My Most Memorable Customers

Selling my soaps at craft shows, farmers market, online, and to wholesale customers has given me the opportunity to meet people from many different walks of life.  Each setting has a unique group of customers with different objectives and different shopping needs.  But of all these selling scenarios, I have to say that selling at craft shows is my favorite.

Craft show shoppers are my people: they appreciate the value of handcrafted artisan-made products, and most importantly, they come to shop.  If you can fulfill their shopping needs, you will make a sale.  And make no mistake – I love craft shows, but when I go to a show as a vendor, I come to sell.

One of my first shows was at an outdoor festival, and I was so excited to be invited to sell my soaps.  My first customer approached my booth in tiny, shuffling steps, an older gentleman whose face lit up in delight when he saw my soap display.  A few steps behind him was a middle-aged woman who followed him up to my booth.  His hands had a slight tremor as he reached for a bar of soap and he put it right up to his nose – no, I realized in horror, he put it right ON his nose – and inhaled deeply.  The woman who was with him roughly grabbed his arm and said, “Come on, and put that down!”  He started to put the soap back on the table and a string of snot was attached to his nose and the other end was attached to the bar of soap.  And so…that was the moment I decided that I would start wrapping each and every bar of soap.

Now that was a memorable experience, and not a good one.  The old man didn’t mean any harm, and I felt sorry that his companion or caretaker handled him in such a rough way.  I tossed the bar in the trash immediately, but I’ve only had to throw away merchandise maybe a couple of times, which is really not bad at all, compared to most retail settings. 

And then there are the kind of people who just say whatever pops into their heads, like a petite young woman who once came up to my booth and walked up and down the table, smiling and looking at each basket of soaps.  After a few minutes, I asked her if I could help her with anything, and she looked me straight in the eye, still smiling, and said, “Your soap is very ugly!”  Then she laughed and walked away.

Another person who apparently speaks before thinking was a man shopping with three teenagers standing next to my booth.  He grabbed a bar of soap off my table, sniffed it briefly, and then held it up high to show the kids with him.  He proclaimed loudly, “Hey, guys!  This smells like stink bugs!”   Before I had time to think about it, I walked over to him, snatched the soap out of his hand and told him, “Teaching kids to be rude and disrespectful just isn’t cool with me.  Get out of my booth.”  Although these incidents are really the only times I’ve had to deal with very rude people or unintentional damage, the negative tends to be memorable – in a horrifying, nightmarish kind of way.  And then there are the customers that make me feel like I’m the best soap maker in the universe.

Like the customer who bought $120 worth of merchandise, and then came back two hours later and spent another $100.  She just raved about everything, how her family and friends were going to love their soapy Christmas presents so much.  And there’s the customer who was a classmate of mine, who found me on Facebook and has been a loyal and adoring fan for many years now.  Though we barely knew each other in high school, I get regular orders and lots of great feedback on Facebook from him.

And then there’s this little guy in the photo.  He belongs to a friend of my daughter’s. His mom sent me the picture with this explanation: her soaps were in a bag tucked away in a corner, but her baby kept going to the bag and taking the soap out to smell it.  She would put them up, and before she knew it, he had gotten the soap out again. His little face says it all: words are unnecessary.  Yep, he’s my greatest customer ever.

Essential Oils, Fragrance Oils - What's the Difference?

When I began learning about making soap and other bath and body products, I belonged to about three or four Yahoo groups for soapmakers, which is today’s equivalent to Facebook soapmaker pages.  Often, a debate would flare up over a simple comment that questioned the safety or quality of synthetic fragrance – and the battle would begin.

This was about 10 years ago, and the debates continue on, at times escalating to virtual bloodbaths.  Comments are made in blind rages, with raw emotion that’s normally associated with religion or politics.  (But don’t worry, I’m not going *there*).  Members leave groups like wounded puppies, tails between legs, or are banned by admins for breaking group rules.  Cussing, name calling, memes, and flouncing abound.  But who is right?  IS there a right or wrong in this debate?  Personally, I think that there are some truths that should be brought out in the open, so each of us can decide for ourselves.

Fragrance oils are often referred to as an acronym, FO’s, in soap and cosmetic circles.  In the fragrance industry, perfumers use the word “fragrance” when referring to synthetic FO’s.  In the late 1800’s synthetic chemicals began to be used for scenting soaps and making perfumes.  Early versions of fragrance were made with ingredients such as benzene (a carcinogen) and coumarin (toxic to the liver and kidneys), although the dangers weren’t known at that time.  Today, there are still fragrances that are made with benzene and coumarin, as well as aldehydes (inhaling aldehydes can cause airway constriction and cell damage) and phthalates, which are toxic to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive organs, also known to be hormone disruptors.

Further muddying of the waters is accomplished because the fragrance industry is allowed by law to keep their ingredients secret, under the veil of “proprietary information.”  Some fragrances are marketed to cosmetic makers as phthalate free, but what about all the other ingredients?  If some ingredients are known to be toxic or carcinogenic, don’t we have a right to know, to make an educated choice?

On the other hand, we have essential oils, which are derived from plants.  Ah, natural equals safe and somehow better – right?  Well, arsenic is natural, and so is poison ivy, so we can put aside that happy and naïve little thought.  But essential oils, or EO’s, have their own controversial issues as well.  EO’s are extremely concentrated parts of plants, made by distilling plant material.  If you ever wondered just how concentrated they are, try putting a little EO in a plastic container and see what happens.  Most of them only take a few seconds to eat right through plastic, leaving a gaping hole in the container.  And if that container is sitting on a table made of wood, it can strip the finish right off the wood as well.  Knowing that, who would want to put undiluted EO on their skin, or their children’s skin? 

I’m not against essential oils – but I am in favor of knowing what materials you are working with to use them safely and intelligently.  Using EO’s to create scent in handmade soaps and cosmetics without doing research about safe usage and handling is foolish and irresponsible.  It can – and undoubtedly has – caused damage to many people.  Not all EO’s are safe to use, some are safe to use within certain limits, and some are not safe for certain groups of people, such as infants and people with certain medical conditions.

As a maker of soaps and cosmetic products, I make sure that I am using safe levels of essential oils, according to industry standards.  Since synthetic fragrance can contain a multitude of questionable if not downright toxic substances, I try to avoid FO’s as much as possible.  Logic dictates that handling FO’s in their concentrated forms would mean a more concentrated exposure than just exposure to a finished product, so I definitely want to avoid exposure to FO’s when making products. 

The whole reason I started making soaps, body oils, and lotion bars was to offer a high quality version of these things to my family and myself, and ultimately my customers.  It just didn’t feel right to choose any ingredient that I couldn’t know what exactly it was made of, and that it was possibly toxic.  I studied and researched for years before I made my first batch of soap, and I continue to study and research to learn as much as possible so I can continue to offer the very best – and that is the answer for me to the question of EO vs FO.