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Posted on Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

Top 5: Key strategies for downtown Ann Arbor retailers tackling Art Fair

By Lizzy Alfs

Downtown Ann Arbor’s annual Art Fair can be a sales hit or miss for local brick-and-mortar retail stores.

The annual fair — planned for July 18-21 this year — can attract over 500,000 attendees that browse and shop on the streets of downtown.

But because the streets from South University Avenue to Ingalls Mall and down to South Main Street are lined with some 1,200 artists selling their work at booths, local businesses are forced to think outside the box in order to attract customers inside.

Crowd overview Art Fairs AW.JPG

The Ann Arbor Art Fair can attract more than 500,000 people to the downtown area.

File photo

“People from out of town see the whole city through tents,” explained Elmo’s T-Shirts owner Elmo Morales, who was one of several downtown retailers that shared Art Fair advice at a Main Street Area Association event last week.

“When it’s really crowded (on the streets), people search us out,” he continued. “When it’s not, it’s up to you.”

From buying extra toilet paper to overstaffing, here are 5 key strategies retailers employ to tackle the event:

1) Limit inventory

It might be tempting to order and display a surplus of inventory to prepare for the thousands of people that fill the streets during Art Fair.

But Morales, who owns stores on East Liberty Street and South Main Street, said that might not be the best strategy.

“I try not to have my aisles filled with so much stuff,” he said. “If (customers) feel claustrophobic, they will leave the store. (Retailers) tend to bring out lots of stuff and that could work against you.”

Roger Pothus, owner of Renaissance clothing store on South Division Street, agreed: “You don’t want to give people too many choices.”

“Give them a small presentation and later change it, and then change it again, instead of trying to get everything you have out there,” he said.

Katherine Lesse, the owner of Abracadabra Jewelry and Gem Gallery on East Liberty Street, said she gets inventory on loan from artists and vendors during Art Fair.

The reason: “You don’t know what’s going to sell at Art Fair. Get it loaned, so you can boost what you have on hand without spending.”

2) Offer sidewalk sales

Many retailers agree: sidewalk sales are crucial to drawing customers inside.

Maura Thomson, executive director of the Main Street Area Association, said shoppers at Art Fair are primarily hunting for bargains, which is why it’s beneficial to display marked-down items outside.

“Your inventory loses value every month,” she said. “Now is a good time to get it out there and discount it, because if you bring it back in the store, you’re just losing money.”

La Belle Maison owner Maureen Hawley said she uses sidewalk sales outside her South Main Street store — businesses can rent sidewalk space during Art Fair — to get rid of older inventory.

“We mark everything down with red pens so people can see the deal they’re getting, and we put clearance stuff outside,” she said.

Vault of Midnight owner Curtis Sullivan said that because Art Fair shoppers flock to the lower priced items outside, he orders special inventory for the event.


An aerial look at Liberty Street during an Ann Arbor Art Fair.

Lon Horwedel |

“The right people will come and find the bigger, unique items in the store, but the little stuff sells great for us outside during Art Fair,” he said.

3) Relieve shoppers of heat, crowds

“It’s always hot and it always rains.”

That’s the message from Amy Farnum, director of the gallery shop at the Ann Arbor Art Center, who said the weather tends to be extreme during Art Fair.

In 2010, a strong rainstorm shortened day three of the Art Fair, causing shoppers to head home as artists scrambled to pack up their booths. Last year, sweltering heat kept crowds down and sales low for some artists.

But brick-and-mortar stores have an advantage: they can invite customers inside to relieve them of extreme weather or crowds.

“We get a lot of traffic inside the store for our air conditioning,” said Hawley. “Once people are inside, then they’ll just buy.”

Morales said it's also important to take care of the artists at their booths, since they can be stuck outside for long periods of time.

"Try to be good to the artists in front of your store," he said. "Invite them to use your bathroom and share stuff. It's hard for them, too, and it's a good relationship. We always give them special discounts on our t-shirts."

4) Prepare for the worst

One year during Art Fair, Morales said the air conditioning at one of his stores stopped working and repair people could not get access until after the event was over.

“There are things that happen that you can’t be in control of, so you have to think ahead,” he said.

He advised to stock up on supplies, including toilet paper, cash register tape, bags and batteries.

Hawley said there are usually some emergencies — such as several heat related health incidents in 2011 — and she once had a woman fall near her store and had to call the hospital.

5) Overstaff

Keri Hardy, manager of Cherry Republic on South Main Street, said she plans to increase staff during the entire Art Fair event this year.

Farnum advised: "Overstaff because some of your people are not going to show up. Everybody gets sick or has something going on."

At Abracadabra Jewelry and Gem Gallery, Lesse said she tries to make it fun for her staff — something she thinks will permeate to the store's customers.

"We try and make it a party," Lesse said. "We also close for three weeks after (Art Fair) to recover so employees have that to look forward to; they know they're going to work like dogs, but then they get a great vacation."

She added: ""It's your biggest advertising opportunity with the people of this town and others that you get all year. If you're staff is really happy and having a great time, even if that's all they communicate, your store will be remembered."

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at



Mon, Jul 16, 2012 : 9:26 p.m.

Sidewalk sales are part of the fun of arts fairs, and Vicki, below, is absolutely right that Kerrytown offers a little break from the madness and oddly enough, parking is usually available there. It's easier than the rest of the year.

Madeleine Borthwick

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 : 3 p.m.

it's NOT art, and it's NOT fair.

Corey Fellabaum

Tue, Jul 10, 2012 : 4:39 p.m.

It's Ann Arbor! It's the famous Art Fair! The Art Fair is good for Ann Arbor, it brings business to Ann Arbor where it boosts and supports the Ann Arbor economy, it shows people this great city and it brings people back to visit again. Ann Arbor is a great place to visit, a great place to live, a great place to have lots of opportunities of great events like the Art Fair and Summer Festival, and great place to work and play! Ann Arbor is the best city in Michigan!

Tex Treeder

Tue, Jul 10, 2012 : 1:05 a.m.

Cute slogan, but so ambiguous as to be meaningless.


Mon, Jul 9, 2012 : 9:19 p.m.

How is it not art?

Greta Barnard

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 : 4:02 a.m.

Kindly correct that last quote to read "your staff" instead of "you're staff"! Looking forward to a great time at art fair this year!


Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 9:15 p.m.

Actually the number of visitors has been steadily dropping since 2008. Attendance last year was closer to 100,000, according to some estimates, though the city doesn't like to publish those numbers.....stay home. The quality has been getting poorer each year as artists can't make enough profit after paying excessive booth fees, transportation and housing for 4 days. Good article in the July 2012 Observer on the decline of the AA Art Fair.

say it plain

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 : 12:31 a.m.

Oh my, just read that piece in the Observer, how depressing... maybe the should give the young artists tips on avoiding having to take jobs at Home Depot and ditching their art--something an older artist interviewed feared would happen to many of them who hadn't already 'made it' back in the free-spending 80s and 90s. Seems like further evidence of the decline of the 'middle class'...

say it plain

Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 11:46 p.m.

Interesting, thanks for that info and lead to a 'different' story on the Fair. I wouldn't count on to provide facts lol, if they interfere with its core mission of clicks and boosterism!

vicki honeyman

Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 6:11 p.m.

The Kerrytown neighborhood is always a nice respite from the crowded fair streets. Our businesses are not crowded with fair-goers, there's always parking available on our streets, and we all offer art fair sales too! Visit the other side of Huron St. if you want to get out of your home or office during the fair....we are happy to have your company and have sidewalk sales throughout the week. Vicki Honeyman Heavenly Metal 207 E. Ann St.

say it plain

Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 6:23 p.m.

I agree, it's nice over at Kerrytown all the time, but especially at art reveal a big secret about this town ...there's almost *always* parking there at art fair time, d'oh! I hope not too many people catch on to that one...just enough to give the retailers over there the business they deserve when so many extra visitors are strolling around town!

tom swift jr.

Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 3:35 p.m.

And, the number one piece of advice for the rest of us.... Stay home!


Mon, Jul 9, 2012 : 1:16 a.m.

Tex, I agree. I like to walk around while it's cool in the morning. There are always some interesting things to see.

Tex Treeder

Sun, Jul 8, 2012 : 4:54 p.m.

I sometimes wonder why people like this live here. I enjoy Art Fair every year. The art is often questionable and almost always overpriced, but it's an event to look forward to and enjoy just for what it is.