Physical Product Sales for Van Life
If you’re contemplating how to make some extra money on the road, or even as your main income source, selling physical items can be a great option.
If you are creative and industrious, prefer to build items with your hands or you just don’t want to spend all day on a laptop staring at a screen, this option might be very appealing to you.
One of the perks of living on the road is that you have the freedom to get creative with every aspect of your life. This includes how you earn an income.
Precious Space in the Van
Before we get into what and how to sell physical products, I’ll address the obvious question: Whether we’re a full tine #vanlife dweller or just a frequent van traveler, we all face the issue of limited space.
So how on earth could we sell candles or vintage clothes or art prints when we barely have room for a bed?
The first question to ask is, will you be creating and making products while on the road? If this is the case, you may need extra space in your vehicle for tools, materials, display tables…
If you’ve got a home base, you can store all the tools and supplies there, make your products ahead of time and and then take long trips to sell product. This can often be achieved with a rented storage unit or shop space.
Your work and storage space could be solved by carrying your tools and materials and finding work space in different towns. Once you’ve found a storage unit or shop to work in you can set up, make a bunch of product and then pack up and move on.
This would allow you to leave tools and materials packed away most of the time, or even to ship them ahead to the next town.
What Are You Good At?
Whatever you have a talent for, brainstorm ways to turn it into a sell-able product.
Even if you feel like you aren’t good at anything, you can decide to learn new skills. Think of something you’ve always wanted to do. Whether it’s learning to knit, carve wood or make candles, chances are you have a lot of free time while on the road.
Use this time to practice a skill that you’ve always wanted to learn. There are many resources online that you can use. The basics of candle making, for example can be learned in less than a day.
Something like woodworking or leather working will take a bit more practice, but the outcome can be more than worth it.
What To Sell?
Here are some product ideas that you can sell. If something on this list stands out to you, you’ll want to explore its possibilities further.
- Handmade jewelry such as bracelets, earrings, necklaces.
- Carved wooden objects like animals, utensils
- Original artwork
- Art or photography prints
- Herbal products made of foraged ingredients
- Knitted scarves, hats, and mittens
- Vintage apparel
- Hand-poured candles
- Pins, buttons, patches, stickers
- Block printed tote bags, pillowcases, dish towels, t-shirts
- Blown glass figurines
- Honey, jam, jerky or other preserved food
- Face painting or Henna art
- Hand crafted leather goods
- Hand lettered signs and cards
Of course the list could go on and on and every type of product has its advantages and disadvantages. Some of these products take a lot of time to master, others can be mostly learned in a weekend.
Take some time to do some deep thinking about how you really want to spend your time and how the work will integrate with and impact your lifestyle desires.
Where to Sell?
Once you’ve decided on a product that you want to sell, you need to figure out how you’re going to sell it.
It’s a bit of a cart before the horse situation because some items sell better online while others are better sold in person.
If you’re determined to sell in person vs online, you’ll need to give serious consideration as to whether or not people will buy your product in person, and if you can find locations to do so.
Conversely, if your product is more likely to sell in person, you might decide to forego online sales.
E Commerce Sales Platforms
The most popular website for handmade items is Etsy. People sell all sorts of items there, ranging from handmade planters to homemade dog treats to vintage apparel, antiques…
Etsy is great because it’s a worldwide platform, and it’s especially beneficial if you are just starting out.
But there are a multitude of other sites to sell physical products on. Here’s a great article that lists many different options.
Your Own Web Site
If you already have an established following on social media that you can promote your items to, you can sell on your own website instead of doing it through a site like Etsy.
For this you’ll need a hosting provider and the absolute best host I’ve found, after many years of trial and error, is SiteGround. No other host comes close to their customer service and their pricing is awesome, too.
If you go this route, you’ll need to learn to promote your site. You’ll likely do this by creating a loyal following on social media, through SEO practices and other online sales tools.
On Etsy or other online selling platforms, anytime someone types in “carved spoons” or “soy candle,” etc, your shop is more likely to pop up.
So even if you aspire to sell from your own site (and save the commission that Etsy and other platforms charge), you should consider getting started with them to gain experience and build some audience.
And even if you decide to not build your own web presence with a blog or site, you’ll still want to register a domain name for your business so you have the option later, and own the rights to it.
You don’t have to limit yourself to only selling online though. You can also sell your items at farmers markets, craft fairs, flea markets, gift and art shops and festivals.
A friend of mine is a talented glass blower who makes her living selling glass animal figurines through gift and art shops along the west coast. She makes a few trips each year to check on the needs of the shops.
Sounds like great work for a van lifer, right?
At any given point in time, there are hundreds of festivals and craft fairs occurring all over. You can choose your favorite regions and drive from state to state, setting up a stand at many different locations.
Pros and Cons of Selling Online
Time spent online: The biggest negative of online sales may be that you’ll have to spend a lot of time on line. You’ll also need to develop skills to do so if you’re not already tech oriented.
If you’re not somewhat skilled with social media platforms and other basic internet tools, you’ll need to get dedicated to doing so.
packaging, labeling and shipping: It means having a printer, tape and boxes on board and spending some time in post offices.
The best solution to this is to send your product to a drop shipper who’ll box, label and ship for you whenever a sale comes in. This saves precious time and space and the cost is often well worth it.
Isolation: Another con is that you’ll be working alone most of the time. Not seeing or interacting with other people during the work day can be tedious. Compare that to working a booth at a street fair.
A major pro of selling online is potential volume. When you set up at a craft fair, only a few hundred people per day will typically see your product. But a good Facebook post can get ten times that much exposure in a few minutes.
The number one advantage of online sales is probably location independence. All of your sales work can be done from anywhere. No setting up booths or tents. No deadline to get to street fairs or farmers markets…
I don’t sell physical products, but if I were going to do that while living the van life, I’d sell online and use a drop shipper to deal with all the shipping minutiae so that I could maintain as much physical freedom as possible.
Pros and Cons of Selling in Person
Mobile retail: Though I’ve never done it personally, I have friends who make custom jewelry and sell it at street fairs all over the USA, and they love their lifestyle.
They travel to sunny locations in fun towns, set up their booth early in the morning (usually Thursday or Friday), work all day until the fair closes, sleep in their van, get up and do it again on Saturday and Sunday.
The fairs typically close early on Sunday when they pack up tables, tents, cases and product and then enjoy the travel from Sunday evening through the week to the next fair.
Of course they meet lots of new, interesting people and they’re never isolated except when they choose while on the road.
Mobile wholesale: As mentioned above, another friend is a master glass blower who sells wholesale and on commission to shops. Her profit margin is lower, but she doesn’t have to set up a new shop every weekend (or every), deal with customers, carry merch (she takes orders in person and on the phone and ships her product.
She still uses the business as an excuse to travel to keep track of her displays, make sure shop owners are happy with her product, meet and sell to new shop owners…
She typically travels with a boyfriend, her daughter, or alone if she’s feeling like she needs some solitude.
So I think the biggest pros of mobile, physical selling are freedom, socializing and the locations you’ll visit.
The weather is always a major concern for fair and farmers market sellers, who strategize to avoid rain, extreme heat and other inclement weather. This can mean extra driving and other planning to make sure their efforts lead to profit.
Even with all the planning, you’ll sometimes have a slow weekend with little or no sales and your budget must be carefully planned to withstand such set backs.
Thoughts? What are you selling? What do you want to sell?
Please comment below with any questions, experience or other input.
Whether selling online or in person, overall, selling physical items is a great option if you have the determination, dedication, and passion. You need to be passionate about whatever you are creating and selling, and you need to enjoy doing it.
Thanks for reading.