After years of encouraging people to try on her felted wool gloves and hats, Winnipeg artisan Janet Murata now experiments with other ways of touching potential customers without getting too close.
"I really miss the in-person contact with people," the owner of Michiko Craft says about moving her business online instead of working the craft show circuit.
"They would try on the gloves and try on the hats. A craft show is such a tactile experience."
Artisans such as Murata make the majority of their annual sales during fall craft sales, typically held in October and November.
With the threat of spreading COVID-19 in group settings, the crush of people around vendor’s tables at community centres and church halls won’t be happening much this fall. Organizers of some craft sales, such as this weekend’s Third + Bird Christmas Market, are going ahead with their shows by implementing advanced ticket sales, times entry and limiting crowds to less than 50 per cent capacity.
Those cancellations left artisans scrambling to move all of their wares online over the last few months, says artist and musician Karen Jonsson, who works from her studio on an acreage near Ste. Anne.
"There’s been a real learning curve," she explains of the move away from physical craft shows to virtual sales.
"Artists have had to learn new online platforms."
Faced with high shipping for her pottery bowls and vases, Jonsson decided to create smaller items with less chance of breakage, sculpting decorative clay buttons for use on hand-knit garments and transforming her paintings into wearable art by printing the designs on face masks, which sell for $20.
She made that decision knowing potential customers dealing with the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic may be more inclined to buy useful items with a handmade touch.
"People have been very practical, so there hasn’t been a great deal of sales," says Jonsson, who has made her living from her pottery and art for the last decade.
"People won’t buy something unless they have to have it."
That’s not the experience of Laurel Irving, who has witnessed a 600 per cent increase in the sales of her sea glass sculptures and pebble art in the last months. She credits the huge uptick to customers moving online at the beginning of the pandemic, the unique nature of her art, which features pebbles collected from the shores of Lake Winnipeg, and repeat customers who refer their friends to her Etsy shop, Laurel Irving Studio.
Although she misses chatting with customers visiting her booth at craft shows, moving to virtual sales means she can display — and ultimately sell — all of her stock without packing it up and taking it with her.
"Everything I have available can be available to a worldwide market online," she says of her expanded customer base.
Wolseley artist Karen Fuhr of ArtRocks felt the pinch of lost pandemic sales after two decades of selling her hand-painted rocks and screen-printed cards at craft shows and gift shops. But she’s also found a small benefit to pandemic restrictions: this year she doesn’t have the expense of gas, hotel stays, meals and booth rentals from selling at out-of-town craft sales.
Instead, she’s connecting with her customers by email, using her existing Etsy store, and restocking her items at Forks Trading Co. and other retail venues.
"All of that gives me an advantage over people who are starting and trying to get their name out and trying to convince people their product is worth buying," says Fuhr.
Linking up with other vendors also draws in customers, says Danielle Gerylo of Beausejour, who started Malyy Collective to serve customers looking for handmade items between craft shows. When the pandemic hit, she sped up the launch of her online consignment business, and now features about 40 Manitoba artisans, who pay a commission on their sales.
"We wanted to be able to provide a space online that had the feel of a bigger sale," explains Gerylo of the website.
"This is all in one place and you know it’s local."
With large craft shows not possible this year, the sixth annual Crafted Sale sponsored by the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Manitoba Craft Council goes virtual instead, with a dedicated sale website that goes live at noon, Friday, Nov. 6 and closes at 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8. That short window simulates the excitement and buzz of the live event, which drew about 4,000 visitors to the craft booths on four levels of the WAG in previous years, says Tammy Sutherland, director of the Manitoba Craft Council.
"You want to create a feeling stuff is selling and you’re supporting the artist and if you don’t act now, things may be gone," she says of the time limited sale.
All of the 50 artisans, selected by a jury process, use the same format to display their items on www.craftedsale.ca and customers can scroll through the virtual booths, make their selections, and pay for all the items in one transaction.
Sutherland says the Winnipeg sale follows the format of Edmonton’s Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair in Edmonton, with organizers of that event providing technical support and expertise to Crafted.
Holding the sale virtually gives customers looking for quality items the flexibility of shopping day or night during the three-day sale, says Sutherland.
"You gain ease of use, you shop in your pajamas, you can shop late at night," she says of the advantages.
"What you lose is chatting with the artists and meeting your friends."
Those personal connections may be the biggest loss in the virtual model. Artists learn from each other when they spend long hours at craft sales, sharing marketing strategies and figuring out the best ways to display their wares, says Headingley artisan Lisa Krishka of Silver Stamped Jewelry.
"That’s how you hear what shows are good and not good, and the tricks of the trade," she says of craft sale chat with other artisans.
In this era of physical distancing and avoiding personal touch, jewelry designers like Carly Kliewer of Caged Designs long to see customers face-to-face again, hear their stories and get their feedback. Instead of those over-the-booth conversations, now she employs an old-school personal touch when packaging orders of jewelry.
"I make sure I add thank you notes to everything I ship because it’s so nice to know people are trying to support local (business) even when it’s so difficult," says Kliewer, who sells jewelry at a Morden gallery as well as through her own online shop.
For Murata, there’s a small silver lining in the cancelled 2020 craft show season. Since many people socialize outside to lessen the possibility of virus transmission, they will all need warm woollies for the cold winter ahead. And she’s got that covered with her inventory of mittens and hats made from felted wool sweaters.
"Getting outside is what’s going to get us through the winter months, so we have to keep warm and get outside," says the Wildwood Park resident.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.