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View Full Version : Becoming a sutler



oneeye
09-02-2008, 05:03 PM
I have been interested in setting up as a sutler at some of our local reenactments. My question is simply "where can I buy wholesale?" I know many sutlers that have their own sources and some make their items for sale. I would appreciate any input...really want to set up as a sutler and maybe specialize in one or two items.

Marc
09-02-2008, 05:18 PM
Good Luck....with the downturn in event participation and unless you happen to have something unique or really a great reproduction, I think you will find the ability to breakeven tough.

Craig L Barry
09-02-2008, 06:12 PM
When I was a kid I worked summers part time at a Sporting Goods store, one of those "Tennis and Ski" places. Anyway, my boss told me Chick-Fil-A probably made more profit than other store in the mall, ours included. Likewise, I think the Frybread and rootbeer "sutler" makes more than any of the other businesses set up on the sutler's row of the average mainstream Civil War reenactment.

I know Andy Faulks said he would sell Fall Creek "in a minute" for what he had in inventory right now. That was in December at the Nashville Gun Show and nothing has occurred to improve the business climate very much since, in fact it could be worse. The sutlers pay a fee to set up, and often drive long distances in vehicles which are less fuel efficient. To breakeven on an event they have to sell more than they used to, and most are not selling as much as they used to.

Hence, I would re-consider your business plan unless frybread and rootbeer is involved somehow. Those seem to be the only places making out all right at the moment.

Ross L. Lamoreaux
09-02-2008, 07:27 PM
I don't want to be another of those fellow rain bearers, so I'll TRY to keep it positive and upbeat. First you should determine if you plan to be an authentic sutler, a mainstream sutler, or a combination of the two. The authentic sutler has a little less inventory, but higher product costs involved, as to have correct merchandise you'll need some high quality American vendors or be really handy yourself, with costs rising and spending lowering daily. You would also be set up in the military camps, so permission from the military command would have to be received. To be a mainstream sutler, develop a good working relationship with Pakastani importers and be willing to risk them "losing" parts of your orders and sending stuff that'll fall apart quickly so guys have to come to you for more. The mark-up is a little more in your favor than going the authentic route. The third option is a slight variation of both methods , whereby you could make some of the things yourself, import some other things, and develop relationships with subcontractors for other things. There are several vendors out there who offer typical fare on the cheap but also have some higher-end goods for those who want that. Now, here's the downside- the economy is getting worse by the day, with less people attending events, more people utilizing mailorder, and more people spending less. If you've reenacted for more than a few years, count the number of field merchants at a given event versus how many there were a few years ago. I think you'll find there are substantially less. Mr. Barry gave some sage advice above - unless you plan on selling food or drink, count on some lean times.

mmescher
09-02-2008, 08:11 PM
Let me toss in my two cents as a sutler for 15 years, albeit a small one who has a day job.

I don't know what merchandise you are planning on carrying but there are sutlers all over the map. There are more general merchandise vendors than specialists but general merchandise vendors need large inventories.

After you have chosen your area of specialty, rest assured that no sutler will reveal his sources unless you offer something very valuable in return. This may seem selfish at first but your reason for asking makes the silence understandable -- why give you information that would help you compete with them. Your going into business won't increase the dollars people have to spend. It will only spread the sales dollars over one more vendor.

You also need to check whether you have the finances to be a sutler. You will need a tent to house your wares which, depending on what you sell, could be handled under a fly or could require a tent selling for several hundred dollars. Then you need to get your inventory (most manufacturers/distributors have a minimum order) and have some method of transporting it from here to there. And this is all before you've made a dime.

Then there is the time element. Sutlers generally need to be there the day before the event opens to put up their tent and set up their sales area. Then when it is over, they are packing up and loading their vehicle. With luck, they were able to pack up their tent dry so when they get home they only have to unload and don't have to figure a way to dry their tent. All these things take time that, if you have a day job, would need to dovetail.

You also didn't mention if you are married. If so, make sure your spouse is in agreement with the financial and time requirements of being a sutler.

You mentioned that you'd like to do local events. Just keep in mind that local events don't have the "gate" of larger events yet you'll have to devote the same time for setup and tear down. If you want to do larger events, they usually have a list of returning sutlers that get first chance to register and then they start on the waiting list.

I don't want to be negative about it but, at the same time, I don't want you to invest a lot in an enterprise that only leaves you with a lot of indebtedness. Look at what people are selling, think about what you'd like to sell, and calculate the expenses of getting started. Then, after calculating the transportation costs, meals, booth fees, and other expenses of running a business, estimate what volume of sales you would need to break even and pay off some of your investment in your long-term equipment (e.g., your tent). Then do a realistic appraisal of what you could expect to make from an event and divide it by at least 2 because your sales will never meet your expectations. The results may surprise you.

On the plus side, I've met a lot of really great people in the sutler community and have become friends with many of them. It is a lot of fun to have former customers return and I've been doing this long enough I've been able to watch their children growing up. That is part of the payoff that, like the master card ad, is priceless. But, unless you are independently wealthy in the first place, you have to make some money in the process.

Michael Mescher

Poor Private
09-02-2008, 08:17 PM
As a reenactor never a sutler here is my point of view.
At lots of local events they are sulterless(?).I Belong to 2 units that sponsor 3 events here in Michigan and we can't hardly get a sutler to attend the events. If your intending to be a sutler consider all your local events even the 100 reenactor events. Sometimes the sutler make the bucks on the locals who have $ to spend because there is nothing else to spend it on. How many spectators do you see carrying around a sword for the mantle or as a wall hanger. How many "pop" guns get sold to kids? Every small event needs sulters. So if your goin to be a sutler go to the small local events- this will give you recognition, and a name for being there when other won't. Also showing up, you earn the gratitude of the organizers, so when they get bigger who are they going to invite back?

Craig L Barry
09-02-2008, 09:22 PM
Don't forget the sutler mafia...the "who gets in and who doesn't" politics, slashed tires and so on. The prime high traffic spots always go to the big players and they can be a little less than welcoming to newcomers. Regqtm sold James River defarbed muskets. I remember Mark Hartmann of James River Armory was planning to sell his defarbed Enfields and US 1861s inside Regqtm's tent at Cedar Creek a few years back until another sutler complained about it and made him take his James River sign down. Only one sutler sign per "tent".

The bottom line is don't quit your day job, but the advice you are given here is sound...if you find a niche market for a product or service you can provide, you might make some extra money doing what you enjoy. If you do it low overhead, and have reasonable goals and expectations for the business you can at least offset the cost of participating at events where you don't set up. One does not buy a tent, hang out a sign and become another Regimental Quartermaster overnight. I would start out with a website, do mail order and see what the interest level is with that minimum investment, then go from there.

ArseMillinery
09-06-2008, 08:34 AM
Promise money for preservation then default on your payment.

How many in this thread have seen that ?

Pvt_VP
09-06-2008, 07:59 PM
Smaller events may have fewer participants, but those events it seems to me are attended by more family groups. Younger kids like the wooden guns, pistols, and swords. They also like the hats and other small odds and ends such as poke bags etc. Those are easy enough to make with a few simple tools, cost very little to produce, and are a decent seller from what I have seen. Try those and some other mainstreem and authenic mix, see what is most popular, and go from there. Don't start out too big, or you could be in some big trouble. Maybe even try being a sutler from that period, dress as they would have, and sell things soldiers would have bought. Just my 2 cents

Good luck:)

mmescher
09-06-2008, 09:27 PM
To amend my earlier message, I left out a couple of things that you should do with any business. Make sure you are registered with each state where you want to do business as a business and collect sales tax. I know this is a pain but all you need to do is have one visit from the local taxing authority and it will blow your profit margin. This last year at Gettysburg sutlers were not allowed to set up unless they had submitted proof of having registered with the state.

The other element is learn all about Schedule C and Schedule SE for your income taxes. Again, going through the paper work is a bother but it does have a practical purpose. It is a real eye opener when you are figuring whether you made a profit or loss for the year.

And, last but not least, unless you are just selling souvenir type items, research what you sell. Some items are popular but, if you're trying to sell reproduction stuff, are they appropriate?

By the way, other than saying you wanted to do local events, you never have said what type of stuff you wanted to sell. Any contributions so we may be able to be more specific.

Michael Mescher

Army30th
09-06-2008, 10:29 PM
I'm not sure if other states work this way or not, but here in New Jersey once you register to collect sales tax, you must fill out a form every month, and a quarterly report every 3 months, whether you have a sale or not for as long as you continue to operate. I have a certificate of authority to collect sales tax, and it's only good at the address located on the certificate. There's nothing in the resale law of my state that would cover a business of this type. A food vendor must have a certificate to do business at a specific location on a specific date. I know in New York, it's that way for food vendors too, but that's the only other state I am familiar with.

If you go to an event in let's say, Ohio, for three days and never go back to Ohio again, are you going to register to collect tax/pay tax to that state or just "take your chances"? That's a lot of paperwork that the majority of smaller sutlers just don't have the time to do. I'm not saying it's the ethical thing to do, but coming from a state that requires you to have a permit to sell your personal stuff from your garage/yard/driveway, you can see how cumbersome the paper trail would be.

Drygoods
09-07-2008, 01:46 PM
There are some good ideas here, but the most important thing is, do you know anything? I say this because I know quite a few sutlers that truly don't know much of anything about the CW era and are there only to make a fast profit. If you don't know your history, the material culture, the battles and units fighting, and what is necessary for a good impression, you won't last long. Yes, stupid people buy all sorts of things, but only those who have a real knowledge as well as talent, will be able to make an honest living in this hobby. (plastic cap guns are not honest living IMO) So do you want to be a sutler or a souvenir shop? Just who is your market?

Read, study, look at originals, and keep your documentation as your best friend, and you stand a chance. Never quit studying, because just when you think you know enough, something new surfaces and you learn all over again. Even if someone comes to you with an article that is two years old, that article is too old, so keep digging.

Plus, be willing to throw money away. Sometimes when you get started you build stock that you hope will sell, but it may not be what the public wants at the moment, be patient, and listen to your customers and don't be afraid to say NO to them. It's your business and the customer is not always right, more often than not, they don't know what they need, let alone want. So YOU better know your history and how to put everything together. In time, those smart customers who research will have great conversations with you, and perhaps send you into new avenues of information. The only thing that keeps you in this business is accuracy, if you are accurate with your information, then you will be known as an authentic vendor.

ElizabethClark
09-07-2008, 04:05 PM
Most states and municipalities with sales tax offer temporary resale certificates, so a merchant can collect tax in a state or town other than his own on a one-event basis, without a lifetime paperwork commitment.

Charles Weathers
09-07-2008, 07:55 PM
I would love to see a vendor that specialized in period food items and small personal soldier items. Sometimes I forget to pack enough period food and it would be nice if I could buy some while at the event.
When I go into most sutler tents they want to push the big ticket items. What about smaller items that don't cost as much? I know we can make most of them on our own and some do, but what if you don't have the skill/material, time, or you just started out?
And like it was said, make a point to attend the small events. The organizers will greatly appreciate it and so will the reenactors. We do a lot of small local events and I am always dissapointed when there are no sutlers. For me especially because I have to try on items to make sure they fit!
I wish you the best of luck and would like to here your thoughts on what style of sutler you are interested in.

Ross L. Lamoreaux
09-07-2008, 08:55 PM
I would love to see a vendor that specialized in period food items and small personal soldier items. Sometimes I forget to pack enough period food and it would be nice if I could buy some while at the event.
When I go into most sutler tents they want to push the big ticket items. What about smaller items that don't cost as much? I know we can make most of them on our own and some do, but what if you don't have the skill/material, time, or you just started out?
And like it was said, make a point to attend the small events. The organizers will greatly appreciate it and so will the reenactors. We do a lot of small local events and I am always dissapointed when there are no sutlers. For me especially because I have to try on items to make sure they fit!
I wish you the best of luck and would like to here your thoughts on what style of sutler you are interested in.
They are already out there at some of the quality events. Just look for John and Beth Crabb of Ezra Barnhouse Goods and Chris Utley of Carter and Jaspar. If you don't get to those events, just go to their websites. They have some very high quality period goods.

Drygoods
09-07-2008, 10:10 PM
the one thing about dealing with food, and period food products is that all must be prepared in a certified, inspected kitchen, and you need a food license. On top of having your food items prepared and inspected, sometimes it is tough to have the period foods prepared in their period packaging, such as the antique bottles. You sometimes loose a few bottles simply in the process which can raise the cost after paying for the commerical kitchen, labels, food, &c. Speaking from experience here.;)

Pvt_VP
09-09-2008, 10:17 PM
Another idea is to simply carry period goods, basically the same way a sutler would during the WBTS. Dress up in period clothes. Although this may not be as profitable, it will probably be more enjoyable, and many reenactors will be more comfortable coming to a "period" sutler than leaving the military camp and going into a "modern" one for those little needs. Many things can be made at home easily, such as poke sacks and housewives. Maybe get into some of the easier leatherworking. Get a few pards to help make some of the stuff, kind of like an old fashioned barn raising, alot of people love doing that stuff.

Just my 2 cents

ElizabethClark
09-10-2008, 11:22 AM
I think it would be good to clarify, too:

"Sutler" is a very specific mid-century impression/role--one who contracts to sell non-issue items to troops in military settings.

"Merchants" sell to everyone, outside of military camps, and could be selling things that a mid-century merchant would sell to the public, or could be a modern merchant selling a wide range of items to reenactors and spectators.

MMurphy
09-25-2008, 06:44 PM
Hence, I would re-consider your business plan unless frybread and rootbeer is involved somehow. Those seem to be the only places making out all right at the moment.


Hmmm...I'm thinking of opening a funnel cake franchise....:smile: