Strictly Business: Blue-ribbon business opportunity at the fair

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Launched in 1868 in Esther Short Park, the Clark County Fair has always been the place for country and city residents to proudly display animals, talents, and crafts. It also has become a vital marketplace for hundreds of mom-and-pop, mostly local businesses that have little money to invest in marketing. For as little as $890 to purchase a booth during the fair's 10-day run, which ended a week ago, small businesses can put their products and services in front of thousands of fairgoers.

Throngs of visitors show up at the Ridgefield fairgrounds for the thrill rides, demolition derby, dog shows, concerts and award-winning livestock. But some of them leave with the latest kitchen gadgets or the realization that they need to get their chimney cleaned, invest for retirement, or replace that sagging mattress.

Each year brings a new hot product, and this was "the year of the bed vendor," says Chris Huggett, the fair's event coordinator. Beds are, he says, an ideal product to market at the fair: vendors can reach people who might need their products, but haven't gone to the effort of making a trip to the mattress store.

There are plenty of other needed services and products that we all put out of mind as long as possible, and fair vendors are willing to remind us what needs to be done. Greg Verdugo is owner of Vancouver Chimney & Masonry, a company with six employees. He's bought a booth at the fair's exhibit hall for several years and figures the contacts he makes there account for almost one-third of his business. That, Verdugo says, makes it worth his while to spend long days at the fair, offering a greeting and a handshake, answering questions about fireplaces and hoping people remember his company when its time to clean that chimney.

Like a giant shopping mall

With about a quarter-million visitors, the fair is the single-largest multi-day event in the Portland metropolitan region. Its exhibit hall and other vendor areas become a giant temporary shopping mall filled with people who have time on their hands and money to spend.

Yet the ambience couldn't be further from that of today's suburban malls, which are meticulously designed to fully exploit the human desire to shop and spend. While Huggett at least makes sure that vendors of competing products aren't placed side-by-side, a walk through the loosely organized hall is a study in random retail organization.

Even in this casual atmosphere, there are rules to follow β€” no foul language, no marketing out on the midway, no wandering away from your booth to lure in shoppers. Keep up the booth's appearance. Most vendors get along well, Huggett says, but there have been a few squabbles between competitors.

The fair's grandest booth commands a $3,000 fee, and the lowest a mere $890. But the price for small businesses is in time. The booths have to remain open, and for small-business owners like Verdugo that means spending two weeks in sales rather than cleaning chimneys.

There are, in total, 300 vendors at the fair, Huggett says, and the number varies little from year to year. Most vendors are based in Clark County, but some travel from California, Arizona, and even Florida as part of a summer-long circuit of fairs and festivals.

They'll come again next year and the year after, always with something new to sell in Clark County's oldest retail market.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business; or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.