Once upon a time, you were all but guaranteed to make a profit if you set up at a local or regional card show. Before eBay came along in the mid-1990s, you could probably find a local show within driving distance, make sure you had enough hot product or a nice stock of vintage cards and come away with money in your pocket. In the 1980s, it was a pretty lucrative way to spend your weekends. Many of today's full-time dealers owe their current success to those early days when aisles were jammed, people had shoe boxes full of cards and stacks of memorabilia in their closets and new customers were entering the hobby at a record pace.
That's not the case anymore, but it's still possible to make setting up at a local or regional card show worthwhile.
Find a Show
You may not have a show right where you live, but chances are there's one within a few hours drive. Beckett's Show Calendar has a pretty extensive listing. Check out the prices for a booth and call the promoter to find out a little more about it. Ask him how he's promoting it. If you get the sense he's not doing much other than listing it there and sending out emails or postcards, don't necessarily drop the idea but try to learn a little more about attendance at past shows before you commit.
Do Some Research
If the show's a go, ask the dealer about the clientele that usually come to the show. Are they mostly looking for new boxes and singles? Is it a mixed group of vintage card collectors, casual collectors and those who will buy to flip on eBay or elsewhere? Make sure you've got the right material so you have a fighting chance to make some sales. Long-running shows generally have some vintage card buyers who've been coming for a long time. Usually, the best shows are those held once or twice a year. Collectors mark them on their calendar. They save their money and are willing to spend it. Many have been around a long time. The promoter usually does a decent job of advertising it and the crowd is diversified. There are some monthly shows that do OK. If they can sell at least 20 tables for a monthly show, that's a good sign.
Gas isn't cheap. Figure out how much it'll cost you to get to the show. Add that figure to your table costs. Add in any meals or snacks you'll buy. If you're staying overnight at a two or three-day show, find out what a hotel will cost you. That's your starting point just to break even. If you don't have a good sense that you can make a profit by the halfway point of the show, don't bother. However, if you think of the show as a marketing effort, maybe it's worthwhile even if you only break even. The point is to know what you're going to lay out. Would you be better off just to stay home and spend the time listing on eBay?
Is your goal to make as much money as possible? Is it to connect with potential customers you can sell to away from the show? Add to your mailing list? Maybe sell yourself as an aggressive buyer so you can make money selling on eBay? Be sure you go with the mindset of how to accomplish those things. If you're buying, bring a sign that says so. If you're wanting to sell as much as possible, be ready to discount. No one is guaranteed anything. How hard you work at the show may go a long way toward your success. Keep those goals in mind from the time the show opens until you're in the car heading home.
Do Your Own Promoting Before the Event
Don't rely on the promoter to do everything. He should be active, but so should you. Set up Facebook and Twitter pages, find some local collectors and let them know you'll be setting up. Put an ad in the local shopper or newspaper or on Craigslist or other online outlet and let people know you'll be there and you'll be buying. Give them your cell phone number so they know how to find you. Ask if you can promote the show on a local community calendar if the promoter isn't doing it. Local media outlets have them online. Small town radio stations might even help spread the word. Volunteer yourself as a guest on a local sports talk show to promote the hobby and mention you're coming to the show to buy and sell.
Don't Be Shy
At small shows, sometimes the most passionate dealer wins. Engage those who stop by your table. Maybe they're shy but if you get them to open up, maybe they stop and buy from you instead of the next guy. Let everyone know you're willing to discount and tell them you'll be happy to answer questions. Exude a love of the hobby. Enthusiasm is contagious.
Talk to Other Dealers
At major shows, the biggest deals often get done before the doors open. Dealer to dealer sales are big. Take the concept to the small show. Get set up quickly and then roam around the room looking at what other dealers have brought. There may be something you can sell at the show or flip on eBay. They may have something you simply want for yourself and you can buy it before anyone else gets in. You may find a trading partner or someone who has a connection to the card companies or an auction house. If you've got good stuff and they want it, you might find a potential long-term customer. You can also get a line on prices of items you both may have for sale. Match their price or beat it by a little.
Treat every customer the same. Be nice to kids. Some are reluctant to talk to dealers. Talk to them and they'll feel comfortable buying from you. Share your knowledge with the next generation. Even if you did everything you could and it's a bad show... hey, you're at a card show. You're not working. Not mowing the lawn. Not wasting time watching TV. If you're having a good time, your customers will too.