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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Trade Shows Are Strategic ... Stop Making Them Tactical

Originally Published: 14 March 2024
Last Updated: 25 March 2024

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I just returned from a trade show in New York, and I have to say, neither exhibitors nor retailers were maximizing the incredible value that trade events have to offer. The entire affair (a colocated retail show and supplier show) was just lackluster.

But it didn’t have to be.

My first observation was that a lot of trade show basics were missing. Exhibitors that didn’t consider their presence as a marketing tool. Booths that were completely lacking in compelling signage or any sort of draw to attract attendees to them from across the room. Salespeople unprepared with an offer other than, “what are you looking for? Let me show you my new collection.” And a lot of just failure to follow the basic rules of exhibiting at trade shows, which I’ve already addressed in these articles:

B2B buyers of all ages want experiences, and exhibitors who make an effort to turn their booth into something more compelling than the flyer-distributors on the strip in Las Vegas benefit the most from shows. If you sell tools, equipment, or technology, your products are exciting and can do the work of creating experiences for you if you treat exhibits as an opportunity to demonstrate rather than discuss. If you sell finished goods, turning your booth into the equivalent of an all-day-long HSN or QVC pitch experience, with clear offers and product sharing, will bring attendees to your booth. Show shoppers can find it intimidating to walk up to a booth and engage the seller, and they feel a level of obligation when they do. But it’s easy to walk up to a booth when a pitch is in motion … the psychological distance is comfortable, because the show “shopper” can tell that the pitch isn’t for them … it’s for everyone.

I could go on and on about how to improve trade show presence for exhibitors. But for the moment, I’ll just invite you to our next webinar, “B2B Marketing Playbook: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Winning Without Wasting.” Catch it live (Wednesday, March 27 at 12:00 PM Central) or watch the replay here for free. Free B2B Marketing Webinar

But what about retailers? I also notice that retailers are increasingly treating trade shows as buying shows, prioritizing time with existing suppliers to discuss things like buying more inventory and stock balancing. But buying and stock balancing are supposed to be the daily, ongoing work of being a merchant. Buying and stock balancing can be done over email, the phone, or a Zoom call, and should be looked at weekly.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things to be done at trade shows that cannot be done over the phone or in Zoom meetings or using email. So what are these things?

Before a retailer gets to the trade show, they should take time to review their merchandising strategy. Analyze their numbers to see what's selling and what's not, analyze competitors and customer feedback to understand what they’re not offering that they could be. Thinking about how they can differentiate their business from their competitors. If every retailer is selling the same or incredibly similar product mixes, then the only thing they end up competing on is price, and that’s a dead-end game, particularly in the luxury verticals I work in most frequently. Retailers often think they're competing on service, but good service is a minimum standard necessary to compete. Assuming that their service is good, what  are they competing on? Are they offering products that nobody else offers? Are they offering experiences that nobody else offers? How do they differentiate? These are the things retail buyers should be thinking about before they ever get to a trade show, because supplier partners should be an important part of that equation. Thinking about this ahead of time allows trade show shoppers to focus on those questions when they are at the show.

On the show floor, it's time to explore and say, “I have these needs. Maybe it’s a bulleted list of five things the buyer would like to accomplish that differentiate their business from both the individual product and overall product experience standpoints. This approach compels a buyer to explore a trade show in a different way, not for specific products they like, or which are similar to things they already carry, but for product experiences help them create better, differentiated experiences for their customers. Retailers will look at the show floor differently if they approach trade shows that way.

The other thing retailers should do at trade shows is learn about what's going on in the industry. The smartest merchants are asking everyone — whether exhibitors or retail peers or consultants — asking everyone, “What's going on? What's going on in your market? What's going on with your customers? What do you see that you think is unusual? What do you see that's concerning?” A trade show gathers an entire community of experts in one place, and the smartest retailers mine that environment for insight.

Another thing retailers should do at trade shows is ask a lot of why. Figure out who the producers are that do a good job of offering something new and different, who really listen to end consumers. Even if those products are not something retailers think would work in their store or market, they should pay attention, and take the opportunity to ask, “Why? Why did you decide to offer this at this time? Why are you the only ones offering this? What are you thinking about this product or this product category? What are you seeing that made you think this product or product category was needed?”

Perhaps the supplier won’t have a good answer because either the salesperson doesn't know or the company is just making things that are interesting to them. But some of them will offer useful insight about why a particular product is being offered, and retailers can learn from that. So asking why about new products is important.

Trade shows provide the opportunity for meaningful comparisons between brands, and retailers should use that concentrated supplier environment to gather information for comparative analysis.

This is the opportunity to ask suppliers about their trade policies, service approach, terms, and stock balancing. Do they support advertising? Do they participate in events? The answers to these questions enable retailers to ask themselves, “Are there opportunities to do a better job than the suppliers I'm working with right now? Am I already engaged in the best possible relationships?” The best possible relationship isn't as simple as the best price or the best stock balancing plan. The best possible relationship is the relationship that gives a retailer the greatest return on investment for their merchandising purchases, along with the most frictionless buying experience, because the cost of doing business varies from supplier to supplier. Trade shows are a great time to explore those things.

The last thing to think about for retailers shopping trade shows to consider, particularly for my readers in the jewelry industry, relates to the number of suppliers you work with. Abe Sherman, CEO and Founder of Buyers Intelligence Group (BIG), a jewelry industry supply chain analytics service, reports the average jewelry retailer has 200 suppliers. Now, they may not deal consistently with all 200 of them, but 200 suppliers is a lot of suppliers.

The number of suppliers a retailer buys from plays a direct role in overall merchandising effectiveness. More suppliers increases the cost of merchandising and decreases the ability to be important to suppliers. Trade shows are an opportunity to review the supplier mix, have conversations with existing suppliers about how they can work together to improve merchandising strategies, or identify opportunities to work with different suppliers that might check more of the boxes of what is important to the retailer.

If a retailer has three or four bread and butter suppliers that provide them with generic merchandising or generic products, and then has a dozen or so suppliers that provide them with differentiated goods not carried by their competitors, that's an interesting mix. If instead they have a dozen or so suppliers that are providing them with generic merchandise, and very few suppliers that provide them with differentiation, that’s not helping their business.

Approaching trade shows strategically can assist retailers in reducing their overall cost of merchandising and, ideally, increasing their value to some of those suppliers.

Using trade shows to improve differentiation, merchandise balance, cost of merchandising, and reshape and manage supplier relationships for the best possible merchandising strategy is a valuable way to spend time at trade shows. Save things like stock balancing and filling holes in inventory for the day-to-day work of merchandising. Trade shows are not about the day-to-day work of merchandising. Trade shows are about the once or twice per year work of strategy.