says Morris, who sells at the fairs in Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Utah.

"Fairs used to be the premier launch site for new products, and commercial sales were actually a traffic driver to fairs," says Meg Anema, executive management assistant for the Arizona Exposition & State Fair. "Online and infomercial sales accomplish the same objective for many guests and from the convenience of their own home. If fairs can actually build an online market, that's great," she adds.

Even vendors with brick-and-mortar stores say they drum up later business by showcasing at the fairs. Love That Door, for example, sells custom-made, wrought iron doors at two local stores in Texas. The concept of a door made of steel might not occur to a homeowner without the exposure of the fair, says Jim Climer, a salesman manning the booth at the Texas fair. Customers see the samples and say, "'Oh, golly! Look at that!' And they keep it in mind," Climer says. Later when they come to the store, they'll often say the words that made the early fall investment worthwhile, he says: "I saw you at the fair."

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