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Summer 2009 The Craft Market – A Story of Social Entrepreneurship

Tourism brochures often describe Cape Town in South Africa, as a place where “the world meets the water’s edge.” It is here that visitors can find a unique craft market teeming with entrepreneurs. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (the V & A) retail development in Cape Town is set against a magnificent backdrop of the sea; it has mountain views and a bustling working harbor. This development is located beneath Table Mountain and includes over 450 restaurants, retailers, an aquarium, and a world-class hotel.

Within this international visitor destination is The Craft Market, also known as “The Blue Shed.” Over 100 South African artisans sell their goods—from fashion to home products and curios to leather goods—here. This extensive facility was once used for ship repairs and storage because it is situated next to the dry dock. When the V & A Waterfront was redeveloped in 1988, The Blue Shed was first partially occupied by The Maritime Museum until a Sundays-only craft market emerged and merchants began weekend trading. Eventually, the entire building was converted to The Craft Market. There are over 1250 square meters of rentable space (approximately 14,000 square feet).

The Craft Market is an American specialty leasing manager’s paradise where every product sold seems to have a personal story behind it and where the language of business—square meters, traders, rental space, micro businesses and co-operatives—is intriguing.

This market underlines the possibility of translating such a concept to the U.S. real estate landscape. It emphasizes the potential for adaptive and creative reuse of large vacant spaces (i.e., department stores or larger retail stores) in markets where crafts are abundant.

Small business manager, Shannon Clarke, said the market has 108 permanent tenants and 10-15 casual/weekend traders. Clarke is in charge of The Craft Market, The Wellness Centre, The Red Shed Craft Workshop and The Barrows. She has been the small business manager off and on since 2000, working first as an arts and crafts coordinator, then making the move to tenant and subsequently advertising coordinator. Clarke now operates with a staff of four who are responsible for tenant coordination, lease administration and special projects.

What makes a market?

The market here in Cape Town is a place where the city connects on all levels—socially, politically and economically.

In an impoverished country where segregation ended a mere 15 years ago, and with an unemployment rate as high as 21.9 % (fourth quarter of 2008), public and private enterprise sectors are doing their share to stimulate the economy and get entrepreneurs on their feet.

Since 1991, crafters have been growing their businesses with ongoing support from the Small Business Development Department who, along with the V & A Waterfront, focus on cultivating co-operative associations with informal traders. The V & A Waterfront does its part by offering rent concessions and skill-building courses in sales, visual merchandising and customer service.

Screen test

Since many economic transactions in South Africa are informal and conducted as exchanges between micro-businesses, they are not well documented. When you imagine The Craft Market, think stalls styled like the ones you would see at the New York Gift Show. Clarke said merchants who exhibit at the market go through a process where their product goes before a committee to assess quality, originality, and style. Every effort is made to avoid duplication. You can also tell there’s a team behind the scenes working closely to uphold and teach merchandising standards.

For example, Tracy Prosalendis runs the Craft and Design Co-Op, which sells a wide range of South African products. A variety of handmade products are for sale. There are recycled tin soda cans transformed into cocktail-sized pocketbooks; paper light shades, wooden angels and stained glass articles. Prosalendis and the Small Business Development Department source these craft products.

Then there’s Community Creations, where customers can buy children’s clothing that is made from Shwe Shwe cloth, a special fabric worn by African women.

South Africa boasts of many businesses that are committed to empowering local businesses and fostering entrepreneurship. Stella Crafts and Sheshells is an example of such a
business. The store employs disadvantaged locals and offers lessons in skills development. Stella also sources stock from individuals and companies who embrace this philosophy.

From left to right: Amanda Devine, Tenant and Special Projects Coordinator; Charmaine Robertson, Tenant and Facility Coordinator and Shannon Clarke, Small Business Manager at The Craft Market.

Business basics

While there are a number of carts inside and outside the shed, the majority of the spaces are single stall spaces of 6 square meters (65 square feet). Each merchant pays a monthly rent of R 3,500.00 (Rand is the South African currency) or approximately $350-$500 per month.

The market also serves as a trial run for many traders. Successful ones can move up to The Red Shed and The Barrows once they have reached their full potential. The Red Shed and The Barrows are both located near the main building of the V & A Waterfront where more traditional retailers are located. “The Red Shed is run on the same basis as the shopping centre so they [the merchant] get a full understanding of what is required in that type of retail environment i.e., opening from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. running two staff shifts, selling to a different customer [traditional mall shopper] and paying a higher rent per square meter,” Clarke explained.

There are 10-15 casual outdoor merchants who operate on shorter-term weekly leases.

In addition to the stalls selling wares, the market has a significant number of businesses with a wellness theme. A Wellness Centre opened in 2001 after extensive consumer research indicated a holistic living movement was starting to emerge in Cape Town. “It started off as a very small section of the market, mixed in with the other tenants and once it proved successful we created the Wellness Centre as a separate entity,” Clarke said. The Wellness Centre is a destination offering holistic products and treatments to visitors and locals and is open daily with qualified therapists at reasonable prices. The center holds two wellness fairs yearly, which are widely publicized and well-attended by outside therapists and traders. “The trend of combining wellness and craft seems to be taking off as can be seen at other markets [in South Africa] where massages and products are now being incorporated,” Clarke said.

Top performers

The three most successful merchants in The Craft Market are African Angel, African Designs and River Diamond. “All three businesses have spent time and money running their businesses; their staff are well trained and their stalls are clean and inviting,” Clarke said.

African Angel offers tarot card and aura readings and a wide range of holistic products and treatments. It is a store and wellness facility that sells a wide variety of crystals (including some rare ones), color therapy products and feng shui enhancers. Customers can walk away with a 20+-page report on personality, attitudes and habits.

African Designs and River Diamond are both jewelry stores. They have been nominated for awards granted by the South African Council of Shopping Centres. “This is a huge honor as the categories are judged by shop size. They are up against major retailers such as Woolworth’s, which is similar to Marks and Spencer,” Clarke said.

With a jewelry workshop on site, African Designs is well known among locals and visitors. They sell stylish beaded silver jewelry and do customization on site. River Diamond features South African stones in unusual settings.

Duffy Weir (above) reports that the stalls at The Craft Market are set up very much like ones you would see at gift tradeshows here.

Other Concepts

Sol Art Pewter is a stall outlet for the company by the same name. Started 11 years ago, the company has grown through its sole retail outlet in The Craft Center. Each item it sells is individually designed and handcrafted at the pewter factory in Cape Town, South Africa. According to the company’s website, pieces can be found in the homes of Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and many other famous personalities the world over.

The pewter factory designs and manufactures its own exclusive African pewter tabletop collectables under the Sol Art logo. Of special note is the “Big Five Game” (elephant, leopard, lion, cape buffalo and rhinoceros) themed whimsical silverware.

Future forecast

South Africa’s construction boom is fueling growth as government has intensified spending on rail, power and stadiums as it prepares to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup Soccer games. Because FIFA regulations are strict, all merchants must file for permission to sell World Cup-related logo products. “So far, we have only two [merchants] who have been approved [selling T-shirts and bags] but we expect others to follow,” Clarke said.

Prospecting for craft traders in South Africa can be fun for the staff, who regularly keep an eye out for craftspeople and promote the venue at local and regional markets and shows. Two national events, The Grahamstown Festival and the Tourism INDABA are destination events for sourcing new retailers. INDABA is the country’s top tourism tradeshow. The Grahamstown Festival is a large arts festival modeled after the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

So what is worth replicating about this South African experience? If art and culture are important in your city or region, consider transforming vacant stores with the spirit of the market. Create a craft market where the customer experience is as much about the product as it is about the person who created it. If there is one lesson that can be learned from the South African
experience, it is that a craft market is a viable alternative for adaptive reuse of vacant space.

Mouse over images below to view.

Duffy C. Weir

Duffy Weir is the former vice president and director of specialty retail and marketing at The Rouse Company of Columbia, MD. Now an independent retail marketing and sponsorship consultant and writer, Weir travels the world searching for what she says "makes marketplaces tick." She can be reached at or 410.252.8885.

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