Plenty of gee whiz as vendors on the go connect with fairgoers

From cleaning products to salt lamps, there's an item for every niche at the Fair & Frontier Days.

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WALLA WALLA -- "Watch this."

With that, Jered Armstrong whipped off his saucer-sized belt buckle and held it up for inspection. His buddy, Gene Hodge, grinned in anticipation, his cowboy-hatted head nodding.

"That's German silver, look how dirty it is," Armstrong said, his finger tracing the engraved metal.

Not for long.

Robert Watts, in charge of the Master Marketing booth, quickly went to work, dabbing a banana-scented carnauba car wax on a cloth and tackling the buckle, bringing the metal to a high gloss in seconds without much effort.

Watts is one of a plethora of vendors at the 2010 Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days. From candle hawkers to sewing-machine sellers to a number of jewelry peddlers -- lotta headless necks on the job as display models -- the annual fair represents a "temporary selling venue" in the lingo of moveable merchants.

For John Spenger of "Johnny T's Gourmet Chocolate Sauces," a spot on the pavilion floor also gives his fledgling company a shot at finding enthused distributors.

He and co-owner Jackie Parker are on the fast track with their latest venture. The couple, who have developed other lines of food products, launched the brand three weeks ago and called for a fair booth rental on Monday, Spenger explained.

The sauces are made in their "legally licensed kitchen" in Enterprise, Ore., and are free of dairy, fat and high fructose corn syrup. "Created from scratch and artisan-crafted in small batches," he said.

He chose to market the sauces -- there's chocolate espresso, chocolate mint and choc ... you get the idea -- in wine-type bottles. At $20 for just over 12 ounces, the product is meant to be seen as a high-end treat, a luxury, Spenger said.

The fair customers who try the samples have been responding extremely well, many pulling an Andrew Jackson from their wallet with no hesitation. "Like the granddad who comes up with his grandchildren, he just wants to spoil them today. It's so cool," he said.

"The impulse purchase environment here is bar none," Spenger added. "Chocolate sells in any economy. There's really no competition at these events."

Wes Walton sees things a little differently. Standing behind a display of Himalayan salt products, he watches the nonchalant Thursday crowd stroll by. On this day at the noon hour, shoppers are mostly middle-aged and older, their leisurely pace stirred up by the occasional rush of a classroom group.

Walton's booth, Devine Gifts has a number of goodies for shoppers, but the pink-cast salt products have front-row placement.

It's the first time at the Walla Walla fair for Walton, although he's taken his salt lamps, salt massage rocks and grinding jars to many other fairs from the past two years.

He came into the lifestyle after working for lawyers for 20 years, Walton said with a small shudder. And a smile.

This is definitely a change. He, along with a partner, spend more than four hours setting up the racks and display shelves of the gift area. Then they stand on concrete all day, "12 hours of pain," followed by sleeping in a motor home, Walton described.

"I do it every weekend. From here I go to Pendleton, then Yakima, then Leavenworth."

He is seeing the impact of the recession on fair business, he said. "People might buy just one thing now, they limit themselves."

The Walla Walla fair, however, has some advantage for traveling merchants despite being a smaller event, Walton pointed out. "Less competition for the dollar."

Back at the car wax station, a knot of people had gathered, apparently attracted by the excitement of Armstrong and Hodge.

The two Milton-Freewater cowboys had landed on this spot in the Fair Pavilion on purpose, they said. "I bought two bottles of this and it lasted seven years," Hodge told the small audience, waving a hand toward the rows of Coconut Creme, Auto Shampoo and Metal Shine.

And he was back for more.

"Just watch this," Hodge advised as Watts began another spiel to newcomers.

His biggest demonstration tool is the front third of 1980 Chevette, parked at the center of the booth. "I used to bring in just a (car) hood. This is much easier and people like it. I drove this for years."

The red finish looks it, too, except where the auto-care product has been applied. There, the red paint looks showroom-floor new.

He's developed his selling shtick from questions customers have asked over the years, the marketer said.

Apparently, that includes whether or not the products can remove spray paint from a car body. Honing in on a young mom watching with intent interest, Watts sprays yellow paint over the hood.

He proceeds to scrub at it with another commercial cleaner, with no result. But the application of one of his potions brings the spray right off with a swipe of a tissue.

Hodge and Armstrong nod approval as they watch, their arms crossed in satisfaction.

"It's not a miracle, but it's a great product," Watts said, adding that his true profession is a master car detailer.

"Let me put it to you this way," Armstrong chimed in. "I don't buy anything. But I buy this."

With that, the two impromptu salesmen swagger off, promising to be back and leaving behind customers digging in purses and examining the product labels.

His company is doing OK in the shopping climate of fairs, Watts. "When the economy is strong, we're never the top booth. When the economy is weak, we're never the bottom booth."

In his hometown of Las Vegas, the unemployment rate hover at 14.5 percent, he added. "I'm grateful to have a job."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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