wholesale shows: a few thoughts to get you through the ordeal,
and maximize the effectiveness of your participation
There is a lot of stress attached to doing trade shows. As an exhibitor you put a lot of time
and effort into booth design, fixtures, literature and the actual product samples you take.
Then there are the vagaries of winter weather, the dance of the show dates among the
various promoters vying for the elusive buyer’s attendance, and -- in the case of ACE
particularly -- whether you get juried into the show or not. The headaches probably started
around September 1st. Again, why is it you decided to make crafts your life’s work? You’ll
probably be recuperated enough by April to remember, but by then you're already planning
your summer shows!
Your only consolation is that the buyers are worse off than you. They, too, deal with the
weather and show sequencing, but at least you get to stay in your ten by ten detention area
throughout the show, and have the luxury of eating, even if it does take place in your booth.
A buyer, on the other hand, has to walk those miles and miles of aisles, all the time taking
notes and trying to keep track of which new lines he/she saw where.
booth design and layout is the starting point; you have to get the buyers'
So you’re in a show with fifteen hundred other exhibitors, and since you are a fashion jeweler,
half of them are making a similar product. This just may be the time to ask yourself what you are
doing here. They, whoever they are, tell us that we have no more than a second or two to grab
the buyers’ attention as they race down the aisle. Your only hope is to field an attractive, well
laid out booth with good lighting. Are your items small? Then get some monster graphics and
hang them on the walls. Don’t lay your craft widgets flat on the table; raise them up so that
they can be seen from the aisle. Movement catches the eye, and hence attention -- get yourself
a battery operated turntable or two to put up front. Open up your space -- you paid for a ten
by ten piece of real estate, so don’t use just the two by ten section on the aisle. Make it inviting
to buyers just to walk in.
the importance of good literature
More than a few exhibitors seem to feel that business cards and a pile of price sheets that
are washed out copies of copies is sufficient. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You’ve just spent $3,000 doing this show, you probably have another $3,000 invested in
booth fixtures and lighting, and it’s all working. You’re pulling in buyers right and left,
giving them your pitch and then sending them on their way after pressing that black &
white scrap of paper into their hands. How long do you think it will take for Average Buyer
to lose the connection between that piece of paper in his/her hand and your tasteful booth
with the marvelous craft widgets? My guess is ten seconds or ten feet down the aisle,
whichever comes first.
Do not underestimate the importance of good literature. A four color brochure or catalog,
or even a series of inexpensive post cards, depicting your line in depth can be an extremely
effective sales tool when coupled with a price sheet/order form and an artist statement/
resume tying everything together.
Good literature has staying power. That washed out scrap of copy paper gets thrown in the
nearest trash can. The good stuff goes home with the buyer. I’d say that the majority of
professional craftspeople generate no more than twenty-five per cent of their annual sales
from orders written directly at the shows. Good literature goes a long way toward making
up that shortfall through after-the-fact orders being mailed, phoned or faxed in. Invest in
it, and distribute it liberally.
booth conduct is just using common sense
Here are a few don’t’s. Don’t sit down in your booth -- either in a chair or on the floor.
Don’t read or work crossword puzzles to pass the time. Don’t eat while there are customers
around. Don’t chat with your exhibitor friends around buyers. Don’t dress outrageously.
Don’t leave your booth unattended.
And a few do’s. Stand in the presence of buyers. Make eye contact. Always acknowledge
their presence. Keep yourself fresh and groomed. Did I mention shining your shoes? Smile
a lot. You are the resident expert on your line of craft widgets, so engage the buyers in
conversation -- romance the heck out of your line. It’s all theater anyway, so enjoy yourself
and try to keep the buyers entertained while you educate them.
Buyers have a lot on their minds. It sounds like an awful chore at best, and at its worst can
be considered overly commercializing to many craft makers, but you have to get in the
habit of promoting yourself. Taking a passive approach to your marketing efforts will not
work in the 21st Century. You must be proactive if you want to grow bigger and fly higher.
You need to get the attention of the buyers even before they immerse themselves in the
distractions of the buying process itself. To do this you must do a mailing in advance of the
show to both current and prospective customers. You are keeping a list of prospects, aren’t
you? This would be anyone who has requested literature from you, but not yet ordered. It’s
also that pile of business cards wrapped in a rubber band that you picked up at the last
show. It’s also a number of galleries that don’t even know you. Check out Rosen’s Top 100
Retailer list for prospective new accounts.
Send them a post card several weeks in advance of the show. If possible, make it a
four color one emphasizing some of your new work (Modern Postcard will make
you 500 post cards for $95). You want to get them interested right now, so that they
block out some time to seek you out at the show. A couple of weeks before the show,
make some phone calls. I hate those telemarketers, too, but this is business.
Don’t be pushy, but have a short story to tell, preferably about all that new work
you’ll be exhibiting. This is a good time to tease them with your promotions and
specials for the show. Something as simple as free freight on orders placed
right there at the show can make a significant difference in how well you do.
marketing at the show
It’s show time! Your booth looks like it was designed by Martha Stewart herself.
Your craft widgets positively gleam under your subtle lighting. You haven’t dressed
up like this since your cousin’s wedding, and even your fingernails are clean.
Don’t be shy. Engage the buyers in conversation. You know more about your
craft widgets than anyone else, and knowledge is power -- so use it. Have a short
speech rehearsed that details what they need to know about your work, and why they
should buy it. Take this as a verbal artist statement. Be specific.
Work in testimonials from galleries currently showing your line. If you can look them
in the eye and tell them that the XYZ Gallery, which is coincidentally one of the
Top 10 Retailers of American Crafts, swears that the profits from the sale of
your work covers their rent, you are virtually assured of getting an opening
order. Craft buyers are a lot like lemmings in the sense that they want to share
in the success of a line that is successfully distributed by other galleries that they
It’s polite to ask about the kind of venue these particular folks have. Are they in a
mall or downtown? Do they cater to local or tourist traffic? Does it look as if your
line would fit in with their other offerings? Interact with them and see what happens.
If you’ve gotten a warm, fuzzy feeling about these buyers, do not let them leave
your booth without your literature package in their hands AND their business
card in yours. I think it’s an even trade: your one dollar brochure in return for
their two cent card. These folks are now highly qualified prospects, whether or not
they buy from you at the show.
Whew! You’re back home and it’s only now that you realize how grueling these
things are. Your friends think you have a wonderful lifestyle, and are fortunate to
be going to all these neat places. What they don’t understand, and you probably
forgot since the last time, is that it’s hard work standing on concrete nine or ten
hours a day trying to talk strangers out of their money. But your work isn’t over yet.
Now’s the time to make those post-show phone calls. You have two separate lists
here. The first is a list of all your customers who you thought you were
going to see at the show but didn’t. This happens all the time. They flat out didn’t
see your fifteen foot corner booth, or they didn’t come or...whatever. You’re calling
these folks to remind them that it was your line that sat in that now empty shelf
space in their gallery, and that they need to reorder. And to pitch them your new
craft widgets that you are dying to have them try. Offer to send them your new
literature, or maybe even an “on approval” sampling of your new stuff.
The other list is your “be backs”. You know them. You thought you had the
order. You had your pen and clipboard in hand when all of a sudden they ran out of
your booth mumbling something about (a) needing a lunch break, (b) being late
for an appointment, (c) conferring with another buyer, (d) reviewing your
literature that evening or (e) none of the above. I’d include in this list those
business card prospects who appeared genuinely interested, but somewhat
noncommittal. Your orientation here is to assure them that you are interested in
doing business with them, and to resolve any lingering doubts they might have.
a word about exclusivity
We have all had to face this many, many times. And you will see a lot of it if you are new
to the wholesale trade show circuit. Be prepared. It seems as if buyers want an exclusive
relationship with you for everything east of the Mississippi River in return for taking on
your minimum opening order. You, on the other hand, would be just as happy selling both
sides of the same street. If nothing else, competition in your line has a tendency to stabilize
the retail price somewhat close to keystone, thereby assuring a faster turnover and, hence,
more profits to you. Too much competition in the same trading area, however, and your
craft widgets start taking on the look of a commodity item.
There is a somewhat happy medium, but its parameters are ad hoc and must be reviewed
on a case-by-case basis. It is legitimate for an account that does very well with your line to
ask for protection within its small trading area. A suburban location catering to well-heeled
locals would be a good example. A gallery in a city of six million people should expect no
more than, say, exclusivity within its own Zip code. A small trading area that caters to four
million tourists a year might not even warrant Zip code exclusivity -- just not next door.
So what’s the test of whether this type of protection is warranted in the first place? Try to
define the retailer’s trading area. Then within that geography ask yourself if your line is
being reasonably represented. Obviously someone buying two or three hundred dollars a
year shouldn’t be protected -- I’d be looking across the street to find someone who’d take a
serious interest in the line. But if you’re getting a couple of thousand a year, well....?
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