Digital trend: Polly Horton on how virtual fairs help independent brands survive online.

Christmas shopping in 2020 is poles apart from what it was last year. There’ll be no traipsing round the high street at ease or trawling Christmas fairs with jolly friends. Instead, the savvy shopper is browsing Covid-safe virtual gift fairs for exclusive discounts and extensive choice.

Is this new digital version of a live event the future of shopping or just for the here and now? We asked Polly Horton, who knows all there is to know about virtual gift fairs and online consumer patterns. Polly is founder of the Online Christmas Fair and runs Three Boys Rock, a site selling original children’s gifts and gadgets.

Images: courtesy of Online Christmas Fair

Are virtual gift fairs the future of shopping?

Yes. This online fair retail movement was happening anyway and has been accelerated by Covid. Consumers don’t want this country to just rely on Amazon and Tesco. There is a move to find unique products and to support independent shops. Individually, it’s hard for small businesses to compete with Google or search engines. If they all club together and market as a unit on a virtual fair, the smaller brands become more visible online.

Are online fairs new?

No. Eight years ago, Spirit of Christmas tried to do an online boutique but it wasn’t a huge success. Not On the High Street and Etsy were very forward-thinking in their online fair business models.

Do virtual fairs signal the end of real fairs?

Aside of the pandemic, charity fairs were struggling anyway. Last year, stalls that once made £2,000 a day were taking £1,200 a day. This significant percentage drop in daily takings is due to a younger working generation that shops online and too many fairs out there. The ‘yummy mummies’ and the classic ladies who lunch (and shop) are being superseded by the modern shopper who works. Instead of taking time off work to shop, they scamp into the fair in a lunchbreak, then rush off to collect kids while feeling guilty about missing work. Familiar to shopping online, this generation don’t mind the online delivery charges. Meanwhile, the young grannies who spend all day browsing a fair are not the big spenders. There will always be a market for the really good fairs, but the lesser fairs will disappear.

Why would a shopper use an online fair?

You get a better deal than in real life, find unique products and it’s Covid-safe. Online fair shoppers usually get a discount of at least 10 per cent, or a charity will receive it. More stall holders exist at an online fair than a bricks and mortar show because they are not constrained by the size of hall or its geographical accessibility.

What do you predict for the future of online fairs?

We can’t turn around the technology quickly enough this year but soon, the best online fairs will offer live videos, audio-chat and keyboard messages.

Why did you set up your online fair?

Way before Covid hit, I planned to create an online fair. When I get to my mid-fifties, I didn’t want to be lugging products around by car to Christmas fairs in all corners of the country. I saw how an online fair could better champion independents. Together we are more visible than individually.

How do you support your members?

My site isn’t about raising money for charity. It’s about championing and supporting independent businesses in how to sell online. My members know they can call me any time of the day and I will guide them through online issues. Some are very new to selling online. My support package includes Zoom tutorials on how to beat the Instagram algorithm, social media, understanding search engines (SEO), using Canva for video posts and how to sell on facebook.

What is the greatest challenge of setting up an online fair?

People underestimate the number of hours that goes into co-ordinating over a hundred busy online sellers. My job is to market each and every business on a continual basis. It’s like being a PR to 100 clients. Most stallholders don’t only run their online business. They may be having IVF, managing other businesses, looking after a parent with dementia or raising young children. They need the flexibility of selling online. When I run a Facebook tutorial, I will do four live sessions and hope they can attend. I record the final one so they can always access it.

What is the most rewarding part of hosting an online fair?

Some stallholders started out without a website and had only sold via private house sales. It has been lovely watching these less-technologically-minded businesspeople venture online. The alternative for them would have been to go under. I like all my stallholders. It’s become a real community as they make friendships among themselves and partner up for giveaways. We have private WhatsApp groups and support one another.

Top five to know: the best online fairs in 2020

Online Christmas Fair

1 October – 21 December 2020
Looking for neon writing paper, geometric designer mugs, monogrammed pyjamas, unusual gadgets or tasteful teenage bedding? Polly’s popular online fair operates longer term and not just for Christmas. The site co-ordinates over 100 like-minded indie brands to help you nail your shopping in one online session. Shoppers don’t have to register to access their discount code which ranges from 25 per cent off to charity donations, free gifts and free delivery. Their members choose their offer as they know their customer best.

The Wonder List Goes Pop VIRTUAL Fair

15-17 November 2020
Caffeine at the ready. For a limited time, founder Laura Ludlow creates short and sharp shopping frenzies for The Wonder List, an online shopping directory and popup sale event company. This most brilliant platform has over 15,000 shoppers signed up and hosts online pop-ups three times a year. They sell anything from shoes to stationery. To gain access to the listed sites and their discount codes, shoppers must register.

Country Living Artisan Pop-Up Virtual Christmas Market

7-8 November 2020
Having had a loyal following for over 35 years, Country Living Fairs didn’t want this pandemic to ruin UK artisans or to let down their shoppers. This year, Country Living is hosting a pop-up market online for 48 hours only, when shoppers can access exclusive discount codes by registering their email address. They will shop direct from the artisans and 100 per cent of their basket value go straight to them.

Brilliant Little Brands

This inspiring initiative has a feel-good factor. A group of friends, who met through the Charity Fairs Association, hatched the idea of Brilliant Little Brands back in March. Their site is a curated collection of over 150 small independent UK brands who donate to charities such as NHS, Age UK and MacMillan Cancer.


Overwhelmed by the choice of shopping online? This new online shopping app helps you save and organise your online shopping finds. You can then return to them quickly when you want or create personal wish lists and gift lists for any occasion.

The Spirit of Christmas Fair

One to watch. Since the Olympia show was cancelled, there is muttering about the Spirit of Christmas Fair going on their digital platform, but nothing has been confirmed as yet.

By Annabel Jack
October 2020


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Annabel Jack

Contributing Editor

Annabel is a regular contributor to The GWG, with a taste for finest in food, fashion and interiors.