Will Supply Chain Woes Result in Rhode Island’s Best Artisan Market Season Ever?

Not reliant on international goods, creatives prep for a busy selling season

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A small room in Angela Zampell’s East Providence home is painted bubblegum pink. “I wanted it to be a pale petal pink but my fiance misunderstood and now it’s Bazooka,” she jokes, comparing the walls to the classic block of gum. This “tiniest room” is Zampell’s studio and where she spends her downtime decompressing by assembling her popular Hot Glue Heroes line of dioramas. The space is an organized riot of glitter, vintage toys and figurines, and stacks of well-cleaned pet food tins which serve as vessels for each whimsical scene. Since Zampell’s main supply is emptied cat food cans, backlogs of cargo ships aren’t throwing a wrench into her plans to have plenty to show at this year’s holiday markets.

Referring to the constant news of 20-foot shipping containers sitting pretty, stacked like neglected presents to dock and unload, Zampell shares that for her crafty side-hustle – which relies on repurposed and collected supplies – there’s been no disruption. While national retailers urge shopping early so customers avoid disappointment, there’s only so much product to go around, and buyers are finding items on backorder or out of stock. Ripple effects from the pandemic include the “Great Resignation,” resulting in staffing shortages impacting everything from retail jobs to truck drivers to dock workers. Adding to the mix is the “just-in-time” or JIT inventory system where goods and materials are planned to arrive just in time (not seasons in advance) to avoid storage costs; toss in a global supply chain still ramping up from 2020’s lockdowns and you’ve got the perfect storm for big companies to be in an awkward position just in time for holiday shoppers.

Local makers are eager to fill the void. “There’s an instant gratification to shopping at handmade markets. You see, you buy, you pick up! There’s no ‘this item is out of stock or on backorder’,” says Zampell. “I also like to think that people are more aware these days of the struggle of the small business, plus the offerings from independent sellers are not so homogenized.” Along with fiance Tom Butts, Zampell used to host the Craft and Kitsch Winter Market held at the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative Gallery. The P-word put the brakes on that endeavor and this year Zampell will be a vendor at the inaugural Good Trade Makers Market at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence.

The Good Trade Makers Market is the brainchild of BJ Mansuetti and Robin Dionne, an industrious pair known around the state for their PR efforts. Together, they are putting a new spin on a makers’ event. First off, attendance is not free; tickets are $5 in advance or $8 at the door, which includes a small beer or cocktail pour, coffee, or iced tea from a sponsoring beverage company. Mansuetti shares that within a month of announcing the GTMM, over 400 vendor applications from 20 states were received. “We accepted about 100, so we have 300 small businesses on a waitlist with more applications coming into our waitlist every single day. We think market events are going to be more critical than ever to help keep small businesses afloat this year.”

Community markets have also provided a curated shopping experience in a safe space throughout the lingering pandemic – where patrons feel more comfortable at these happenings, which mostly take place outdoors or in large-capacity venues. Katie Blais is market manager at Mount Hope Farm Farmers Market, a weekly event held on Saturday mornings on a historic estate in Bristol where social distancing is not a problem. “Even during the height of COVID, our attendance grew,” says Blais, who has been working to increase their vendor list while the market is still held outdoors (before it shifts into an on-site barn during the colder months) and space isn’t an issue. “I did this last year too and dubbed it ‘the early bird market’ as a way for people to get a jump start on holiday shopping. We have a great lineup and I hope that we have a good turnout and good weather!” She adds, “With all supply chain backups, we can’t think of a better way to get locally created holiday gifts for everyone on your list!”

While outdoor markets and fleas are nothing new, props are due to Maria Tocco who started the Providence Flea in 2013. Inspired by a trip to the famed Brooklyn Flea, Tocco was compelled to bring the open-air model home, and with 30 vendors on board for the premiere, knew she was on to something big. Years later, the event is arguably as much a part of the Creative Capital’s fabric as WaterFire, garnering national shout-outs from Parade, Condé Nast Traveler, and House Beautiful, among others. The Flea operates indoors from mid-fall through winter and spring every Sunday at the Farm Fresh RI Market Hall on Sims Avenue. Over the years, the Flea has hosted over 1,000 local vintage vendors and some of the area’s most creative artists, artisans, and makers, plus community non-profits, food trucks, and live music.

“We have an application process to make sure vendors are a good fit. I don’t stray from the mission because featuring local, independent, small, and micro businesses is what distinguishes us from other markets,” Tocco explains. “We don’t accept service or retail businesses, multi-level marketing, direct sales reps, or franchises. There is nothing mass-produced or new at our market unless it’s handmade or edible! And the vintage dealers offer quality items like vinyl records, retro housewares, vintage maps, comic books, sports memorabilia, art, etc.”

Helping to get handmade goods to customers 24/7 is a mission of Lori Giuttari, chief marketing officer at Visual Thrive and founder of Shop Local Rhode Island – a site launched to provide small-batch vendors with a singular digital platform to sell and communicate directly with customers. Very much like Etsy meets Angi but all local, the site lists both goods and select services. Offerings can even be searched by categories like Black-owned and women-owned. Keeping dollars in Rhode Island is important to Giuttari who launched the site during lockdown. “There’s no better gift than a local gift because for every $1 spent locally, about $0.48 stays in the local economy; when you spend $1 on a national franchise, only $0.14 stays in the local economy. Local businesses deliver a multiplier effect and our businesses need to be aware of that,” says Giuttari.

“I personally think it’s super fun to shop at community markets,” says Katy Westcott, founder and CEO of Katrinkles, a Providence manufacturer of wooden craft supplies and knitting tools. She explains that everything for her brand is made in-house using local and/or locally sourced materials, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t affected by the gridlock of storage containers. “Some supplies that are not made here have been difficult to obtain, such as the filters for our filtration system. Ordering early and ordering in bulk have been the best ways to stay ahead of this,” she says.

At last count, there were nearly 20 different holiday markets planned for December (and there were more in late November) – a healthy number for a state of 39 cities and towns. Each event hosts a wide range of vendors, and attendees are sure to find everything from original works of art in a variety of mediums to displays of handmade items and more. What you won’t find: large goods from China held captive on the Gridlock of Misfit Toys.

The Holiday Pottery & Art Sale at South County Art Association kicked off its 50th year on Black Friday and runs through mid-December. The popular show boasts works by 80 artists this year. With a knowing smile Kathleen Carland, executive director at the South County Art Association, says of the show, “It will prove once again that original art is always in style, tax free, supports artists, and doesn’t depend on the supply chain!” 

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