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Trade Show Report: Portland Gift and Accessories Show January 7, 2008

This weekend I flew up to Portland, OR to check out the Portland Gift and Accessories Show, run by Western Exhibitors. I’m exhibiting at GLM‘s California Gift Show in Los Angeles next week, so I thought it would be prudent to check out another gift show ahead of time. I wanted to see which other companies participate in these things, how their booths look, what their sales pitches are like, and so on.

I gave myself a full day and a half to go through the show. I don’t think I was even there an hour. All in all, the show was not at all what I expected and I left feeling very worried.

To begin with, the entire gift show fit into a single L-shaped exhibition hall. I knew from the outset that the Portland show is one of the smallest, so I wasn’t expecting MacWorld, but there weren’t many more booths than at a really large craft fair. Somehow it just looked bigger on the Oregon Convention Center map. I also expected there to be more visitors. Granted, I visited on the the first day of the show, and the Portland Gift and Accessories Show is the first show of the year. Also, there was an insane series of storms that hit the west coast this weekend, so that may have seriously affected people’s travel plans. Nevertheless, the number of buyers sporting blue id badges was seriously disheartening.

As surprised as I was by the buyers, I was even more surprised by the sellers. Most sections of the show were a pretty motley mix of decorative items, clothing and souvenirs. It looked like a cross between Chinatown, U.S.A. and a gift shop run by a retired couple in an old seaside town during the height of tourist season. There were evergreen wreaths and garlands, batik shawls, tiny bags of candy with punny labels, plastic wind-up toys, soaps made out of things like bamboo, goat’s milk and charcoal, salt lamps and geode coasters. There were also keychains with your name on them, strands of mineral beads, seat-belt purses and those wooden 3-D puzzles you build into models of dinosaur skeletons and famous buildings. The only new and moderately hip products were located in “Artisan’s Alley,” a single aisle all the way in the back of the hall, where the little old gift ladies had forcibly sequestered all the exhibitors under 40.

So now I’m worried. I’m not worried that my butcher-shop booth will go unnoticed; I’m worried it will stand out too much–that the precious few attendees will bypass it completely as just too weird. Souvenir shops are not my market. Will my “L.A. Contemporary” division just end up being a tiny, marginalized “Artisan’s Alley?”

I’m trying to remain optimistic, however. I can’t prepare properly for the CGS if I already believe it will be a failure. Here’s what I’m telling myself to get psyched up:

  • The California Gift Show is run by GLM, which also runs the holy grail of gift shows, the New York International Gift Fair. The product divisions are mostly the same between the two shows.
  • L.A. is a bigger, trendier city than Portland (though Portland is pretty hip) so there will be more buyers looking for weird stuff. It’s also got pretty big art and designer toy scenes.
  • Many more of the exhibitors will be from California, rather than Oregon and Washington, which should mean more booths similar in spirit to mine.
  • The CGS is a bigger show, and is easier and cheaper to get to than the PGAS for most people.
  • More people want to take a business trip to L.A. than to Portland, because it’s warmer and there’s more sightseeing to do in your off-hours.
  • L.A. has way more stores and businesses in it than Portland. Heck it’s the biggest city in America!

I set a goal to place one minimum order every hour to pay for my inventory and the cost of the show. I’ve heard that’s ambitious but I believe enough in my products, my booth and my salesmanship that I think I can do it. Only time will tell.

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Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 3) December 12, 2007

And even more…

Craft fairs: (Cost: 1-2 days of your time, ~$free-250, depending on fair) Craft fairs are great for a lot of reasons. Firstly, they average about 5% of what it costs to do a trade show. Secondly, you can sell your stuff directly to the public, allowing you to make you some cash while conducting first-hand market research in the process. Thirdly (I didn’t know this until recently), your wares often don’t have to be hand-crafted to be eligible. And fourthly, the press comes to you! Not only do writers for various publications visit craft fairs, they are often sponsored by a magazine like Craft, BUST, or Adorn, and are therefore guaranteed to get coverage.I would never apply for a craft fair that charges a non-refundable application fee because it indicates to me that they are either:

  1. Shady or greedy people who are okay with taking money from people who might not get anything out of the deal whatsoever.
  2. Such terrible businessmen/businesswomen that they need to charge application fees in addition to booth fees just to keep the venture profitable.

Here are some excellent fairs to look into that don’t charge non-refundable fees to apply:

If you do handcraft your wares, you should definitely also have a storefront on Etsy, the biggest online craft marketplace out there.

Check back tomorrow for Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion Part 3!

 

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 1) December 10, 2007

Fifteen years ago, it was nearly impossible to reach potential customers outside of your immediate geographical area without spending thousands of dollars, which gave big corporations a huge advantage over small businesses. These days, however, thanks to the Worldwide Web, the scales are tipping. A small business can reach millions of people around the world overnight, and those millions can buy your product without even standing up. Furthermore, the long tail of the Internet tends to favor small, nimble ventures that can take creative risks without some mammoth bureaucracy slowing down their decision-making process. Just look at the success of port2port press or a self-released band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who sold 20,000 copies of their self-made debut album.

Yesterday I wrote about trade shows, which are perhaps the most expensive marketing tools a small business can use, but they are just one type of weapon in an arsenal of less expensive marketing options. In this post (and three more to follow) I’ve described a few alternative and inexpensive ways to get attention for your awesome new ideas:

Go door-to-door: (Cost: two or three days of your time, plus printed materials) It’s how those Uglydolls got started. They walked right up to the owner of Giant Robot, one of their favorite local stores, and asked if they could sell their wares there. Then they approached a second local store, Plastica, and later, a few others. Giant Robot also has a magazine, which gave them some press, but all in all, it was the word-of-mouth by excited customers that got them where they are today.

When going door-to-door, it is important to check out all of the stores in a particular neighborhood you are thinking of approaching, and then rank them by preference. Approach those stores in order, and stop when you have gotten orders from two or three of them. You do not want to create competition for the stores you are trying to buddy up to and you don’t want to saturate your local market too quickly. It is also important to only approach stores that you really think are appropriate environments for your products. If there is only one store in your neighborhood that fits your style, don’t approach a second store that seems like a long shot. It is a big waste of your time and theirs to try to pursue a connection that isn’t there and you might get a reputation for not knowing your audience.

Get yourself some press: (Cost: two or three days of your time, possibly postage, envelopes/boxes, printed materials) You need to put an appropriate amount of time into this for it to work (and have good photos of your stuff), but it can work really well. Grace Bonney of design*sponge has already done us the amazing service of putting together an excellent (and short!) step-by-step public relations guide, so I’m not going to include any separate instructions here. One note, though: give popular blogs equal attention to popular magazines. Not only do they often have just as many devoted readers, they link right to your shop!

Check back tomorrow for more inexpensive marketing and promotion ideas!

Sources: Crowndozen.com Interview: Uglydolls
(port2port interview) Mateo Ilasco, Meg. Craft, Inc.: Turn Your Creative Hobby Into a Business. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007.

 

“To Show or not to Show?”–that was the Question December 8, 2007

To show…

A few days ago I was faced with a dilemma: whether or not to participate in the New York International Gift Fair. The NYIGF is the best-known trade show in the biz, and the show of choice for hip, high-end designers. To show in one of the juried divisions, you need to submit a lengthy application. If accepted to the show, you can typically expect to wait anywhere from three to eighteen months for a spot.

A little recent history: when I first visited my local SCORE center, Barry, my counselor, emphasized how important it is to do the trade show circuit, exhibiting at least once per season. “There are only two ways to get new orders,” he said, “From trade shows or by going door-to-door, and you get very little return on your investment going door-to-door.” Okay, so Barry retired from business years ago, before the “long-tail” of the Internet had any effect on things, and he was in the garment industry. But what did I have to lose by applying?

The California Gift Show in Los Angeles contacted me three hours after filling out my contact info online. The show manager said that they had visited my web site and loved my products so much that they wanted to offer me a booth in their juried “L.A. Contemporary” division, without needing an application. I was thrilled. Firstly, the CGS is run by George Little Management, which also runs the NYIGF. I had read of artists showing at small GLM shows and then being recruited for the NYIGF by division managers. Secondly, the L.A. Contemporary division seemed analogous to the “Accent on Design” division of the NYIGF, which typically has the longest waiting list for spots. Then all of a sudden, I got what I thought I wanted most–a spot in this February’s NYIGF in the new “Handmade” juried division.

At first I was really excited. I had poured a full eight-hour day into my application and it had paid off! This was going to be easy money. Surely, if George Little Management thought my products were so good that I got booths at their shows so shortly after applying, then my products would fly off the shelves. They would know, right? They’ve got more of a global view of what sells in the gift industry than anyone. Also, the NYIGF is only two weeks after the CGS, so I’d be fresh off my first “practice” show, ready to dazzle store buyers and press alike with my finely-honed elevator pitch. I’d already have designed and built my booth and would have all of my materials together.

…or not to show

BUT, they needed an answer by 9am the next day or I would lose my spot, and it costs roughly $4,000 to use the booth. I did some math in my head: $4,000 for the booth, $800 for plane tickets for me and Andy, another $200 for meals and incidentals, $500 for booth construction materials, another $500 for shipping and lading of those materials, $200 to print more line sheets, order forms, etc. and God knows what else I wasn’t even considering. I haven’t finished the budgeting I learned in my accounting class this week, but I know I can’t afford to spend $10,000 on marketing my first year in business.

So I did a little more math: the average profit I make off of one of my meats is $6. If I got orders for 1,000 meats during the NYIGF, I could just about pay for the venture. Well, shit. Could I really expect sales to be that good? Even if they were that good, does it make sense to put that much money towards promotion? On the other hand, if I turn down the holy grail of gift shows, how am I ever going to get new orders?

Clearly, I needed reinforcements, so I contacted a few friends and relatives. I started with my mother, who knows nothing about trade shows, but was the only person answering the phone the moment I started freaking out. She made a few good points, like if I couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford it. End of story. And even if I had to reapply for the NYIGF the following year, wasn’t it better to have wasted one eight-hour day than $7,000?

Next, I called my uncle, who has a fancy tea company and a successful construction business. He is very familiar with the trade show circuit, albeit in different industries. His advice was very helpful, too. He said, “Take baby steps your first year in business. You don’t want to make big leaps when you don’t know what’s in front of you.” This sentiment was later echoed by my accounting instructor, who said, “Growing too fast can kill a business.” My uncle also emphasized that a trade show should be treated like an advertisement. Many companies don’t typically get enough orders from a show to cover its cost, but do it anyway in the hopes of getting press and exposure to national stores, and out of fear of “not being seen” when their competitors are.

Finally, I e-mailed my friend Scott, of the Woollyhoodwinks. The Woollyhoodwinks had shown at the NYIGF this summer, in the Handmade division, so Scott had the most timely and relevant advice at all. He wrote:

“It is important to understand a few things: ALL of the risk is on you. The NYIGF (and all gift fairs for that matter) are structured for the benefit of the gift fair company. They will hint at all sorts of amazing results that you can expect without promising anything. It is entirely up to you to make it successful, and that means getting a booth designed and built and shipped to NY and promoting your participation in the show by getting together a mailing list of potential customers and letting them know that you are going to be there. Also, you need a smooth order taking process because the buyers are there to buy and they don’t like to waste any time.

“Having said all that, we have done well at both the SFIGF and the NYIGF, making about 3 times our investment in new orders. However we did do the SFIGF first which allowed us to make a lot of mistakes much less expensively. Since it was in town, the financial risk was considerably less and we were able to refine our process for the NYIGF. My advice would be to skip the February NYIGF unless you already have very clear ideas about a booth and how to get it there. That is a huge deal and your presentation needs to be slick.”

In the end, I took their advice and didn’t do the show. I don’t have an extensive mailing list. I don’t have a smooth order-taking process. I only have a design for a booth half the size of the ones in the Handmade division. I don’t have a slick presentation and I don’t have the budget for it. I suddenly realized I was making my decisions based more on emotional factors than on purely financial ones. I had a feeling about how well I could do because of the prestige of the show and the enthusiastic comments I was receiving from stores and customers. But making big financial investments based on vague, optimistic feelings is how you go out of business.

I will make my mistakes at the considerably less expensive CGS (it costs about a third of what it does to do the NYIGF), and if it goes well, perhaps move up slightly higher on the ladder to the San Francisco International Gift Fair in July. Then I’ll be in a better position to decide whether the NYIGF is a good investment in 2009. In the meantime, contrary to Barry’s insistence, there are in fact LOTS of ways to get new orders that don’t involve trade shows, but more on that in the next post.