I’m not going to lie to you, doing a trade fair costs a packet. With this comes the fear. Fear that you’re not ready, don’t know what you’re doing and won’t ‘make the most’ of the investment. I hear you. I’ve been there, but in September I took the plunge at Top Drawer. I thought I’d share some of the lessons I learned from exhibiting at my first trade fair… I hope they help if you’re planning your first one.
1. Know why you’re doing it
My original plan for 2019 was to pitch to independent retailers one by one, building my wholesale business gradually. This was a good plan, but in order to pitch I needed to have my catalogue and line sheet designed, wholesale prices worked out and terms set (see ‘copy and paste’, lesson 3). I had no deadline and a very busy schedule, so by June I hadn’t achieved any of this. For me, signing up to Top Drawer gave me the deadline that my business needed to progress. For you the reason could be wildly different, just make sure you know what it is before you commit all that hard earned cash.
2. Get used to talking about yourself
Oh god, I am bad at this. Maybe it’s a British thing, maybe it’s a woman thing. Cold hard fact – if you are the designer/owner/maker then you ARE the brand, and you are going to have to talk about yourself. I know it’s hard, but try to find a way of doing it without squirming. You’ve got this – you know your story inside-out, and the chances are anyone who’s asking is genuinely interested. Don’t sell yourself short.
3. Set your terms on your terms
I learnt this one from Sharon at Text From A Friend. Going into the show I honestly had no idea what my terms should be. I pretty much copied and pasted them from someone else’s catalogue (I’m not even joking). I offered what other people were offering, because I thought I had to. And then when it came to delivering on my orders I realised there was stuff in my terms that made my life very very difficult.
Turns out you can (and should) set terms that work for you. If cash flow is an issue and you can’t afford to give 30 days payment terms, then don’t. Explain that you are an independent publisher in the first year of business and that you’d love to offer credit, but right now it’s not something you’re able to do. Sure, this might lose you a few sales. But if you take an order that you can’t afford to fulfil, you’ll end up in a far worse place. Stick to your guns. If they love what you make they’ll be prepared to work with you to find something that works for you both.
4. Listen and learn (and take notes)
You will speak to a LOT of people. Some of them will be trying to sell you things, some of them will be trying to learn from you, and some of them will be considering buying from you. Even if they don’t place an order you can get some seriously valuable insight from a two minute conversation.
If they don’t place an order, why not? They came to your stall, you’re obviously doing something right. Is your price point too high (or too low), is your range too small, do they find it difficult to stock alphabet products because they end up with left over letters that eat into their margin (yep, this one is the bain of my life). Don’t be afraid to ask questions and chat rather than going in hard sell. Get a business card or contact details, and for gods sake write it all down there and then. If you have twenty conversations over the course of the day the likelihood of you remembering who said what are slim.
5. Follow up on leads
A lot of people have given this advice, but I think it’s worth repeating. So much of the Trade Show value comes through the follow-up. Not everyone will place an order at the show. I took some there and then, and you should definitely be prepared to process orders on the spot, but I also took orders from people after the show.
Using your well-documented notes (see lesson 4) do some research post-show; or during, if you have some down-time. Find out who your new leads are, what their shop/business is and then get in touch to remind them of who you are and what you do. Start building a relationship now and it may well turn into an account.
While you’re at it think about whether they would be a good fit for your brand. I definitely went in to Top Drawer thinking that I would take anything that came my way. But upon reflection, it’s really important to check you are starting relationships with the right retailers. I did have a few publishers or online retailers approach me who, upon research, I decided not to follow up with.
6. Make friends
You see those guys across the aisle? The ones with the dreamy thing you wish you’d designed. Or that stall to the left who seems to be beating off the buyers? Those people should be your new best friends. Do NOT think of them as competition.
You’ve already got something massive in common, and you’re going to be spending a lot of time together over the next few days. If they’ve been doing this for longer they might know the best printers in town, or a shop in Inverness that you’ve never heard of who would love your stuff. And it works both ways, don’t be tight with your knowledge or time. If you can think of a way to help them out, do. You rise together – community over competition every time.
7. Take time to look around
One of the best things about trade shows is getting to meet other business owners and find out what they’ve been up to. See how they present their work, what amazing new lines they’ve launched this year. Just to be clear, I’m talking about research here, not poaching ideas. Introduce yourself as soon as you go over (provided they’re not already talking to someone else) and tell them you’re exhibiting too. That way they won’t try to pitch to you, and you won’t feel like you’re being sneaky.
There is a catch…. You can’t do this if you’re stuck on your stall from 10am-6pm. I didn’t even go up the stairs when I was exhibiting. Every time I went to the toilet I worried I’d miss the buyers from Liberties, who were naturally desperate to stock my work but never going to wait for me to come back from the bog.
If you don’t have a business partner or any staff to help out, I would seriously consider asking a pal to come and relieve you for an hour so you can look around properly. Prep them with your brand story, arm them with a stack of catalogues and then go and say hi to some other exhibitors. You’ll feel part of the gang in no time.
8. It’s a marathon, not a sprint
On paper I had the best Top Drawer launch going. I won the Paper Awards and took part in a panel discussion on stage. But after the show I had a huge energy slump. I’d had a great trade fair, but my business still hadn’t conquered the world of wholesale. Well duh!
The biggest lesson I learnt is that there will always be more to do. Don’t expect to go to one trade fair and walk away with a fully-formed wholesale business. I’ve been told by multiple people that you need to show up on more than one occasion to make a real impact. You need to build momentum and a buzz around your brand, and this takes time and consistency. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. Try to remember where you’ve come from and how much you’ve achieved. Congratulate yourself on getting this far, and then get planning. Because if you’ve done your first trade fair your to-do list just went through the roof.
Want to find out more about whether you should be doing a trade fair?
I’ll be talking about this subject in more detail at an event put on by the team at PR Dispatch in January. I’ll be bringing my newby opinion, alongside a kick-ass panel of people who’ve been doing this for a lot longer than me:
Catherine Erdly, Future Retail
Therese Oertenblad, Small Business Collaborative
Bronwyn Lowenthal, Buyer
Vicky Simmons, Founder of Mean Mail
Quite the lineup eh!
When and where?
- Peckham Levels
- Tuesday, January 28, 2020
- 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM
Tickets are available to buy here – £10 for PR Dispatch members, £25 for anyone else. Maybe see you there!
Interested in Wholesale?
If you’d like to find out more about stocking Alphablots in your shop check out my wholesale page or drop me an email and let’s talk shop.