Thrills, chills, and super deals. It's show time!
by : 

Molly Trimble and Jean Haller

December 1, 2012

January and February are alive with trade and gift shows for every persuasion. This year try something new—pick a show you’ve never been to and find products your customers don’t yet know they will love.

Safety is overrated. Typical is tired. 2013 is your break-out year to try something new. Has your store become predictable, reliable, and slightly boring—even to you? Has your stock remained pretty much the same since you opened? Are your customers beginning to look too much alike? Are more people walking in, taking a cursory look around your store, and exiting stage left? These, dear retailers, are signs that the blazing fire you began your business with is suffering from a lack of oxygen. Get on a plane, go to a show, take in a seminar or two, meet new people, and come back with product orders you can get excited about.

Here’s the no-fail show formula: Start with some attitude, add a plan, the right supplies, and super comfortable shoes and decide this is the trade show that’s going to change your business from merely good to amazing.

One more thing: You’re a retailer, so you’ve been working too hard. Take time during the show to do nothing but have a good time. You’re in a new city with things to do and places to see. Go do them and go see them. You’ll be surprised how much oxygen you’ll generate for your business by stepping out of your element and trying something playful you’ve never tried before. Remember, they call these events “shows”—as in entertaining, social, and fun—for a reason.
To make your show a thrilling adventure, here are some tried-and-true trade show tips:

First things first

Make your transportation and lodging reservations early—very early. It’s a case of “you snooze, you lose (money).” Early birds get the best worms at the cheapest prices. Larger shows sometimes contract with an airline for discounted fares and even small shows will make discount deals with area hotels. You’re also likely to meet other show attendees in the lobby or at the breakfast bar of these hotels, and free shuttles between the hotel and show save you all kinds of aggravation.

Once you have your plane and hotel set, preregister for the show. The fewer lines you have to stand in on your first day at the show, the better. Plus, you’ll be sent show materials about vendors, seminars, and other events that will get you pumped and ready to roll.

Pack those comfortable shoes (but don’t forget your snazziest pair for evenings of fun). Bring clothes you can layer. To keep your energy at its peak, healthy snacks, power drinks, and a water bottle are musts.

Easy does it

Make it easy on yourself and create a mobile mini-office with business info and supplies you’ll need. Just don’t go crazy—you have to lug around any bag you pack for the show all day. Buy a comfortable-to-carry bag in a happy color for show-floor goodies. That gray one in the back of your closet you’ve had since 1982? Nope, not this time. Free bags are plentiful on the show floor, of course, but will they be easy to carry and right-sized? Consider them a nice souvenir, but buy a bag you know will work for you.

For supplies think “absolutely essential” rather than “nice to have.” Less is more. Light is lovely. The same goes for your suitcase. You’ll be picking up show goodies to take back home so don’t overpack—leave some extra room. (Easier said than done, I know, but, hey, I tried.)

Little things do make working a show easier: a smallish notebook (or notes app on your smart phone), a calculator, zip-lock bags for vendor cards, a mini-stapler, your favorite pen. A calendar (physical or virtual) for recording and tracking shipping dates is very handy. Many of these supplies can stay in the hotel room to use each evening when you review your day’s activities. Packing a few pre-labeled, flat-rate postal boxes to mail catalogs and brochures back to your store on the fly is a good idea, too.

Pack proper credentials to prove you’re a bona fide buyer. That would be a copy of your resale license, a company check, and picture ID. Business cards and credit sheets or applications are musts, too.

As in most things in life, a plan helps. Just don’t start your plan by “assessing your current inventory needs.” Even the words sound boring. This is the time to dream a new dream. What do you want to create in your store? What do you want your customers’ eyes to light on when they walk in? How do you want them to feel? These intangibles aren’t, well, intangible. They’re real things that are going to make your store special, fresh, unique. You want your store to be known for something—what is that something going to be? Take your time with this. Dreaming can’t be hurried.

Once you’ve honed in on the particular dream that gets your entrepreneurial fire burning again, think about the categories of new items you would like to find, not your budget. That comes later. If money fear won’t leave you alone, repeat the mantra that is full of truth: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Only when you’re full of enthusiasm for your new plan is it time to establish a budget to help you make your show buying decisions.

Map out your plan

The show directory and the pre-show guide some trade shows send to early registrants are gold mines of helpful information. Review the vendor list and the exhibit floor plan. Highlight important vendors and exhibits you want to check out, then map a route so you don’t end up going in circles.


You will want to walk the entire show eventually—eliminating only the areas antithetical to your store’s soul. By taking it all in, you’ll not only see the gotta-have-’em items you came for, but you’ll also discover hidden jewels you didn’t know existed.

A game plan helps. Try to get to booths on your priority list early in the show. If they are crowded (I sometimes wonder who camps outside the doors just waiting for the opening bell), make a note (written, not mental) to circle back, then keep moving. Whip out your phone or little notebook to jot down booth numbers and show specials. Where do you want to return to tomorrow? Which vendors will be sending you catalogs? What products are intriguing, but you need to sleep on your decision to buy? Taking a photo of items you want to remember is quick and easy, but always, always ask the vendor for permission first.

Vendor materials are plentiful, so exercise caution. Don’t take brochures or catalogs unless you really, really, really want them—they’re heavy and what are you going to do with them later?

Keep to your game plan, but no need to stress. Leave room for serendipity. Book-signing lines can be time sucks, but for your favorite author you didn’t know would be there? Go for it. A celebrity on the show floor? A little gawking makes a good story back home. These are the moments you’ll remember always.

Seminars and workshops can be very cool; they’re full of hard-won information and great places to exchange ideas with other retailers. They’re usually offered for a minimal fee and cover topics that can keep you in the know, ahead of the curve, and other clichés, too. Plus, they give you a place to sit down, and that’s no small thing. Schedule time for the ones that sound exciting and new. The ones you know you should attend but even thinking about them makes you tired? Leave those to the retailers who forgot to dream before they arrived.

Write it up

Before you write any orders, it’s time for a little hunting. You are stalking the wild show specials. They’re often advertised, but not all make it into the show directory. These specials—such as freight allowances or dating programs—will stretch your dollars, and they’re usually only available at the show.

If you feel strongly about a product, though, live dangerously and place your order anyway—show specials or no.

See a product that lights you up? Then it’s time to grill the vendor: What are your minimums? Is “your” product ready to ship? What’s the lead time before delivery? Vendors and sales reps are anxious to develop relationships with you that will last well beyond the show, so let them impress you. Ask for suggestions to better display their product. Ask about bestsellers and whether display programs with offset are available. They know you’re the one with the final decision about whether to buy from them, and they can literally see their competition all around them. If they don’t seem to care much whether you place an order or not, pass them by. A great product is important, but a vendor without passion and enthusiasm for your satisfaction will be a vexation. Back away.

Once you’ve found products key to your vision and vendors who know how to treat you right, it’s time to place your orders. Always specify a PO number (if you use them), the ship date, and a cancellation date when you order. Inquire about payment terms. Have your credit application handy for net-30. Ask the vendor to total your order and then check it to make sure it lists everything you ordered, exactly as you ordered it. Get a copy to serve as a reminder of delivery time, the vendor’s contact information, and the products you ordered. Record the ship date and total value of the order in your notebook. Done and done!

Each evening, back at the hotel, quickly review the orders you wrote. Revise tomorrow’s shopping list according to what you scored today. Then, put on your party shoes and take yourself out for a good time. Yeah, I know, it was a long day, you’re tired, you have a bag of Doritos, and …

Here’s the deal: If watching television programs you can see at home in a rented room in a city with all kinds of interesting things to do seems just the ticket after your good day of show work, you absolutely, positively must … well, you know what I’m going to say.

Up close and personal

Getting to know other retailers and hearing their stories is worth more than the price of your plane ticket. And you’ll have new acquaintances to join you for dinner, share stories, and see the sights. Boldly invite the authors and artists you meet to your store for the possibility of an event. Go ahead. Don’t be shy. Talk with vendors and tell them about your new dream for your store—they have experience and often very creative ideas you may not have considered. Personal friendships and business partnerships will add whole new dimensions to your life as a retailer, and trade shows are ideal for beginning and developing these rewarding relationships.

Good luck and good times!

Molly Trimble is publisher of Retailing Insight. Jean Haller, editor-at-large for Retailing Insight, is owner of Journeys of Life (, a successful gift and bookstore in Pittsburgh, Pa. celebrating 23 years in business and 2012 COVR Retailer of the Year.