TAMPA — It's hardly a surprise you can buy bacon-infused funnel cakes and potato-wrapped hot dogs at the Florida State Fair. But pianos, grandfather clocks and mattresses?
Over time, the fair has become more than a place to eat candy apples, watch racing pigs and ride the Ferris wheel. It's also a place to buy reclining massage chairs, artificial sod and cowboy boots.
"It's like its own mini mall,'' Expo Hall manager Beth Duff said.
This year's Expo Hall has more than 170 vendors spread out over 11 aisles. Of course, booths sell jewelry, purses and cookware. But there's also $12,900 oversized hot tubs and $51,000 Corvettes.
A better economy has meant more interest in the fair among exhibitors, resulting in more types of products and less repetition. This year, the fair turned away at least 30 applicants that didn't fit the mix, Duff said.
"The people in the business talk amongst each other about what shows they do well at, and word is getting out that the Expo Hall at the Florida State Fair is a great place to be,'' she said.
Dean Ball came all the way from Australia to sell his opal gemstones and jewelry. He had read some positive reviews about the fair online and wanted to give it a try.
"It's a bit of a gamble, but it's great advertising,'' he said. "Even if I don't sell a thing, word spreads. It's about educating people.''
Selling at the fair doesn't come cheap. The smallest booth starts at about $1,500 and must be staffed 10 or so hours a day for 12 days in a row. For the exhibitors, standing and talking to customers for that long takes stamina.
Dan Wall, owner of Custom Comfort Sleep Systems in the Villages, said those challenges are worth it. The first time he rented a booth at the fair in the 1980s, he remembers his boss thinking he was crazy.
"He said, 'No one comes to the fair to buy a bed. They go for the pigs and the cows, the cotton candy and the elephant ears,' '' Wall said.
Today, Wall sells more adjustable beds and mattresses at the fair than he does in a month at his store. Nearly one in four people who rests their head on one buys it.
Shoppers come for the variety, personal customer service and prices, which are sometimes lower than retail. Walking the aisles with a beer and turkey leg can loosen the purse strings. A few samples of beef jerky are a bonus.
"We haven't missed a fair for 20-something years. There's always something to buy,'' said Pete Emslie of Port Richey, who brings an empty backpack to fill with purchases.
One year, he and his wife, Theone, got a $1,000 scroll saw. On Thursday, they bought a fanny pack, Morgan's fudge, Working Cow ice cream and an Alessi eclair.
The laid back atmosphere helps retailers such as Piano Distributors reach customers who otherwise might not come into their stores. They may have an interest in the product but don't know much about it.
"People who have never played the piano assume it's too difficult to learn to play,'' said Frank Harvey, Piano Distributors' regional sales manager for Florida. "They don't come into a store because they think it's too hard, but then they sit down at one here and try it and see they can play it.''
The company sells 20 to 30 pianos at the fair, from Yahama Clavinovas to $20,000 baby grands. Although sales numbers vary by location, that could be double what a typical store does over same time period, Harvey said.
"We definitely do more business when we're at an outside event,'' he said, noting that manufacturers offer discounts on pianos sold at the fair.
The Expo Hall attracts seniors, families and other visitors who have no interest in the new Comet II roller coaster or Charlie Chopper helicopter ride. Being indoors helps when it rains or gets too hot — or cold.
"We come for the food and the shopping,'' said Ron Engle of Zephyrhills, who bought two flags at the Expo Hall on Thursday. "The fair always has a nice selection.''
Randy Howell of Action Lock and Safe has been selling gun safes at the fair for several years and averages about one sale a day. Rarely does someone expect to buy a 700-pound safe.
"When you go to the state fair, you're not looking for a safe but when you get here and see them, you say, 'Oh yeah, I really need a safe.' ''
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.