Show Time

If it’s your job to select and develop products for catalogs, Websites, or stores, you know that trade shows are a way of life. You might even say that shows are an occupational hazard, as they can be overwhelming, daunting, and totally exhausting.

But seasoned merchants know how to get through a show efficiently and productively. The following dos and don’ts can help put you on the path to profitable product selection.

DO register before the show.

As with other professional activities, advance preparation can take some of the time and guess work out of the entire process. All respectable trade shows today have online registration; in fact, buyers are often penalized for on-site registration. If you register in advance, you typically just have to show a picture ID at the show, as the pertinent company information is already in the system, and the badge is printed out immediately. The wait to sign in at a show can rob precious time from an already tight schedule.

DON’T show up unprepared.

Before attending any trade show, make sure you do your homework. You obviously need to know the target customer you’re buying for, as well as product and category history and performance. Ranking reports (top sellers and worst sellers by sales and units) and marked-up catalogs are helpful to have on hand. Which categories need to be expanded or contracted or eliminated altogether, and which items should be spun off? Have items fallen out of the current book, are there holes that need to be filled?

DO bring a sample of your catalog.

It’s always a good idea to have some visual representation of your catalog or Website to show you’re with a legitimate company. Suppliers will ask for information from new buyers, as they may have concerns about the quality or target audience of the catalog, or a potential conflict with existing accounts. But you don’t have to load yourself down with catalogs or photographs — two or three issues is fine. Vendors can always go to your Websites or call the 800-number to order catalogs if they want more.

DON’T forget to collect vendor information.

The more information you can garner from manufacturers and vendors up front, the easier your job will be when you start putting campaigns together. It’s a good idea to pass out merchandise information sheets — forms asking for backup on the individual products — to potential suppliers. These should cover vendor contact details; brief descriptions of items, price, availability, and lead times; FOB point; and country of origin. Vendors complete and sign the forms, which helps avoid any discrepancies down the road.

On the flip side, you should provide any beneficial information about your company to the vendors at the show. This includes mission statements, credit information, packaging, shipping and testing requirements, purchase order stipulations, and contact data. This can save valuable time if you end up selecting the item.

DO bring your comfortable shoes.

Yes, it sounds like a no-brainer, but having at least two pairs of comfortable walking shoes at market is perhaps the most worthwhile lesson a merchant learns. Alternating the shoes during the days of market helps to eliminate headaches, discomfort, and fatigue.

Along the same lines, you should carry an ergonomic bag or at least a lightweight shoulder tote to contain the myriad papers and catalogs gathered during any given show. After three or four days of walking (and rarely sitting) and lugging five to 10 lbs. of dead weight, comfort is a buyer’s best friend.

DON’T make appointments during market.

With few exceptions, trade shows are not conducive to making and keeping appointments. On-site meetings take up time, and you can often meet with or contact the same reps later.

That said, vendor company principals and national sales managers usually attend shows during the first few days. If there are a few key people you want to speak with in person, it’s best to pick one day or part of a day and make all appointments then, so that you have the rest of the time at market to methodically walk the floors and meet new vendors.

DO plot your path.

Since the shows cover such a vast space, you should determine up front which product categories are a total waste of time or are low on your list of priorities. You can eliminate these aisles altogether or hold off on them until the end of the show to make sure you’ve seen everything you really want to.

Once you’ve figured out the area you want to cover, it’s typically best to take a methodical approach. Whether you choose to start from the left or right aisle or North or South or booths 100 to 5,000 or 5,000 to 100 is no matter. What does matter is picking a side and starting from the farthest row and walking every aisle consistently. This will help establish a rhythm and efficiency that you’ll appreciate throughout the days.

DON’T waste time negotiating with temps.

Once an item or group of items catches your eye, it’s time for a chat with a sales person or company principal. But make sure you’re speaking with someone working for the product company, as many firms hire temporary sales people just for the shows. These reps tend to have little prior knowledge of the lines offered.

Be sure to take notes during these exchanges with vendors, because when the show is long over and you’re back at the office inundated with work, and the sample room is being filled up with diverse product, memories get overloaded. Any onsite conversations about the product can be extremely helpful in determining the item’s viability and appropriateness when putting a campaign together.

Some of the issues to address while speaking to company representatives are product history, competitors’ exposure, and historical significance. How does it fit the catalog mission? What is the provenance? Is there a designer or artist of importance? What’s the romance or story behind the design?

Most important: Talk about the price, and ask if there are discounts available. Often only principals or national sales managers can authorize these.

DO cover lead times and exclusivity.

Discussing lead times is also important. If the vendor can’t fill the initial order for 120 days after purchase orders are placed, you may need to walk away. Also ask about any exclusivity options, and if the item can be tweaked to accommodate proprietary offerings. Whether you order samples or take away photographs of the items, if you are serious about the merchandise, having this vital information will make decision making much easier later on.

If you order samples at the show, you’ll get a copy of a purchase order to take away. This provides vendor information and some limited details, such as style number, price, and a minor description. You can give the merchandise information form to the vendor and request that he or she return it with the samples or during the time of sample shipment. This is particularly important for new vendors, because it helps eliminate misunderstandings and confusion once a relationship is established.

In addition to scouting out new product, attending trade shows can help you stay abreast of new and emerging trends. Even if your catalog or Website isn’t “trendy,” it’s critical for you to know what’s stale and overexposed, what’s mainstream and classic, and what’s been updated and introduced. Shows are good for learning about competitors’ successes and failures — sometimes you will even hear of your rivals’ upcoming merchandising strategies.

What’s more, traveling to product fairs — though demanding and time consuming — often helps renew energy in merchants. You just may find that hitting the right shows will provide you with the inspiration you need to put together a winning product assortment.

Leila T. Griffith is a catalog merchandising consultant based in Jacksonville, FL.

Temp to perm showrooms

While most merchants focus on the temporary booths at any given trade show, you can often find goods at the permanent showrooms. What’s the best way to cover them? Just as with the temporary exhibits, you need to develop a system when walking the floors.

Since most buildings have stairs and escalators between floors, it’s usually best to start at the top via an elevator, and then work your way down floor by floor. Like the temporaries, permanent showrooms usually group product by category, so you can pass over entire floors if this merchandise doesn’t apply.

Permanent showrooms usually present new collections days before the temporaries open, and they are still geared up a few days after the show exhibits close. Most markets today also have permanent buildings that stay open until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. some nights.

In fact, at 4 p.m. some showrooms offer a “happy hour” of sorts, serving anything from wine and chips to margaritas and buffet. If you have the time to stop in, this can be a relaxing opportunity to look at lines and unwind after the temporaries have closed for the day.

A few shows in store

Here’s just a sampling of some of the upcoming merchandise exhibitions:

Mar 8-10 Atlanta Spring Gift and Home Furnishings Market, Atlanta

Mar 16-18 International Home & Housewares Show, McCormick Place, Chicago

April 3-5 Boston Gift Show, Boston Convention and Exhibition Center

May 6-8 The Gourmet Housewares Show, Sands Expo & Convention Center, Las Vegas, NV

May 18-21 New York Stationery Show, New York

May 31 – June 3 Portland Gift & Accessories Show, Oregon Convention Center, Portland, OR

June 18-24 Dallas International Gift & Home Accessories Market, Dallas

July 8-16 Atlanta International Gift and Home Furnishings Market, Atlanta

July 20-23 Philadelphia Gift Show, Reading, PA

July 26-29 San Francisco International Gift Fair, The Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco

Aug. 16-21 New York International Gift Fair, Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, Passenger Ship Terminal Piers 92 and 94, and Metropolitan Pavilion, New York

Sept. 7-10 International Autumn Fair, Birmingham, U.K.

Oct. 3-5 Kansas City Gift Show, Overland Park, KS

Oct. 20-26 International Home Furnishings Market, High Point, NC

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