“How (not) to do a Trade Show”
It’s pretty slow for retailers right now, in stores and on-line, no money left to be spent, no traffic. You can keep yourself busy taking back holiday returns, marking down the leftovers, and preparing for your fiscal year-end inventory, but there isn’t much business to be had. That’s why the wholesale markets start in January; it’s the easiest time to leave your store(s) for a few days, and if you’ve had a good (or even OK) holiday season, you have some “checkout styles” to reorder and some open-to-buy for new product. Plus, who doesn’t love an excuse to get out of town in January?
Buyers and store owners converge on their favorite trade show locations, making plans to meet their vendors for drinks or dinner, maybe catch a show, maybe discover that hot new line that will become their next best- seller. The wholesalers have been pulling all-nighters finishing samples, printing catalogs, and shipping booth displays to various show locations. They have also been planning and paying for, their booth space and display for the past 6 months. It is a huge investment to do a trade show. You should be prepared. Very prepared.
There is no point in trying to do one of these shows if you are not already wholesaling (consignment does not count, although it can be a good way to start with a store that you really want to sell). Not only should you have some accounts already, you should also know some stores that you would like to see at the show and try to make an appointment to see them there. And send them all a mailer with your information and booth location. You also have to do press packets and press releases before the show, and each show offers lots of different ad$ and other pre-$how promotion$ to con$ider. All so that buyers can find you or at least maybe look for you in what will be a vast sea of fellow hungry exhibitors.
There are many shows to consider, with the ultimate being the New York International Gift Fair (in my ex-NYer view). This show has got to be seen to be believed. I did the show last year, and there was an Airstream trailer in the booth across from mine, just part of the display. At the head of the aisle I was in they built a house. These were huge multi-national textile companies; my little 10×10 booth of pillows was just swallowed up. Was I in the wrong section (At Home/textiles)? Show organizers thought this was where I should be, although I now think this was just where they had some space to still fill. I listened to them because I didn’t know which would be best (I have a kind of unique line). Mistake #1.
The NYIGF has like 100 sections (OK, it’s really about 15). There are two Handmade sections – Global (for the imports) and Designer (for artists). Then there are other sections that handmade artists exhibit in – Museum, Studio, Accent on Design – so, as I learned the hard way, it is really important to have an idea which section would be best for your line. The other big gift shows – Atlanta, Chicago, LA – all have a handmade section; in the case of LA & Chicago, it’s a show-within-a-show called Beckman’s Handmade, which was a jumble of products, all handmade – somewhere. My booth’s neighbors were a local Etsy jeweler, a basket company from Guatemala, and a Chinese painting factory rep. Nobody did much business.
I think most Etsy artists would do best starting off with the Buyer’s Market of American Craft or the American Craft Retailer’s Expo. The work at BMAC and ACRE is beautiful, (almost) all US artist – made, and you will love meeting your fellow exhibitors. The buyers that attend are mostly galleries and individual boutiques, so the orders are smaller and easier to finance. Neither show is cheap, but they are a lot less than NY and Atlanta. And with an ACRE booth you also get to be in their on-line catalog.
So lesson #1 – you should definitely “walk” the shows before you consider exhibiting in them. You will probably have to pay to get in, unless you have a friend who’s exhibiting that can get you a badge, or you are better than I am at convincing the show organizers that you are press (have a blog?) or a retailer (they will require credentials). Atlanta is the first, here are some other dates.
Atlanta Gift & Home Furnishings Market – Jan.13-17
ACRE – Orlando – Jan. 21-23
Beckman’s Handcrafted Show – Chicago – Jan.21-24
LA – Jan.20-23
NYIGF – Jan. 28- Feb.2
BMAC – Philadelphia – Feb 18-20
Deborah Goodwin is the creator of ShapeShiftasä pillows and art cushions. She has her BFA in sculpture and ceramics, and has been a buyer, a designer, and a business owner in the garment industry. She left the big city for the country life, in Vermont, where she lives with her family and produces all of her ShapeSã.