Once upon a time before we had personal computers or had heard about the internet there was a tool in place to help brands sell their products. It was called ‘The Trade Show’. In a time before online shopping and social media these shows were a big F-ing deal. This was one of the ONLY ways for a brand to make an impact on retail buyers which was all the more vital when your only sales channel was through brick and mortar stores. Still to this day trade shows are organized every 6 months and the product shown is for the upcoming season (ie. September 2016 show is for Spring/Summer 17 product). In the past orders were placed at the show and then delivered 6 months later which meant brands only had to have samples ready and could order their production run based on actual sales (this still happens today but with more pressure to also produce goods for immediate delivery). Retailers could feel confident that they were seeing the best brands all in one place at one time because there were few other ways for brands to make a name for themselves. Design reps – people paid to represent brands and book sales – made connections with stores and buyers and played a pivotal role in the fashion ecosystem. Because trade shows were THE vital sales conduit they were able to charge brands a large amount to show at them – as they should have being such an important cog in the retail machine.
And then came the internet.
I know it has been over 20 years of the internet being common place but I still feel like, even today, age old systems in MANY industries are scrambling to adapt to the massive changes it brought. In this case it has delivered the question, ‘Are trade shows worth it?’
My short answer is – I don’t know.
In my previous life as a Creative Director for a fashion retailer I used to walk the shows every 6 months. I hated them. They were large and overwhelming and instead of inspiring me they left me feeling like fashion was raping the world of it’s resources in order to provide us with bootcut denim sprinkled liberally with Swarovski crystals (it was the mid-2000s). Even a decade ago online shopping was barely a thing and so the trade shows were still offering their traditional market service – bringing retailers and brands together in a way that was difficult otherwise. Before online stores photographed product completely for their listings, before blogs recommended brands that inspired them, before social media brought us behind the scenes of every facet of business you really only got to see and learn about a brand through trade shows. So despite my distaste for the scale of the shows I did still recognize that it was necessary to be there and that I was learning about product in a way that was not possible in another context.
By the time online shopping really gained steam and the internet landscape started to shift and become more interactive (remember when websites were completely static like pages from a magazine that were only updated once or twice a year??) I had left my full-time position, moved to Mexico and was starting to sell online myself with S&C. As you all know my brand began as a blog and so, in this new interactive internet age, I was able to generate sales from the comfort of my own home and without the fees involved with travel and shows. Awesome. Then because I had a devoted blog following and an online shop I was contacted by interested retailers that were willing to buy wholesale from me without seeing me at shows at all. Also awesome. ‘Who needs shows?’, I thought brazenly. And I didn’t attend any for a few more seasons.
But then….things changed. Again.
Most of my blog readership now had a bunch of my product and in order to get to my next level of business growth I would need to create more interest and widen my brand awareness. I looked into a bunch of things – PR support, showrooms, event collabs – and finally settled on doing a show. The cost for me was high but I felt like, from my experience walking the shows in the past, there was sure to be a return that would more than compensate for the show fee, travel expenses and my time out of the studio. And so I headed to New York and spent three days on the other side of the trade show circuit – as a brand. I left feeling mixed about the experience and I continue to feel mixed moving forward. When asked if I would recommend doing a trade show I usually ramble a list of pros and cons about the system which I will lay out below in no particular order:
- Since there is now so many ways for a brand to gain exposure and for retailers to buy great product trade shows these days tend to be much smaller than in times past. I really like this because it feels like you are a part of an amazing boutique for three days. There is more likelihood of buyers actually seeing your product when they don’t have to cross a football sized convention centre to find you. This is especially useful if you are hoping to expand your sales network by impressing new buyers as they walk by, dazzling them with your trend relevant product and perfect price point.
- If you don’t live in a retail centre this is a chance to book meetings with wholesale accounts that you already work with (it’s great to meet your buyers in person) or to book meetings with clients that have expressed interest but are a bit gun shy around placing orders before seeing your work.
- This can be a great tool for brand positioning – always make sure to book yourself into a trade show that represents other brands you admire. Buyers will see your work in the same light as the brands you are showing with. In some cases buyers want to see that you have shown at a trade show for several seasons so they can trust that you are a solvent company that will still be in business for years to come and are worth developing a relationship with.
- These days shows compete for relevance with their own marketing footprint and there is a chance they will promote you through their media channels which can be great exposure.
- Hanging with like-minded people – every time I’ve done a show I have met great entrepreneurs who understand what I am up against and are awesome business resources. I also found my factory at one of these shows by just chatting to another vendor about my manufacturing issues which has changed my brand and personal life 1000x for the better. Outside of booking actual sales there is the opportunity to make unplanned connections that set you up for a healthier and happier business.
But also :
- Show costs are expensive. These days orders are RARELY placed at the show itself so after you chat with a prospective buyer you don’t really know if they are going to place an order. When trade shows were the only sales channel between brands and buyers the buyer needed to close the deal at the show but these days, when they can find you and other brands in many different ways, the pressure is off. For some reason shows still charge like they are the only way for people to connect and they are not. When you add travel expenses to cities like New York it becomes questionable as to if your financial return will actually be worth it.
- If you have a solid brand presence online I am unsure that your work in a booth is going to make that much more of an impact to potential clients. You could also just email them to introduce your work or even send your ideal retailers samples instead of paying thousands on a show.
- Traffic is way down – the last show I did there were essentially tumbleweeds rolling down the aisles because – not to beat a dead horse – there are tons of ways for brands and buyers to connect and so the volume of buyers present has dropped dramatically from the shows I attended a decade ago.
- If you are paying a showroom to represent you it can get costly quick and you need to have the extra expense padded into your per unit price. I currently don’t which is an oversight of my pricing strategy more than a con related to a tradeshow. As a side note – if you hire a design rep make sure to hire them with a sales commission term so they have incentive to sell you work and not just party.
And there it is. I just don’t know. I think there are tons of reasons to do shows and as many reasons not to. Like everything – each brand has it’s own unique sales mix and I’m sure for some companies shows are a pivotal business practice. For me it is a little ‘neither here, nor there’ and while they definitely offer value I am unsure if they are worth the large cost associated with them.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with shows – comment below if you love or hate them and which ones you had the best success with….