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Making the Most of Trade Shows

In two weeks the world of toys will be on display in New York City for the International Toy Fair. All the vendors will be there showing off their new products. Retailers from around the globe will be there to take a peak.

New York City is a fun place to visit. Oh sure, February might not be the optimal time. I trudged through three 12″ plus snowstorms over the years and braved wind chills that matched the polar vortex of the last couple days here in Michigan. (Unfortunately I missed the unseasonably warm 2017 where temps got into the 60’s.) But with all the fine dining and top-level entertainment, it is fun no matter the weather.

My friends outside the industry would hear our tales of fine dining, bar-hopping, and Broadway. The partying was legendary.

The work was legendary, too.

We just never shared those stories.

There are countless articles about how to prepare for a trade show including tips that tell you to …

  • Run reports
  • Map your course through the show
  • Bring comfortable shoes
  • Don’t forget your business cards

There aren’t as many that tell you what to do at the trade show. Here was my approach …

WALK THE FLOOR

I rarely ever made appointments at the big shows. I didn’t want to be crisscrossing a large floor and adding a couple extra miles to my day.

Instead I chose one end of the floor to start and walked the whole showroom aisle by aisle, stopping in at my regular vendors as I passed them by. When I had to make appointments (LEGO wouldn’t let you in without one) I tried to make them either first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon so that I could walk as much of the floor as possible without interruption.

LOOK FOR NEW

The main purpose of a trade show is to find new items. You don’t need to see the stuff you’ve already seen, bought, and sold. Included in that “new” is new vendors. You should plan to visit several new vendors at any trade show.

This is where my affiliations with industry associations paid off handsomely. As a member of American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) I would look for new vendors who were supportive of ASTRA. ASTRA also had a special meeting one night at Toy Fair called Share the Fair where several retailers gathered to highlight the cool, new stuff they had seen. Those resources alone more than paid for my membership.

Every year you should be replacing your bottom 20% performing merchandise with something new. Trade shows are one of the easiest ways to find those new items.

TAKE NOTES

I learned this from my father. He would always ask for a catalog and two price lists. The first price list he used for notes. As he walked through a booth he would scribble notes on the price list next to each item. He had his own system. Mine was easy. I would star things I liked, circle things I knew I wanted to buy, cross off things I wanted to avoid, and write down short, descriptive words of the new items to remind me later what I thought of them. (Too small, price?, copycat, super cute, etc.)

Every night I would sort through all my notes and write down my thoughts on each vendor I visited. I would then sort the catalogs and price lists into two piles. One pile was going home to look at later. The other pile was for lines I might possibly write orders while at the show.

SAVE ORDER WRITING FOR YOUR LAST DAY

At some trade shows I brought orders I had already created. As easy as it would be to simply drop those orders off as I walked by the first time, I always held them until my last day. I wanted to see everything before I made any decisions.

More than once I added to an order because I loved all the new stuff the vendor was showing. More than once I canceled an order because I saw something I liked better from another vendor.

As soon as I finished my first walk-through of the trade show floor I found a table to sit and process my notes. I had three criteria for which orders I would place at the show and which ones I would take home to write later.

  • Show Special – if the show special was a good one and only was good until the last day of the show, that vendor went into the write pile. (Note: sometimes I would write at the show even if the show special was extended because I knew I wouldn’t see my sales rep before the deadline.)
  • Excitement – if I was really excited about a product and wanted to get it in right away (or feared there would be limited quantities), that vendor went into the write pile.
  • Sales Rep – if I had a lousy sales rep that I didn’t trust would see me soon enough to get the order placed, that vendor went into the write pile.

I knew I would be busy with all the other aspects of running a business as soon as I got home. Writing orders often went to the bottom of the To-Do List. I relied heavily on my sales reps to get in and help me write orders. My great reps knew that and always stopped in to see me right after a show.

The rest of that day was about plotting the second walk-through.

USING THE MAP

Every vendor would remind me their booth number in the multiple emails they sent before each show. I never cared until that last day. If you’re on the showroom floor, I’ll walk by you at least once.

My second walk-through, however, was plotted. I made a list of every vendor I needed to see a second time. Some of those second visits were to write orders. Some were to ask questions and get clarification. Some were to help decide between two competing products.

This is where the trade show maps come in handy. I always made my list by booth numbers. It minimized my walking and maximized my visit time. The list also made sure I saw everyone I needed to see. I circled all the vendors on that list where I knew I was writing an order. That way, if time got short, I had my priority list.

At our peak, we were buying product from over five hundred vendors. Trade shows were critical to our success in finding the right products, staying on top of industry trends, and building the relationships with our vendors that mattered.

This system served me well for close to one hundred trade shows. And when done right, it made the partying even more fun!

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS The “partying” served a purpose, too. That’s when I would meet up with other store owners and share all the new stuff we saw. That’s when I would go out with some of my vendors and build stronger relationships. Find a restaurant or bar that is not so loud that you cannot talk. The evening will be much more fun, and as long as you drink lots of water, you’ll feel much better in the morning.

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