Navigating large wholesale trade shows for the first time as a retail buyer can be challenging. Based on experience, we offer tips and a simple playbook to help entrepreneurial buyers plan and execute effective strategies.
Having worn shoes on both sides of trade shows, one as a brand seller looking to get picked up buy retail stores and two as a retail buyer finding that hidden treasure brand, I have learned a thing or two about planning and executing a winning game plan to make the most of these daunting events.
I will focus this post from the point of view of retail buyers new to the trade show circuit. The first most critical step is choosing the right shows to attend that have the highest chance of having the right product fit. That is very specific to each business, region, budget, so the only thing I will say is to define who your customers are, what are your target products, and do your research (websites and referrals from other buyers/sellers). I am focused on elegant and affordable jewelry, accessories and gifts that are handmade with social responsibility from the US and abroad. So for me I am choosing NYNOW as my case example as it perfectly covers all my bases and has thousands of vendors, categorized sections and over multiple days. So it is ripe for a game plan!
To make the best return on investment (ROI) for my time I follow a simple 4 step playbook:
1. Study the Layout & Plan Your Attack
2. Walk the Show & Take Notes
3. Cut Down to Your Short List
4. Place Orders & Plan Shipments
Step 1: Study the Layout & Plan Your Attack (Pre Event)
If you attend a larger trade show often there are multiple sections that are categorized to cluster vendors by product types, manufacturing (country of origin, handmade), etc. Check out the website and hard copy materials they offer and get a sense for the floor plans and directory of vendors.
For the NYNOW show I was primarily looking for handmade jewelry which was available in 3 different sections. So I knew I had to cover a lot of ground. Luckily accessories and gifts were also in the same sections so I could optimize my path. The right approach is somewhere between how I navigate the grocery store isles, a Fed Ex logistics driver and room for inspired wandering.
The show was in NYC for 5 days. I live outside Boston and decided to drive in and stay for 2 days, which would only require one hotel night plus food and gas so not too much of an investment. Registration was free if booked at least a week in advance. But TIME would be the toughest resource to manage given the hundreds of brands I wanted to consider.
Step 2: Walk the Show & Take Notes (Day 1)
Because of my pre-planning I knew that NYNOW had 3 sections to visit: Handmade Global Design, Handmade Designer Maker, and Personal Accessories. I also knew that a few designers I already carry in my store were here, so I would do some reordering in person while finding new brands. I planned for an 8 hour day (10am - 6pm) so I could easily spend 2 hours in each section, 1 hour for lunch and have buffer if needed.
One of the most important keys is to have the right equipment: wear comfortable shoes and bring a bag to carry 8x10" catalogs and line sheets. NYNOW had complementary bags, but a medium over the shoulder bag would have been preferred as I also carried a water bottle, moleskin notebook and my purse. It would have been easier to carry all in one bag. But I repeat wear comfy sneakers/insoles as your fitbit will be getting some steps in!
Well, as boxers know, any game plan goes out the window when you take the first punch, and our first punch was that we left Boston later than planned. So now our 8 hour day got cut down to 6 hours. We had to pivot. That just meant a shorter lunch and being more disciplined in each section. The best advice is SAYING NO to booths that look fun, interesting but are not on point with your target buy objectives. For sure it is great to learn, get trend ideas, expand your horizons, but being selective on day 1 is crucial to making sure you walk away with a solid short list for day 2.
While walking the show it is uber critical to take catalogs, line sheets and jot down notes so that you can help sift through at night for 1st round cuts. The key is to write a quick meaningful note (i.e., love the drop earrings, younger sterling silver line, similar to X brand but better price point - consider).
A must is to write down the BOOTH # and verify the name of the company in the event directory so you can find them easily later. For example, I had found a great vendor who I wanted to revisit but the card they gave me did not have the booth on it and the name did not match any in the directory. I had visited so many people I could not remember where they were. So we both lost. I lost a chance to test them in my store and they lost a chance to get into a new store/region. This is where having a partner helps. My husband also remembered many and was taking pictures of booths for me. if you can get a 2nd set of eyes and hands I highly suggest it!
At the end of the day 1, we ended up running out of time on our last section walk through, so we did not visit all the booths we wanted before the event closed. So we decided that we would get up early and continue where we left off in the morning. Then we would just start our buying process in that section and work our way back to the other two.
Step 3: Cut Down to Your Short List (Night 1)
If you ever wanted to feel like a judge on the XFACTOR that is what Night 1 feels like. This is both the most fun and most challenging part of the event. You have likely had only minutes to see a brand, touch and feel their products, heard the story from the designer/founder and now you are deciding if you want to test them in your boutique. This is about people and art but it ultimately is a business decision. For me, I care about the style, the materials, how and by who it was made, the retail price point, and the story and connection to the handcrafters. I take very seriously what I want to represent my brand as a retailer, so I have to be critical. Of course you can take all the catalogs back home, take time to do your analysis, but I knew I wanted to buy now for the season and easier to see products in person, so hence my urgency to buy on this trip.
So on this Sunday night I laid out all the catalogs and my husband and I went through one by one, putting three piles. A Yes, No and Maybe. Once we finished we put the No's in the recycling bin and as Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank says, they were dead to me. Ok not that harsh, but again we have to be selective on what our customers will love, not just like.
We then go through the Maybe's again. Sometimes we would go to the website to get a better look, read about the story/materials and get a second opinion. Once we have our final Yes lineup, then we have to plan our buy day. However, it was late and Superbowl Sunday, so we decided to call it a night and do the final prep in the AM over breakfast.
It was the Superbowl and our New England Patriots were playing, but they were far behind in the 1st half. We walked literally 3 doors down from our hotel to an Irish Pub to get a bite and watch the rest of the game. The place was filled with Patriots jerseys, so even in NYC we felt like home. With that and the comeback win, it was a great sign that this was going to be a successful trade show!
Step 4: Place Orders & Plan Shipments (Day 2)
So while my husband waited in line for early morning Starbucks, I sat and made my lists for the day. In my notebook I wrote down on 3 pages, one for each section with the name, booth, and a short note of each brand we wanted to buy. This did two things for us. One it double checked if we had selected designers that overlapped too much (i.e., if I had too many sterling silver vendors I had better widdle that down more). Two it helped us have a checklist by section, so we could make our rounds and know for certain when we left a room that we did not need to come back.
With our latte fuel and lists, we were on our way. The Buy day is for sure the most fun day. It is like combining the feeling of getting a job offer and a shopping spree all in one. You are basically saying to a designer brand that we want you and more importantly our customers will love you! Having been a seller, this is such as an amazing feeling. But for us, since we care so much about social responsibility and the people and economics of the artisans and owners involved, it is like adding to our family.
This was the 1st time my husband had been to a show as a buyer and as he said in a sarcastic voice "honey you sure like to buy don't you!" He was joking of course, but once I make a decision to carry someone I already start to envision an orchestrated display that shows the range of styles and colors that will sell. I can't buy just a few pieces or it won't look cohesive. It is the art and experience of merchandising that drives the buy decision. So I choose the SKUs (various styles & colors) that fit both my vision for a beautiful display as well as within a reasonable budget that I am willing to put up to test the line. What looks to my husband like a random shopping spree is a well calculated matrix of fashion sense for demand coupled with disciplined financials around costs and risks for initial market testing. But he is right, I do love shopping!
The last critical piece is when to receive the shipment. The options are typically in stock and ship right away, 4-6 weeks lead time, or a later date with terms to pay upon shipment. I consider two things here: one is this urgent for my store or season and two can I handle the payment all at once plus the inventory processing and display effort. Say I buy $1,000 each from 6 vendors. I may want to get 3 of them in early March and the other 3 in April. That will help me spread out the payments over two months and also let me change the store with new products, which customers like to see the rotating variety. This is a super personal decision to your business, but things to consider.
Well that is basically it! Like any preparation for a big event whether a trade show or a Superbowl, it all comes down to knowing yourself, knowing the field and who the key players are, formulating a solid strategy and then executing with discipline and flexibility to pivot and react with your instincts. But ever since I have deployed this playbook approach, I have felt less stressed, more productive, able to cut my time/costs of attending big shows and ensures I buy smarter and maintain the high standards I have for the brands in my boutique. When your own name is your retail brand...you tend to take every detail to heart.
I hope this helps any newcomers and of course I am always learning every day and having a ton of fun of this entrepreneurial journey. So plan, walk, cut, buy and have fun out there!
- Esmeralda Lambert
Owner, 'Esmeralda' socially conscious jewelry, accessories & gifts in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA