Duncan da Husky (duncandahusky) wrote in anthrocon,
Duncan da Husky

2008 Anthrocon Artists Alley/Con Store Report

We came into Artists Alley and Con Store this year knowing it was going to be a big year. We had new cash registers, new staff, a new payout process, and an Alley that was 40% larger than last year. I am pleased to say that we met all of the challenges presented and created and Artists Alley and Con Store that was really great. Were we perfect? No, we hit some bumps along the way. But we have reached a point where we can stop creating processes and can start refining the processes.

Of course, I'm the spokesman for the department, and the most visible person in it. I am under no illusions that our success is all because of me. First off, I had help in all of the pre-planning, register programming, and process design from my husband Takaza. Once it came time to execute all of our plans, my staff jumped in and made it happen: Woody, Frostbite, Chanur and Grandma and Grandpa Kage all came back from last year, and were eager to go to work.. Shy Matsi, Rama, Dave (TecKnow), Delphi, and Space Dingo joined us this year and did a great job, as well. I want to single out Rooth, my de facto second in command (and next year it will be more than de facto!) for taking initiative to improve the Alley both before and during the convention and providing some outstanding technical know-how. Finally, we wouldn't have been able to make AA/CS work without the help of Takaza's Finance staff: Linnaeus, DaveQat, Tango, and Hartree. Thanks to all of you!

Pre-Convention Planning
The old cash registers that we had been using in AA were given to Art Show for their use in checkout on Sunday. In their place, we got three new Samsung ER-650 cash registers, which have a fully programmable keyboard and some nice networking and reporting capabilities. We removed all of the nonessential keys from the programming and printed custom keyboards that matched the Artists Alley sales process.

The other bit of excitement leading up to the convention was upping my staffing levels. Last year I had eight people on AA/CS staff. With the increased size of the Alley, I was going to need to increase my staff as well. Thus, with some last-minute scrambling, I wound up with eleven people on staff and felt reasonably confident going into the convention that we would be OK in that regard.

Artists Alley/Con Store Setup
When we arrived in Hall C on Thursday morning, I was pleased to see that all of the tables were in place exactly as specified (MeetingMatrix is an awesome piece of software, and being able to use it with the DLCC was a godsend!). Emily Bopp was, as always, extremely pleasant to work with. The few times I needed to request something from her, it was handled quickly and efficiently.

We had the usual hassle of carrying items over from the Westin to the DLCC (cash registers, signs, easels, misdelivered boxes). The no-carts-in-the-DLCC rule was particularly onerous this year and hard on our volunteers. I don't know if there's anything to do for this, but I wanted to mention it.

Programming the con store register is something that needs to be done every year, since the lineup of items for sale changes, etc. I had problems making the time to deal with that, but with some help from Takaza we got it programmed and ready to go by Thursday afternoon. Next year, I want to have a pre-printed sheet in hand when we arrive showing exactly the keystrokes needed to program the register; to that end, I took the instruction manual home with me.

Finally, as always, Grandma and Grandpa Kage did a great job getting the Con Store set up. We had several AA/CS staff there to help, and Operations was kind enough to send over a couple of volunteers. By the end of Thursday afternoon, we were set up and ready to go. Next year, though, I need to see about schedule some of my staff that will be in town to help out with setup on Thursday.

We had a good start on signage this year but we have room for improvement. In addition to the signs identifying Con Store and Artists Alley, the map of Artists Alley, and the price list signs (how did we wind up with two of these?), we identified a couple more for next year: a sign to go at the entrance of the main hall directing artists to the signup room (since in the absence of other information artists tended to congregate where the Alley would eventually be, even if it wasn't open yet), and a sign for the signup room that will highlight a couple of "gotcha" things: the time that artists must be back for seat assignment, and a few other things.

The lack of information about Artists Alley Signups in the pocket program was disastrous. The time for Friday was listed, but not the location, and it wasn't mentioned at all on Saturday or Sunday. Because of this, some artists assumed that it was sufficient to sign up only on Friday, and some artists missed out on participating in the Alley completely. I have spoken with K.P. about this and received assurances that the problem will be remedied next year.

That having been said, we still had a record turnout of artists each day: 133 on Friday, 134 on Saturday, and 94 on Sunday. Given that we had 114 seats available, that meant that we had to hold the lottery on Friday and Saturday. We again had the problem of artists signing up and then not being present for seat assignment (which meant that their name was moved to the bottom of the waiting list). I would hope that the changes mentioned in the signage above might help with that.

Prior to the convention, Rooth had taken my kludgy spreadsheet that I used for name entry and waiting list generation and improved it immensely. Even during the convention he made some changes that sped things along and improved the interface. This was extremely helpful, and next year we're looking towards improving things even more. One thing is that we are looking into creating a way for artists to type their information into the spreadsheet (possibly from multiple terminals), which will cut down on data entry problems and difficulty reading some of the more difficult handwriting.

We also determined that we need to make some improvements in the signup procedures. After doing signups and seat assignment with two people on Friday, three on Saturday, and four on Sunday, we found that four people is the best to keep things moving along quickly; I'll need to schedule for that accordingly next year. The other thing we found was that a half-hour just isn't enough time for the number of artists that we are now accommodating; on Friday, I called the last artist's name to take a seat in the Alley at 12:02 PM - two minutes after the Alley opened for business. Next year we're going to allot an hour before Artists Alley opening for seat assignments, which means that signups will run from 10 AM until 11 AM on Friday, and 8 AM until 9 AM on Saturday and Sunday. This should give artists time to get settled at their table, take a bathroom break if needed, and generally be less rushed. It should also give us some time to do more prep with the registers, which I'll address below.

Alley Operations
Anticipating the increased traffic of buyers, I decided to keep our third cash register being in operation 100% of the time, as opposed to last year's 50%, hoping that that would make things manageable. I was wrong. All Friday afternoon, we got killed, with lines of 20 or so people at each register from about 12:30 PM right up until closing (we averaged sales of $60 per minute!). The lines stretched back between the tables of the Alley, and I'm sure made navigation extremely difficult. This is completely unacceptable and shows that next year we need to add a fourth cash register.

The good news is that the new cash registers worked great! Once the cashiers got used to the new transaction procedures, sales ticked right along at a brisk pace. The receipts that were generated made it easy for customers to find artists after the fact. I had initially labeled each PLU with an artist number, which corresponded to a receipt book. Thus, if a person got a receipt for Artist #26, we could cross-reference that and look up the artist. Next year, with the additional time we'll have after signups, we'll have time to upload the artists' names to the registers to their names will print on the receipts.

The credit card terminal, on the other hand, didn't work so well. I had real problems getting it to connect on Thursday, and Rooth worked on it for an hour after I was done and still had no luck. On Friday morning I called the merchant services help desk and they walked me through the exact same procedure I had been using the day before, only this time it worked. So great! All was right with the world. So, about an hour after we had opened for business, the terminal abruptly and catastrophically dumped all of its programming. Takaza reacted quickly and brought out manual "knucklebusters" so credit card sales could continue and I immediately called the help desk. We had to re-download the entire programming, a process that took 45 minutes. Once that was complete, all was right again, and no transactions were lost. This only added to our long lines of customers, though. The terminal worked fine for the rest of the weekend.

A new addition this year was the option for artists to leave their cell phone number as they signed up. This gave us the ability to do two things: if a seat came available, we were able to call the next artist on the waiting list and let them know that they could take a seat in the Alley. Also, it improved our ability to connect customers and artists: if a customer came to us looking for an artist, we could check to see if we had a phone number for the artist. We would then take the customer's contact information and call the artist and give them the customer's contact information. We scrupulously observed good privacy practices; at no time was any contact information for the artists given out without their express permission. We also continued to use the bulletin board for artists and customers to leave notes for each other. I think we did not publicize the cell phone option well enough since there were many notes on the bulletin board from people who I know did not talk to us first. We also need to put some boundaries on the cell phone service, like we can't call people after 4:30 PM on Friday or Saturday or 3:30 PM on Sunday because we're just too darn busy trying to close out the Alley for the day!

I personally was in Artists Alley about 95% of the time that we were open. I had hoped to schedule supervisors who would be on shift but not on register so that they would be able to answer questions, run for change for the cashiers, and patrol the Alley. I just didn't have the staffing to do that, and I was so busy that the Alley once again was not patrolled nearly enough. Next year, I am hoping our expanded staff will help with this.

I said this in last year's report, but I will say it again this year: next year there needs to be a complete rewrite of the Artists Alley rules to improve readability and clarity. I think we can use that opportunity to refine our rules somewhat and make it clearer what is and is not allowed to be sold in Artists Alley.

Con Store Operation
Everything went swimmingly here! We had no problems, next year we will probably be implementing clerk tracking to make things easier to reconcile at the end of the day. Also, at the end of each day we need to count and record the number and sizes of sponsor/supersponsor/volunteer/staff slips that are turned in to help with inventory tracking. We could use a sorting box like we do for Artists Alley slips based on shirt size, and then at the end of the day sort the slips by class. Alternatively, we could print a bar code

Artists Alley Payout
Oh my gosh, what a huge improvement here! Payout was simply a matter of running a PLU report across all three registers to determine how much we owed each artist. I simply printed three copies and we created three payout stations. Each station had a person looking up how much we owed the artist, one person writing the amount on a receipt (which had previously had their name written in, since the receipt number was keyed to their book number), and one person to give them their cash.

We were able to pay all of the artists within 40 minutes on Friday and Saturday and within 30 minutes on Sunday. That's shorter than it took to pay fewer artists last year and the year before! We paid out roughly $19,000 on Friday, $15,000 on Saturday, and $10,000 on Sunday for a total of approximately $44,000 for the weekend. 185 artists had seats in the Alley over all three days, yielding an average of $237 per artist.

The one downside to this system is that there was a small amount of fumblefingering on the part of the cashiers resulting in a sale being credited to the wrong artist occasionally. As near as I can tell, this resulted in less than $500 in discrepancies over the weekend, or approximately 1% or less. Without using barcodes to reduce this human error, I think that may be as good as we can hope for.

Planning for Anthrocon 2009
We have just a few ideas for next year. Actually, Rooth and I between us came up with a list of 32 items to address for the coming year. Most of those are procedural and relatively minor, but a couple of things do merit mentioning here.

First and foremost, we need more staff. Particularly if we are going to be adding another cash register to the Alley, but even without that we need more people so we can have a supervisor on duty that isn't me! This will certainly result in better policing of the Alley, and a better use of the staffs' time.

We need new credit card terminals. I spoke with Hartree, who has extensive experience in the merchant account field, and he advised me that the NVRAM on the older terminals tends to give out, resulting in behavior like we saw with our terminal. Ideally, we would like to have one terminal for the Con Store and one terminal for the Artists Alley, which would help keep transactions separate between the two entities. An excellent low-end terminal that would suit our needs well is the First Data FD-100. These run around $300 each (or less from e-Bay) and have the handy feature that they can "dial out" through an Internet connection, eliminating the need for a phone line. Given Tigerwolf's wireless Internet capabilities, this seems to be a possibility that merits further investigation.

We need a fourth cash register, another Samsung ER-650. The lines on Friday (and, to a lesser degree, on Saturday and Sunday) prove that we can't handle the amount of traffic with just three registers, and it will only get worse if we expand the Alley further. An additional ER-650 to replace the existing con store register would be nice since it would allow more flexibility with programming and inventory tracking, but that may be a purchase for 2010.

As we move into Hall B, I would like to move from 6' x 18" tables to 8' x 30" tables, if the DLCC's table inventory allows. At the very least I would like 6' x 30" tables, because after talking with several artists 18" isn't enough for an artist to work and also display their merchandise. Also, the aisles in the Alley this year were too narrow and need to be widened by at least four feet, if not more.

This concludes the report for the Anthrocon 2008 Artists Alley/Con Store. I had a great time this year, and I am excited about running and improving Artists Alley and Con Store even more next year!

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