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A Visitor’s Guide to Trade Fairs

Gift and homewares trade fairs can be both exciting and overwhelming, especially if you’re new to the industry. Aside from ensuring you wear your most comfortable shoes, Liz Swanton gets tips from those who’ve ‘been there, done that’ to help maximise your trade fair experience.

There’s an old adage that suggests one should ‘shop till you drop’ and when it comes to a trade fair, this could be a reality, especially if you go unprepared.

The general consensus among our experienced trade fair visitors is that physical and mental exhaustion is all part of the experience, so retailers need to find a formula that allows them to handle the workload efficiently and economically—but still have some fun at the same time.

Planning is even more important if you’re traveling a long distance to the fair. For Kevin Schofield and his wife Jane, who own two Wild Card & Gift stores in WA, the precision-planning begins as soon as their GHA Home & Giving catalogue arrives in the mail. The distance they have to travel and the time involved—as well as keeping two teenage kids and two separate stores under control for that time—means the couple need to be completely organised before they leave home. “As soon as we receive the catalogue, we go through it and look for anything that might suit our two stores,” says Schofield. “We check the layout of the fair, mark off our regular suppliers, plus anything new that takes our eye, and then we plan our ‘walk-through’ to be as efficient as we can.

“Our stores have completely different customer bases which makes it a bit trickier—plus it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much is on offer and end up buying too much or the wrong thing. Being focused can help avoid that.”

He says they time their arrival for Friday afternoon/evening and make sure they get plenty of rest before they head out on the first ‘mission’ on Saturday. The pair make notes as they go and place their orders either on the last day of the show, or even once they get home again.

“We make the one initial pass to check everything out and collect business cards,” explains Schofield. “We attach each business card to a page of our notebook along with details of what interested us, then we review all that information that night and plan our next walk-through on the basis of that fine-tuning.”

The process of forward planning also includes booking accommodation, so Schofield books for the following year while they’re at the current event. “One time I forgot and I booked by phone just before we left. We got to the hotel to find there had been a mix-up and we didn’t have a bed. We sorted it out—luckily—but we never made that mistake again. You need to know that you will be staying somewhere comfortable and convenient, because you will need your rest!”

He suggests the following golden rules for coping with a fair: don’t drink too much, eat well (not junk), get plenty of rest, wear comfortable shoes and buy with your customers in mind.

“You do have to pace yourself so you can do the job properly,” he warns. “I’m not saying it can’t be fun, it’s great to network and to catch up with people you know, but you do have to keep in mind what you’re really there for, so you buy wisely and don’t blow the budget.”

Tips & Traps

Michelle Lee, executive director of party plan group Carter Lane Homewares, is another advocate of being focused and organised. She also advises comfortable shoes and clothes, and a light handbag equipped only with notebook, pens, plenty of business cards, and up-to-date credit cards.

“If you’re new to the industry and a first-timer at the fair, you do need to give yourself time to see everything, to get a feeling for what’s going on, but don’t start buying straight away,” she advises.

Lee suggests that if you’re going for the first time, don’t take a friend, likening the situation to the danger of doing the food shopping when you are hungry. “They can sway you away from your focus and you do need to keep your target market and your core range in mind once you start buying. You also need to forget your own personal taste—you’re a business, not a consumer. Go direct to the suppliers that are right for what you do and do the essentials first.

“Then if you have the time, look for new products. Use the show to source the things your customers expect to find in your store, and then the unusual extras you want to try out and buy on that basis.

“Look for items that are really different and unusual, and try not to get trapped by fashion items that can end up as ‘knock-off’ copies in cheaper stores.”

Lee says you should never buy a product you have had to think twice about and make sure you remember that price and value for money are two different things.

“You need to know what your customer wants and what your competitors are doing and selling, and you need to have integrity about what you sell.

“When the delivery arrives, don’t be bullied into accepting shoddy products from the supplier. If it isn’t what you ordered and you aren’t happy, send it back. It’s your business that will suffer.”

Lee advises newcomers to check on suppliers’ trading terms to be sure it fits their budget. Also check what the minimum order is for free freight, or the freight cost of a particular order, as it can make a big difference to the profit margin. “Never assume anything—you do have to manage the situation. Follow up your order with a phone call when you get home and be vigilant until the order arrives safely. Most suppliers are very good but there is the odd one out in every situation and it’s your business that is at stake.”

For Brigitte James, the gift and homewares business and the trade fairs that are part of it, is still new and exciting. She and husband Wayne had planned to buy a business in 2007, but one of the Loot Homewares stores came up for sale near their north Queensland home early in 2006, and the opportunity was too good to miss.

As part of the Loot chain, they can buy as much or as little of the parent company’s stock as they choose, and then fill their own store with other selected items. With two fairs under their belt, they already feel like professionals.

“The previous owners took us to the fair in Melbourne and it was overwhelming,” recalls James. “It was a couple of very big days but it was fun. By the time the Sydney fair came around, we had taken over the store so we had more of an idea what we wanted and felt more comfortable about what we were doing.”

James says her approach to a fair is to go down every aisle and look at each exhibit. She checks out the products in terms of whether they are something her customers would like, and the people, in terms of whether she feels comfortable about starting a relationship with them.

“I take a binder with me and if something takes my eye, I will jot down a note about it and go back. We tend to order as we go, but we don’t go crazy with numbers of items.

“You definitely have to keep your customers in mind, but, also, if I see something that I think will work and is good value, I’m prepared to give it a try. It may not be what I like, necessarily, but I’m not the customer.”

At the end of the day the James’ take the catalogues and their notes back to their room and double-check what they’ve done. “If we’re not happy with anything, we will go back and cancel that order, but we really haven’t had too many problems.”

In fact James can only think of a couple of negatives so far, and they relate more to freight costs and lost freight. “One order arrived late and we only received half of what we had ordered, and the freight cost proved to be really expensive, so I wasn’t very happy with that.

“The other delivery was supposed to be five boxes and we received two. No-one seemed to know where the other boxe
s were. And when we opened the two we received, there was stuff that we hadn’t ordered. The interesting part was the stuff we received was all very good and did very well for us, so I would order again from those suppliers even after that experience.

“Everyone makes mistakes. If they’re not too expensive (and there aren’t too many of them) you learn from them. This is not a science.

“I like buying from trade fairs because you can see the items ‘in the flesh’ and meet the people you will be dealing with,” she adds. “That’s all part of the fun as well as being a good way to build the business.”

Years of personal experience in the retailing industry have gone into David Jenkin’s book What Great Retailers Do, a treasure trove of hints that will help small retailers make their businesses work for them.

Not surprisingly, much of that expertise has been gleaned from his own experience of buying stock, so he has some useful advice for dealing with trade fairs.

“Be very clear on who your customer is. Perhaps choose two typical customers, look at the products through their eyes and buy what suits them.

“It’s essential to have points of difference between your shop and others in your area. It may allow you to bargain for exclusivity, or at least first release, in your area.

“Categorise your stock and the volumes of each category and keep that in mind when you’re at the fair, along with the budget you have to spend. Buy within those categories and volumes, and budget. Otherwise it’s easy to be carried away and buy too much of the wrong sort of item, and to spend too much.”

Jenkin is a firm believer in the idea of giving the trade fair a complete “once-over”, making notes of what catches your eye, what stand it’s on and where it’s located, so you can go back later to make a decision and place an order.

“Once you have ‘done’ the whole fair, take your notes and go outside the building and find somewhere for a coffee so you can look through your notes without distraction.

“Once you’ve decided yes or no on each item—or perhaps the fact you need to have another look—then you can go back inside and place an order.”

However, he does make an exception: “If you have a strong history with a supplier or if your customers are clamouring for a specific product, then it’s worth ordering straight away so you don’t miss out.”

David’s book is available through the website www.whatgreatretailersdo.com.au

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