When Michelle Smith started the Durham Rock & Shop Market in 2004, a few artisans and crafters signed up to sell their handmade wares, and a small crowd of customers showed up to buy them.
The Raleigh product designer wanted to introduce the Triangle to the hip craft markets trending in San Francisco and Chicago. But most consumers didn’t get why they’d buy a handmade item when they could find something similar at Target.
Fast-forward to 2013, and those trendy craft markets are happening almost every weekend in the Triangle. They’re popping up in retail center parking lots, coffee shops, startup incubators and front yards in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights neighborhood.
Nine years after Smith’s first event, more than 100 vendors set up shop in Durham last month to sell posters, jewelry, jeans, cutting boards, fancy cocktail mixes and handmade soaps. They averaged about $1,000 each in sales that day, Smith said, and more than 1,600 shoppers showed up.
“There’s this larger trend – even the West Elms and Anthropologies and J. Crews are getting behind local designers,” said Smith, who in August opened a shop called Gather in downtown Cary featuring local handmade goods. “There’s more consumer awareness; and this year in particular, people want to buy manufactured in North Carolina or made in America products.”
A combination of factors have helped local markets begin to rival malls. Shop Local Raleigh executive director Jennifer Martin points first to the recession.
People were out of work or fearful of losing jobs, so they found other ways to make money. YouTube and Etsy provided tutorials for handcrafting goods and selling them online, and markets offered a sales opportunity without the financial commitment of a brick-and-mortar store.
Alongside other local retailers, pop-up markets leveraged each other’s marketing, and gave shoppers similar convenience and options as a mall.
Campaigns such as Shop Local Raleigh educated the public about the economic impact of buying local. A 2012 Shop Local Raleigh study found that 51.1 percent of each dollar spent at a local business directly impacts the local economy, compared to 13.6 percent of the spend at a big-box store.
And because crafters and artisans make limited numbers of scarves, pillows or earrings, markets also satisfy shoppers’ growing desire for one-of-a-kind, custom-made items.
That is what has helped Meghan and Anthony Santucci’s Go Girl Shoppe hit markets throughout the Southeast twice monthly this year and every weekend at the Raleigh Flea Market. Three years ago, the Durham couple bought a box truck and started the region’s first mobile pop-up shop, selling handmade, new and upcycled goods.
It was difficult back then, Meghan Santucci said. But this holiday season, she’s worked day and night filling orders for handmade barnyard picture frames, customized throw pillows and more.
“People are accepting us more,” she said. “Pop-ups are turning into the new cool way to shop.”
Laura Baverman is a journalist who spent eight years covering business for Cincinnati newspapers before moving to Raleigh.