Friday, May 29, 2009

We're all in this together

Since the National Stationery Show ended, there has been a lot of online chatter about who was there and who wasn't, who sells to whom and how, and even which manufacturers are on the "good" list vs. the "naughty" list. Some of this chatter has resulted in some very positive discussions about what retailers want, and how they view manufacturers who license their designs elsewhere or sell direct to consumers online. This is an important discussion, especially in this economy, as manufacturers like hen and barley press rely upon retailers for sales. Similarly, retailers rely upon manufacturers like us for the products that stock their shelves and generate revenue.

It is an interdependent relationship, and for retailers and manufacturers to survive and thrive, we must realize that we are all in this together.

Here's what I learned from retailers and other manufacturers as a result of these discussions:

- Retailers are okay with manufacturers selling direct to consumer or licensing designs to places like Shutterfly or Tiny Prints as long as pricing and shipping terms are the same as those offered to retailers. Translation: don't undercut your retailers.

- Licensing to giants like Target under the same brand name, or worse, using the same designs you sell to the smaller brick & mortar retailers, can tarnish the "specialness" of your brand. Translation: most retailers like lines that are known but not too well known.

- Some retailers have hired design staff to create custom work in-house and therefore capture more margin than they would by simply re-selling products designed by manufacturers like hen and barley press. Translation: fewer sales for manufacturers, which results in more manufacturers trying to find alternative streams of revenue like selling direct or licensing.

The consistent theme that I see upon typing all of this is how intertwined our fates are in this business. Unfortunately, these discussions came only after several manufacturers and online retailers had been bad-mouthed quite publicly, and given how dependent we all are on one another, where does that negativity get us?

Today a new issue popped up. We and several of our boothmates sent out marketing e-mails yesterday advertising post-show specials. Included on these e-mail lists were new contacts collected at the show. As a manufacturer, the one thing you hear from retailers over and over after shows is to be sure to follow up with everyone who stopped in your booth. Like many of our retailers, we've found that e-mail is a great, effective and cheap way to accomplish this, so off went the e-mail, which unwittingly created a firestorm on this blog. hen and barley press, you will note, was publicly chastised for sending our e-mail. Again, the negativity...rather than focusing on the real issue of what one should do with contacts gathered at a trade show, or what exactly ARE the laws governing the sending of marketing e-mails, information retailers and manufacturers alike could really use.

So, the questions of the day are: What should one do with contacts gathered at a trade show? Retailers, how do you want manufacturers to follow up with you after a trade show? If you leave your contact info in a booth at a trade show, what does that mean? Should you reasonably expect to receive information via e-mail, phone or snail mail? Translation: let's have a real exchange of useful information to help us all thrive.

Finally, for those of you who regularly send marketing e-mail, here are the Federal Trade Commission laws on the subject.


  1. Thank you for this summary of what the issues that affect us all are. I love your final question. How is it best for vendors to followup with buyers (or potential buyers) after a trade show? My thoughts are via email, telephone and or mail. But maybe some prefer no follow up at all. Please forgive us if we get it wrong, tell us what you prefer, and we will get it right next time!

  2. Jenny, thanks for providing a positive forum for this important discussion. Thus far, I have always received postivie feedback when I've followed up with my trade show leads via an email newsletter, but am anxious to hear their preferences from the retailers reading this.

  3. I find this topic very interesting from a newcomer's perspective. I sell directly to consumers from my website, but attended the NSS this May to see if it was a good fit for my business next year.

    It's curious to read such a visceral reaction to an email newsletter. Being new to the biz, I'll be interested to read what more seasoned professionals have to say on the subject from both points of view. Thanks for getting the topic out there in a positive way.

  4. Personally, for both environmental and organizational reasons (as I stare at the giant pile of paperwork on my desk), I love receiving solicited AND unsolicited emails from paper manufacturers/designers. I'd prefer a quick email with a taste of what they offer (with the option to remove myself from the list) over a mailed catalog. 50% of the catalogs/brochures I receive get tossed in the garbage; not because they don't have quality work, but because they just aren't a match for my store/website. I visit SO many booths at NSS, and hand my card to everyone, looking forward to the follow-up reminders from those booths I didn't place an order with. Email is the best, non "in your face," way to follow up. Don't call unless we ask questions, and save your postage! So many of my purchases are not at the show, but several weeks later when I realize I missed something.

  5. I think you're both kind of right. I think it does stand to reason that if you leave your business card at a trade show booth, odds are great that you'll end up on a contact list. I think Cinda might be asking how she ended up on 4 mailing lists for leaving 1 card. One email from the company she talked to probably wouldn't have perked her radar. It was the next 3 that got her wheels turning.

    When I did the show last year, we wrote notes on business cards with questions/special requests to keep straight who was shopping and who was just saying hello.

  6. Heather, there were 6 manufacturers in one booth, and we had help working the booth for us, who took very detailed notes on what various contacts were interested in. There was nothing in the notes letting us know that Cinda was interested in one line more than others, or just dropping by to say "hello". But more importantly, we are there to serve retailers and it is their opinion that counts the most. Oddly, we have only gotten 5 opt outs from an e-mail campaign that went to over 1,000 recipients, and have made more sales than that from the effort. That implies to me, although I am open to being told otherwise, that most retailers agree with Leap Frog Paper, and expect to receive a follow up via e-mail or some other form after the show.
    - Jenny

  7. Jenny- your post hit the nail on the head. I know when I leave my info at a booth it's because I want to be contacted. But beyond that, this sort of negativity doesn't help the industry at all, instead it's only going to drive a wedge between wholesalers and retailers, brick and mortars and legitimate home studios. That energy could be better focused on how to make the consumer fully understand the value of beautifully crafted stationery and excellent customer service, no matter how you contribute to the industry.

  8. Jen, thank you for opening this up to a positive and reasonable discussion.

  9. Laura from Pet Scribbles asked me to post this after blogger deleted her previous comments. Thanks, Laura! FYI--we are not moderating comments on this post, so anyone who has had something to say has seen their comments posted.

    From Laura:
    Thanks so much for your post here, and for your questions on Twitter too. You are doing what is needed right now, and that is to find answers/solutions/preferences that retailers have in a positive way. You are helping lots of us vendors by doing this.

    Just about any marketing book out there will tell you that if someone gives you their business card, you better follow up. I know that if I was exhibiting, and someone influential had stopped by my booth to say hello and left their business can bet I'd be adding them to my mailing list pronto! And I'd be excited about it too! In other words, I would have done the exact same thing that you did. But I'd never consider it to be spam. There's a big difference between marketing e-mails and spam e-mails.

    I appreciated reading Leap Frog Paper's comments about e-mail, and hope you get many more retailers offering their input too. It is impossible for us vendors to know what a store owner's schedule is like from day to day, i.e. when is a good time to call, when do they have time to peruse catalogs, etc. Heck, I don't even think a store owner knows what their schedule will be like each day, with the myriad of details they must attend to.

    Praise publicly, and criticize politely and privately. There's nothing gained by doing it any other way. We are all in this together, especially the smaller independent stores and the smaller independent vendors. We just simply can't survive without each other. But why even try? It is easier and healthier for all of us to help each other along, cheer each other on, and work together. Try to remember that people have the best of intentions way more often than not.

    Laura @ Pet Scribbles

  10. What a great read, some good info that I never really thought of. I can only speak for myself, but if you leave a card or sign up on a list I feel that is your way of saying you want me to follow up with you. If i visit a booth or a shop and leave a card that is my way of telling them I want them to contact me.
    If I left my info and was contacted and then realized that I really didn't want to deal with that company/group I would then ask to be removed from list. To publicly blast people is a strange and foul way to do business. If you don't like dealing with anyone other than Brick and mortar business what are you even doing at NSS don't 99% of those companies NOT have there own storefront and sell to retailers

  11. Thank you for your thoughtful post. As a vendor who has previously attended NSS on my own or part of a group booth hosted by my stationery industry reps I am complete flabbergasted by the response to your email followup and the negativity in general we have all witnessed. My STATIONERY REPS (whose entire job it is to serve the needs of the hundreds of brick and mortar stores they each have relationships with) emphasize how important post show followups are. What was the intent of leaving a card in your booth if they don't want to be contacted about your business? Promoting themselves?

    I admit that the amount of email updates I receive has increased a lot this year and I have days when I stare at the screen and cringe... but that doesn't change this. That's about my mismanagement of email, not your misuse of a communication vehicle.

    The use of Twitter for spreading negative and immediate show coverage is a move that will only serve to backfire on those using social media in this way. Negativity is what the mean girls in high school thrived on to keep others down and make themselves more important. This tactic isn't going to get anybody anywhere in this business.

    Personally I was hurt by a lot of the comments about vendors not attending NSS this year. If financially it was the right move for me to make I would have been there with bells on. I have personal things financially and with my family that take a front seat.. so it was hurtful to read comments that I was doing everyone a favor and I would get mine, when I so eagerly wanted to participate. I'm struggling and working hard to be taken down in this tough time in the industry. I see everything as a challenge and am excited to be working with passionate and talented individuals. I was excited that a smaller show would mean more attention for those that attended.. what a great year to launch in a lot of ways! Even if this means I wouldn't be sharing in that advantage - I made sure that I contributed positively in as many ways as I could. It was the right year for me to not go.. and 80% of my the other glittered card companies (most of whom usually occupy giant double booths) weren't there either.

    Sorry I got wordy folks.. I'm thrilled that someone had the cahones to address the negative chatter publicly. I think we would all like to leave the mean girls back in high school.

  12. Jen, thank you for a very insightful and well writtten blog post. I've read through all the comments and they are also well written. If you leave a business card at a tradeshow booth, it is expected (dare I say required of the manufacturer?) that you will be contacted. Tradeshows are all about networking - and that means folks getting in touch with each other.
    Also, I think we need to step back and remember that this was simply an e-mail. While I didn't see the email personally, I'm assuming it didn't contain any offensive language or photos. If someone didn't want to receive further emails, the polite business-like thing to do would be to simply unsubscribe and then delete the email. Takes all of about 10 seconds to do that. Retailers and manufacturers need to work TOGETHER - we need each other. We can't continue to drive issues between us.

  13. Wow...I didn't realize the negativity currently going on. Jenny - sorry to hear you've received the brunt of someone's misguided frustration, but this is probably symptomatic of many of us feeling the economic pressure and being somewhat stymied about how to succeed from here.

    This is our 8th year in business and this is the 1st NSS I've missed. The decision not to go was a combination of personal schedule conflicts and a dire economy. I decided our scarce resources would be better invested in capital investments than in travel. I sent a note in advance of the show to our top tier lines advising that we wouldn't be going but that we'd like to see their release and take advantage of specials they're offering. Almost all graciously responded with great understanding; many weren't exhibiting for the first time themselves. Others were surprisingly arrogant. Frankly, companies who aren't seeking to pursue creative and cooperative partnerships with us during these challenging times are not going to be high on my buy list.

    At previous shows, I really made an effort to politely decline taking catalogs or collateral from booths/lines where I didn't see a good fit. Not that I didn't personally appreciate the art, or quality, or marketability of a product...but sometimes certain lines just don't fit or present themselves well within the "look" or feel of our store and site. Some staff were very persistent about trading business cards before they'd let me even pick up a catalog to see pricing. I'd caution mfrs. against focusing too much on quantity of leads picked up vs. the quality of legitimate prospects they should pursue. If I take the voluntary step of hand-signing up for your mailing list (or stapling my card to a sign-up, or dropping it in a marked box), you can be pretty assured I'm interested. If you take my card in a trade, it's not a sure bet.

    E-mail is a fairly safe way to contact us in follow up. I will generally look at imbedded images, or click on your web link and make a quick assessment. I'd advise you to please not call on the phone unless we've had a memorable conversation or we pursued you. I don't mind receiving paper catalogs and samples, particularly if your stock or printing process or embellishments differentiate you from the masses. Just be aware that the more prominent stores and online retailers like us are deluged daily with lines trying to get picked up. New lines have to strain down through a few filters before we decide to take the risk and they generally need to fill a void or need. Having cooperative vendors who lower minimums, or offer free freight or exchangeability, help reduce that risk. A huge incentive right now to those of us online is having vendors with drop-ship ability.

  14. When I attend a tradeshow as a buyer and I give a somebody in a booth my business card, I expect to be added to an email list. Too many vendors don't follow up. I congratulate all of you for offering wonderful customer service by following up (especially so quickly after the show!) and offering those who couldn't attend a show special.

    Customer service is key and you nailed it.