The 23rd annual JMU Merchants’ Fair went off without a hitch—beautiful weather, plenty of students passing by, and good-natured vendors galore. Started by Dave Barnes, Director of University Unions, administration was taken over by Sue Burket in 2005; this is a time for students to get to know local business and their services (not to mention pick up some free swag!), this event has been taking place annually on the Commons since 1994. Due to construction, this year the merchants set their tables up next to the TDU Patio, catching students on their way into Madison Union or to the Quad from Godwin.
Colorful tents and piles of shiny, squishy, and striking swag grabbed the attention of passing students, pulling them into conversations with the local business representatives. A remarkable variety of business types were represented, from banks and medical services to thrift stores and restaurants. Some of the merchants were veterans of this event—the Little Grill Collective, for example, has been attending for over a decade. New this year was the Studio Hair Salon & Day Spa, whose lovely ladies handed out elaborate goodie bags (filled with samples, cards, and coupons) in exchange for two social media interactions.
Many of the vendors were savvy in the way they engaged with students—small, fun, branded items were up for grabs, while full size, premium items could be won via raffle or games of chance like Plinko and Wheel of Fortune. A variety of items were available for pickup or win, from your standard lanyards, stress balls, and pens, to more unique gifts like golf tees, emergency whistles, and lip balm.
The atmosphere was lively and personable, with the various businesses exchanging and comparing loot with their peers, and even engaging in joking rivalries. Pizza Hut employees tossed stress balls to passersby, calling “catch it and you get a koozie!” while the representatives from the Little Grill Collective gathered the (many, many) fallen stress balls and handed them over to disappointed students with a promise of “no athletic ability required to enjoy our all-day breakfast!”
Several of the merchants shared that the Fair is one of their favorite events to get the attention of students who might not have known they existed. A nurse at BioLife Plasma Services, a company that pays for plasma donations, said that they always see a bump in first-time student donors after the Fair, while Plato’s Closet employees mentioned an increase in both shoppers and donors.
Vince Mier, Manager of the local Walkabout Outfitter, a popular destination for outdoor gear, noted that the event is a great opportunity to engage with students, saying that “having been with the company for three or four years now, and coming every year, it’s a great way to get to know students as freshmen and see them grow.” He also pointed out that it’s a wonderful way to get students to start building a relationship with the wider community, and “remind them that even though most of the learning takes place here [on campus], they’re a part of something bigger.”