View Full Version : I neeed your opinoin regarding sutlery.
02-08-2008, 08:26 PM
Hello friends, Brothers, and fellow reenactors!
The wheels are turning in my head, and I am wondering your thoughts. I am wondering how you think of this concept.
I seen several photo's of original sutler photo's where the sutler has a counter at the opeing of his tent. This more traditional role is not what we are usually used to at events, but it would seem to be more traditional. All items would be behind the counter. If a patron is intersted in looking at the item, it is then brought to the counter for veiwing, it is more like the old mercantile's would have done. Patron's would advise the sales clerk of what he/she is in need of. I would have a posted price list of wares on an easel outside the door.
Your input is appreciated!!!
02-08-2008, 09:33 PM
Talk to John Crabb (Ezra Barnhouse Goods), he's already doing a period sutler impression now.
02-08-2008, 09:39 PM
See: Army of the Pacific.
02-08-2008, 10:44 PM
Right now I do a modified version, my merchandise is out but I have three plank tables under a fly in front of my wall tent.
02-09-2008, 09:18 AM
Seems it would be a great impression but slow for business. modern shoppers like to zip in look around and zip out without much human assisstance. it would involve a behavioral change towards traditional shopping.
02-10-2008, 04:26 PM
It actually works quite well, occaisonally there is a "bums rush" but works none the less. It takes a lot of research and work having all of the stock prepared acurately - but if you cannot do it right why bother.
02-10-2008, 05:20 PM
Just from a participants persepctive - I have been to events where Mr. Crabb has set up a period sutler impression and I thought it was fantstic. It really adds another dimension to an event. It's a crucial element, in my opinion, to an immersive static camp impression.
02-10-2008, 05:55 PM
I would guess you need to decide how far you're willing to take it as an impression, as opposed to for profit. Mr Crabb has proven you can do both (not that I have audited his books), but there would be a level of patience there for both you and the customers. I also wonder if the event set-ups would be your bread-and-butter, or more of an expierence for you and the customers that also provided you with good advertising for mail orders. For me, a first-person expierence with this type of set-up would be great, but I can only imagine it would take a lot of set-up time on your part for limited cash rewards at the moment.
Am I remembering that Chris Utley use to have a handcart at events? He might also be able to shed some light on this topic where most of us can only guess.
02-10-2008, 11:31 PM
I did have a push cart at events for a good while, as well as occupying structures in forts, etc. Back when Jon Ferrel and I started doing the cart thing, there was virtually no one that did it. Like everything else, the idea spread and now there are a number of folks that do period vending out of carts, wagons, etc. This is definitely a good thing for the hobby, and does add alot to events for those authentically minded participants.
The cart is, I think, the best way to go if you want to carry a small number of items. There are numerous first hand accounts of vendors going through camp selling items. I just read one this week that I'd never seen before, and it talked about Shakers from a nearby village visiting the troops with baskets full of fruit pies and bread....all for sale. The cart also isn't bad for a static display on sutler row...it definitely looks better than the circus tents we're used to seeing.
If you did use a tent, I would go with the hospital sized wall tent (finding a true authentic repro of that is another problem entirely). I have used the front counter approach a few times, and it worked nice for me, although like John said, you do get rushed at times and do probably lose some customers because of folks having to wait in line while you help those in front. Again, I would only do this type of thing with a small number of period packaged items. I wouldn't do it if you were going to carry a large variety or have a large number of small items (buttons, etc). If you do, try to make them available on the front counter or have a table or two to the side of the tent.
One thing I will caution you about, however. Keep in mind that you are going to have to make SOME profit on your items, unless you want to sink alot of money into a very very expensive "impression." This seems to be the hardest thing to keep in mind for most vendors, and is yet another reason that going with a small cart will keep you grounded, because you can't fit that much inventory in it. I started with a cart, went to cabin/fort set up, and then went to large 15ft square tent. I am now back to the cart, and will stay there because of time issues and "real" life and job taking way too much of my time away from my hobbies...LOL.
So, in short, will it work? Yes, just keep your expectations and expenses grounded.
02-10-2008, 11:42 PM
To elaborate on my set up, I have my tables set up in a horseshoe configuration and I can quickly assist any customer who comes in. I keep the bulk of my stock in the wall tent and use the display simply to have an example of each item. It is very customer centered and service oriented. Like others said you do get your rushes, but most people understand as long as you acknowledge them and greet them in a timely manner. If they see something of interest they will almost always be courteous enough to wait or come back shortly.
I can not say I am truly doing the "authentic" sutler impression since I am selling goods that would be issued as well as privately purchased. Unfortunately we don't get our uniforms "issued" to us these days so everything is a "private purchase".
02-11-2008, 06:18 AM
Here are my thoughts based on my experience on Sutler Row.
Authentic Tentage: I use a hospital wall tent. To me, this is the tent you see used most often by sutlers in original photos. I also use the fly OVER the tent rather than in front. This allows for a cooler tent in the summer and a warmer tent in the winter. While authentic, there are two main draw backs: 1) You can't set it up with one person and 2) the flow of traffic is usually tight during a 'rush'.
Practical tentage: Those 'bedouin boudoirs" are just wrong. However, they do allow for a one person set up and they have high walls all around for more floor space and a better flow of traffic.
Self Serve vs full service: I too have toyed with the idea of just setting up a table a the front of the tent like the period sutlers and making it 100% full service. I even tried it at event for a few hours, but noticed I didn't make one sale, so I rearranged the tent and sales started going up. People spend most of Friday at an event just browsing, they like to pass through sutler row 1 or 2 times, then on Friday Night, Saturday and Sunday do their shopping. The average modern consumer wants to shop at their own pace.
NOTE: While I do have authentic canvas and all my modern tables are hidden well, nothing I sell would have been sold by a sutler in the 1860s. I mainly sell military issue items.
02-11-2008, 06:40 AM
Chris nailed it. It is a great impression - expensive, but great. If you cannot make a profit (even a small profit) then it truley is a very expensive impression. When Beth and I decided to go this route we had a couple of rules we decided on. We either needed to make a profit, or at least break even (this included the cost of transport for the wagon and horse) or we would stop - we decided we would do a couple of events and see how it went. That was about 3 or 4 years ago. It is still hard work, lots of research and much of our free time is used up. We now have many venues to do our business - Wagon, hand cart, tent, portable cabin or use of on site buildings. We do 19th Century mainly, but are moving into some 18th Century too (means new clothes!!).
02-11-2008, 08:42 AM
I know a lot of my sutler purchases at events are spur-of-the-moment when I'm walking around inside the tent. If I don't walk around, I wouldn't buy anything. But that's for you.
For us, I think a period suter impression would be amazing! I know that if I had in mind something specific that I needed, I would go to the period impression sutler to see if they had what I need before going on to the "mainstream" sutlers.
02-11-2008, 08:53 AM
Don't forget most events generally charge "sutler registration fees"...I suppose these would depend on the type of event, and the amount of space required for your sutlery. I'm sure some of the experienced vendors who have already commented on this thread could fill you in with regards to what the "average" fee might be for an event...just noting another expense vendors often incur...(beyond the obvious; fuel, meals, time off from work...etc.)
02-11-2008, 09:22 AM
One thought on whether reenactors/customers will perceive the change as positive or negative.
If they're shopping as part of recreating a period experience, and they know what shopping was like in the period, they'll perceive it as positive, since it gets them closer to what would have been done at the time.
If they're shopping to get the experience they're used to at events or at modern stores, it'll be negative, because it alters that experience, and they're already happy with the familiar norms of "sutler row" and modern stores.
02-12-2008, 12:32 AM
I am reminded of a maxim told to me by a very well known sutler friend: Never purchase anything you intend to resell that you cannot get AT LEAST 50 percent more for than you paid for it.
To show what I mean: If you buy jackets wholesale for $160, how many do you think you could sell for $240 plus?
Let's reverse engineer this: If you're retailing "Stainless" smoothside canteens for $25, then one can assume you paid a maximum of $16.00 or so for it.
I can get wholesale "Tin" canteens made here in the USA all day for 23.00 each. Factor in 50 percent, recover it with a jean cloth cover, add either a leather strap or marked sewn strap, the CORRECT style jack chain or string/hemp cork attachment, and something for my time and that price will get pretty close to 70 or 80 dollars.
IMHO the pricing that is reflected in this thread and another along this same line, does not appear to factor in the 50 percent rule plus shipping cost (which must be passed to the customer, unless you as the proprietor intend to eat that cost), and I think in the long run you'll find that it's costing you more money than it's worth.
I don't think any sutler (authentic or mainstream) ever started out thinking "I'm gonna get rich". It's just not going to happen. Most probably don't even make a living doing just that. (Most sutlers that I am personally connected with, have full-time jobs, if not several).
A friend of mine went to an event in WV not too long ago, and when all was said and done (meaning gas, food, etc) was accounted for, I think his total profit for the weekend was 2.95 against a weekend of missed worktime worth several hundred dollars.
02-12-2008, 07:10 AM
Sutler Mathematics 101
Aside from gas prices and other 21st century economy problems, here are some sutler row specifics to think about before you venture into the great world of sutlering
Sutler Fees: Those fees do vary. You can go to great mid-sized events with standard rates of $55.00-$75.00 per space regardless of the size of your tent. However, the mega events charge a flat fee, plus a square footage charge. This means that depending on the size of your tent fees can reach $500.00 pretty quickly.
The good news is that if you compare that to table space at a gun show or quilt convention and $500.00 is a drop in the bucket, but as pointed out in other portions of this thread, the profit on sutler row just isn't there for other reasons.
Usually the sutler fee is directly related to the size of the event, but not always. An event like Rich Mountain with 400 people with a fee of $75, but an event like September Storm with 2,000 people had the same fee. Some events like Cedar Creek increase fees every 5 years for the anniversary events, this is completely justified since the events are bigger every 5 years.
In the end, event organizers need early registration from sutlers as seed money to get an event off the ground and start advertising to get participants. Sometimes we're actually paying sutler fees a year in advance even before the land is secured and the dates are set.
Sutler to participant ratio: Another factor in the sutler row math is the ratio of sutlers to troops. When I was sutler coordinator for events, I tried to get a 1:100 ratio of sutlers to participants. This ratio was never a fixed number due to registered participants not showing up at the last minute and event organizers inflating troop numbers. Some events have 4,000 participants (civilian and military), but have 80-90 sutlers. I think we counted over 100 sutlers at Manassas in 2006, but there were only about 3,500 registered paticipants.
Accessability: This usually comes into play with two factors. The first is schedule and the second is location. At some events like Corinth in 2004, the troops were held in camp under guard and were not permitted to come to sutler row from Friday afternoon until Saturday night. That meant that the sutlers spent most of our weekend standing in the middle of sutler row jawing about the weather.
Location is key as well. I know participants don't want the funnel cakes and circus tents backing up to their camp, but having us 1.5 miles away isn't good for us either.
Annual Schedule: Remember years ago when the season would end with Remembrance Day and not start up again until Saylor's Creek? Then there would be 2-3 anniversary events in between and we'd end the year again. Nowadays the schedule seems jam packed with events. You can literally do an event every week of the year and some weekends choose between 3-4 events. We've got two Antietams, two Gettysburgs, we've got Chancellorsville in April and Stones River in March, we've got the Peninsula Campaign in Pennsylvania and Winter Quarters in New York.
Now granted, the influx of all these events means we've got a wider range of events to choose from and the quality has certainly gone up, but this has lowered numbers in every aspect of the hobby.
In the end, anyone wishing to start up a business should take an entire weekend and visit us on sutler row. Talk to the vendors who sell imported stuff, talk to the vendors who make their own gear, talk to the vendors who sell bumper stickers, talk to the vendors who sell food, talk to the vendors who sing songs. Visit us particularly during the battle on Saturday, that's when sutler row is quite and you'll catch the sutlers relaxed and ready to talk.
I don't want to discourage anyone from starting a business and being an entrepreneur, but this business has unique problems that many other industries do not.
02-12-2008, 07:12 AM
You are correct. Many of us are not in it to "get rich". Those that do this as their primary income are struggling. I personally also have my "day" job to pay my modern living expenses, health insurance, etc. - Monday through Friday 7:00am to 5:00pm. No big profit and a few break even events. If I did not have fun doing it, I wouldn't be doing it - I would just chuck it all and buy a boat!
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