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What's Happening to Our Trade Shows?
And what does it mean for the
Mike Hartnett and CLN Readers (February 7, 2011)
Trade shows have always reflected the state of
our industry, and they were an essential forum for buyers and
sellers alike. Yet many shows have disappeared and the remaining
trade shows are smaller than they once were, despite the best
efforts by show sponsors.
They are smaller -- and apparently less
important, according to CLN readers. In the latest CLN
poll 65.2% said trade shows were less important; only 26.1% said
they were more important.
Trade shows are a major source of revenue for
our trade associations – CHA, TNNA, and NAMTA – and the trade
associations are critical to the ongoing success and growth of our
If, in fact, trade shows are declining in
importance, does that mean the industry is faltering, or simply
evolving? Should trade shows evolve, too? How?
Let's start a discussion. I've listed here some
reasons why trade shows are smaller; consider it food for thought.
Then email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
or call 309-925-5593 – on or off the record – and I'll publish the
1. Fewer buyers
There aren't as many independent retailers;
that decline also dragged down some distributors and some smaller
vendors who relied on independents' sales because they didn't have
the resources to service the chains. Fewer buyers = less profitable
trade shows for many exhibitors.
2. Are exhibitors sometimes their own worst
Special trade show discounts are probably as
old as trade shows. But some exhibitors now give "show specials" to
everyone, including to retailers who don't attend the show. Others
unveil their new products online before the show. Ok, but then don't
complain to the show sponsors that not enough retailers attended.
And how about respecting the wishes of the
retailers who do attend and place orders? Consider this note from an
excellent independent scrapbook retailer:
"For the first time in six years, we did not go
to CHA. While we love the trade show, vendors are getting too
aggressive. For example, [at the summer show] we would place an
order at the show, give them our credit card info, and ask for our
order to be sent in October. (We had a monthly budget for new
items.) Low and behold, the order was shipped in August. We ended up
with too much inventory and nowhere to put it. This was the common
theme for virtually all vendors, and made our cash management go
down the drain.
"This year, we will shop as we need it and
place an order when we can use the inventory. Also, we saw very few
'Show Only' specials last summer. We also see that most vendors are
offering 'Pre-Show' specials, which are the same deal one gets at
the show, if not better. This is the same sales concept that major
retailers did last November with their pre-Black-Friday sales. I
guess the theory is he who gets there first usually gets the sale."
Some vendors will fly their major buyers to
their factories, or produce videos of their booth presentations and
put them on the web for retailers who don't attend a show. These
actions make sense for the vendors, but they don't help attendance
at trade shows.
3. The snowball effect
A buyer attends a show hoping to see numerous
relevant vendors. If he's disappointed by their absence, he'll be
less inclined to invest the money and time to return to the show the
following year. If he – and others – decide not to attend, the
exhibitors who are there will be less inclined to exhibit the
Consider this comment from Bob Ferguson, owner
of a multi-category Ben Franklin store in Redmond, WA and considered
one of the most successful independents in the industry.
"A big concern for us is the lack of a
consistent presentation venue for seeing what is new, hot, or
trending up in our industry. Our trade shows have been less than
relevant in the area of those product categories that are the
hottest in the consumer marketplace. Today we are unable to see more
than a small percentage of goods that make up our craft store
offerings at our own CHA shows. Huge categories are missing entirely
and some big ones like beading are represented only by the producers
of goods that find favor in our industry chain stores."
Bob has complained for years that floral and
framing vendors, among others, no longer exhibit at CHA. (Actually,
their numbers had declined before HIA and ACCI merged to form CHA.)
Why don't floral companies, for example, exhibit at CHA? Half a
dozen explained it to me this way: the chain stores either import
florals on their own or expect to see the new products in their
offices – and there are no longer enough Bob Fergusons to justify
the cost of exhibiting.
4. The chain stores
The buyers and the higher-ups are doing what
they feel they need to do to increase company sales and profits.
A. They insist on seeing new products
far in advance of a trade show. Exhibitors for whom the majority of
whose sales are comprised by these chains, question why they spend
so much money for a trade show in order to display new products
their major customers have already seen.
B. They increase their direct importing
and private label programs, which either squeeze out vendors or
reduce their profit margins. These policies in turn motivate vendors
to look to other industries – gifts, toys, stationery, etc. Result?
Many creative minds are now focused elsewhere, not on our industry.
5. Show dates
Buyers and vendors continue to want their shows
early in the year. Consequently, shows conflict with each other. If
not directly, then they're so close together that some businesses
just don't have the time, money, resources, or personnel to
attend/exhibit at both. Because they are scheduled so closely to one
another, needlework, crafts, art materials, paper, and bead shows in
the U.S. and Europe probably divide the pie into so many pieces that
collectively they each detract from the others.
6. The best use of resources
A few years ago I was sitting with four major
vendors/competitors and a pr person. One vendor complained about the
cost of the CHA summer show. "How much did it cost you," the pr
"About $50,000." The other vendors nodded in
"Well, if you're complaining and it cost that
much, why did you exhibit?"
The vendor grinned sheepishly, and pointed to
his competitor. "Because he exhibited." The others nodded.
"Do you mean to tell me," the pr person asked,
"that if the four of you decided right now not to exhibit, we'd have
another $200,000 to spend promoting the category?"
Finally, I little history
While an annual trade show might seem
permanent, it isn't. In addition to what are now the winter and
summer CHA shows, at one time there were craft trade shows in
Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, and Seaside, OR. Distributors such as
Herr's, Sbar's, and Craft World held "open houses" which were, in
effect, trade shows. The now-defunct Home Sewing Assn. sponsored a
show each spring and fall. If I remember correctly, TNNA sponsored
four or five shows, and there was the once-huge INRG cross stitch
show. And let's not forget MemoryTrends.
I talked to numerous vendors at the CHA show in
Los Angeles, and many were questioning the return on their
investment in exhibiting. What if they all decide not to exhibit?
Ok, now what should CHA, TNNA, and NAMTA do?
What is the future of trade shows? Send me your thoughts –