Monday, June 1, 2009

topic du jour: Trade Shows

Okay, everyone, it's time to gather your thoughts. There's been so much interest in the last blog post that it seems that perhaps retailers and manufacturers alike are clamoring for an opportunity to hear more from each other on some of the hot topics and issues in our industry.

With that in mind, we'd like to devote each day this week to a new topic. We're going to start with one that our company has thought about, struggled with and thought about some more, but we're hopeful that you'll all give us some suggestions on questions you have. The questions can be issues our industry as a whole faces, or they can be things retailers would like to hear from a broad spectrum of manufacturers (or vise versa).

The discussions won't be meaningful without comments from all of you, and we're going to start out not moderating comments so that everyone who comments is heard. That said, we're trusting everyone to play nice: no naming names, please. Points can certainly be made by speaking in general terms, and remember we're all in this together.

Here goes: the topic du jour is Trade Shows. Let us start by saying that we loved attending the National Stationery Show and have met many fabulous people there and at other markets, some of whom have become dear friends and trusted colleagues. But, our experience has been that trade shows have changed in recent years from sales vehicles to marketing vehicles, and this fundamental shift makes the cost of attending prohibitive sometimes. And while we worry that we're missing our retailers and they us when we don't attend, the majority of our current customers don't seem to attend any shows regularly.

So, a few questions:
- If you attended any trade shows this year, as a retailer or a manufacturer, we ask you: Why?
- If you didn't, why didn't you?
- Retailers, manufacturers so often hear that not attending a trade show, particularly NSS, will instantly make you a pariah in the industry. Is this really a dealbreaker for retailers?
- Retailers, if you use sources other than trade shows for placing orders and finding new lines, what are those sources? Sales reps? Internet search? Sites like Etsy?

For our part, we attended both the Atlanta Gift Market and NSS this year. This was feasible this year because we were part of collective booths that significantly reduced our show costs, thereby enabling us to focus on the marketing opportunities aspects of the shows rather than stressing about covering our booth expenses via sales. In years past, before these group booth opportunities presented themselves, we did skip some shows, deciding to use the money not spent on trade shows on developing new products. Our business still grew during this time, primarily with the help of sales reps, and our experience was that retailers understood our having a limited budget as long as we were still developing new products. All that said, we plan to return to both Atlanta and NSS next year, definitely part of collective booths. The group booths allow us to be there, have a presence, and connect face to face with retailers and new reps. Even if we don't write one order, it's still money well spent. We would not, however, have the luxury of having that attitude if we had our own booths at the shows.

What about all of you? Tell us what your thoughts on trade shows are.


  1. I have exhibited at NSS for the last 5 years. I only sell through albums, so I don't have reps. It's my one time each year to be in front of customers, face-to-face. I hope to continue going every year. I'd also be interested in trying Atlanta since my line has 3 personalized gift collections.

  2. I attended 2 trade shows this year - the NSS (as part of A Fresh Bunch collective booth) and the Boston Gift Show. I choose these shows for very different reasons - the NSS because it is such an important industry event and a valuable marketing opportunity, and the Boston Gift Show because it is local to me, and provides a connection with my New England retailers at a very low cost. In both cases, the direct customer interaction and feedback is invaluable.

    This year, more than ever, I felt that there was a stigma attached to manufacturers not exhibiting at the NSS. In the past, it seemed taking a year off, for whatever reason, did not reflect quite so negatively. I thought it was important to be there, and am satisfied with the path I chose, but do completely understand why others may have made different choices - in fact, up until a month before the show, when the Fresh Bunch opportunity came up, I had made the choice not to exhibit.

    For next year, I am planning to exhibit at both of these shows again, and am also exploring the possibility of exhibiting at other shows, expecially in collective booths.

  3. This year was my 4th year as an an exhibitor at NSS. It was also my first year in a group booth, the Fresh Bunch booth. I have only exhibited at NSS so far. There is nothing that can replace the opportunity for buyers to see the products firsthand and for buyers and designers to meet. as well as the opportunity to meet colleagues. We can all work together to succeed. I am seriously considering Atlanta and Philadelphia shows - those would be as part of group booths. I think there are pluses and minuses to both group booths and single booths - lots of things to consider.

  4. I think everyone should do what is right for them and their business. This means if you're an exhibitor and the cost of a show is too uncomfortable, skip it. Same for a store. Lets face it, NSS is super pricey for both vendors and buyers. If you don't happen to have a friend to stay with in NYC, just the hotel bill alone could give someone a coronary. Remember that as exhibitors we are typically in town for more than a week! And if you have staff and need 2 or more hotel rooms ... OUCH.

    I have absolutely no hard feelings for either exhibitor or buyer who didn't show up at NSS. I don't think it's a reflection on how seriously you take your business. On the contrary, I think it shows that you are doing whatever needs to happen in order to survive these "tough" times.

    We had show specials at NSS, and while we won't give the exact same show special to a buyer who didn't come to the show, we will still do what we can (waive minimums, throw in a couple of goodies that they can resell, etc.) to thank buyers for their post/non-NSS order.

  5. I agree with Erika - with the state of the world as it is, now seems like the time to accept and understand that vendors and stores are doing what it takes to survive in a vastly different economy than we were faced with even a year ago. Both sides of the industry would benefit from supporting one another. Playing the blame and judgement game breeds nothing but negativity. We made the choice to be at the NSS as part of the group booth as well, because that was what seemed the wise path this year. Because NSS is such a huge expense, it was a great way to find a happy medium between being there for our stores and to support the industry, but not being irresponsible with our marketing dollars so we can ensure we're able to flourish in down times.

  6. Absolutely agree. We're all doing our best to survive and even grow. We are all in this together. If for any reason at all, a buyer or an exhibitor ever feels that it's best to skip a show, we should all understand. The days away from the store, the studio, or the office are sometimes not possible - the expense of visiting or exhibiting is high. Sometimes the best thing is to not to travel, but to connect and communicate in other ways.

  7. Interesting that some would negatively perceive a buyer who didn't come to NSS in '09. I actually wonder about the viability of the ones who chose to go. For us traveling to NY from California, the time lost and expense spent is huge. A few years ago when the economy was strong, I did speculate a bit about major lines that chose not to exhibit, believing them to be missing the key event of the year in this industry and knowing their absense causes them to fall down our buying priority list. This year, I truly wonder about the decision process for some lines who DID exhibit, some in bigger ways and booths than before. I hope they got a lot of new accounts, because that's the only measurable stat that counts.

  8. Lisa, thanks for your comments. That is a really interesting perspective. It makes me wonder about the long term effect the current economy will have on the trade shows in our industry. As I said above, our experience has been that there is a shift taking place, making trade shows less of a buying/selling opportunity, and more of a marketing/networking opportunity. For that experience, for us, going in as budget friendly a manner as possible is the only way.

  9. Just to clarify, I think it's great that those who could afford to exhibit did it, and that those who could afford to attend and buy did also. Truly, the NSS is a great show and we need to sustain it in tough times so it will continue to thrive in the coming years. The group booth idea seems to be a great one for economies of scale so I'm glad that was successful for the Fresh Bunch. In past years, there was some smart collaboration with member companies of the ISA, but that seems to be declining. This year's predicament may re-open the issue of relocating the show to a more site neutral and affordable location (ie., Las Vegas or Chicago)...I personally would highly advocate that.

  10. As a buyer, I decided only to attend the Boston Gift Show this year because it's local. I only have one emplyee working part-time and it is very difficult for me to get away for a large chunk of time, not to mention costly. I have done most of my buying through sales reps or through the companies directly. The one thing that I think I miss out on is the opportunity to find new companies. In future years I will hopefully be able to attend other big shows to both find new companies and have more personal interaction with designers.

    From a retailer's perspective, I love it when my companies offer a show special as long as the order is placed during show times, even if you're not physically there. Email has also proven to be very useful for keeping in touch with new products and specials so I don't feel completely cut off by not attending a show.

  11. Lisa & Sarah, it is so great to hear from retailers on this, and you both bring up a great point--trade shows are very expensive for retailers, too. From the comments thus far, it sounds like everyone WANTS to attend shows like NSS, but there is a time/money/value issue that affects us all.

  12. I have attended each year since I opened the store and I agree with Hen and Barley that the trade shows less of a buying/selling opportunity, and more of a marketing/networking opportunity. I do feel that it is important for me to be there and meet the wonderful vendors who have taken the trouble to be there and to find new products for the store. I do not hold it against anyone who has chosen not to attend. The amount of work and expense involved is a big commitment and putting myself in their place, I could never presume that everyone should attend to get my business. I will always stay with any vendor that has a product that fits my store and has integrity and good customer service. I would though love to see the show in a more central location like Chicago or Dallas because it would be interesting to see if that would bring more vendors.

  13. I wish I had more time to comment, because I have a lot of thoughts to share, but not a lot of time. I will say this, though, I am a retailer in NC with a fairly small boutique. I have chosen to appeal to the masses by offering a large variety of products in my store rather than specializing in any ONE thing (i.e. stationary, jewelry, home accents, etc.) I am not sure I could survive in this economy if I limited myself to any "one thing". I attend the Atlanta market in Jan. and July, and feel it is INVALUABLE to my business. I am able to stay on top of current trends, and since it is a general market, I am able to see everything the gift industry has to offer. As a small business owner, I would never be able to justify going to a industry-specific show (stationary, toys, etc.) if it involved significant travel expenses. I go to Atlanta because it is close enough to drive to, and if you don't stay downtown, it is a relatively inexpensive trip. Over half of my trade-lines have been a result of seeing the product at market, or otherwise I wouldn't even know they existed. Now, I will say this: I don't always write orders at market, simply because it is too overwhelming! Usually the show-specials are not so great that it warrants me making a hasty decision. Since I only have a few days at market, and there is so much to see, I like to collect the information, make notes, and review everything for a few days to make sure I am making the right decisions on BIG orders... I don't like to be rushed. I may write a few small orders at market, but typically nothing over $400-$500. But, I hold onto the catalogues and notes for a LONG time, and refer back to them often. If I liked a line, but didn't have the money to order it immediately after the show, I will definitely order it down the road. I really appreciate my vendors taking the time, and absorbing the cost, of exhibiting, and I am always disappointed when I don't see one of my vendors at market.