Merchandising Your Catalog Without a Trade Show

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"If merchandising were easier, there'd be a lot more successful catalogs."


- Overheard at a catalog conference


For catalogers in need of new products, nothing beats a trade show. All your vendors in one place. All the products you could ever need, all together - aisle after aisle, booth after booth, showroom after showroom - all gleaming, new and ready to order. What could be better? Trouble is, it's all there for your competition, too, as well as for catalogers dipping into your product zone to sample what's hot and what's new. So how do you keep your line fresh and unique without using a trade show?


The trouble with trade shows. If your business goal is to deliver a differentiated catalog or Web site full of unique products that support your brand, trade shows may not solve your merchandising needs. Trade shows present real problems for catalogers:


* Trade shows are on a bricks-and-mortar schedule. They happen at the times of year that are best for storefronts and are often too early or too late in the cycle for catalog delivery.


* Lots of vendors at trade shows still don't "get" the catalog business. They won't sample, or they only offer items in assortments. They look confused when you talk about drop dates and want consistent shipments in colors that match the photo sample.


* Vendor deals benefit storefront retailers, not catalogers. Free merchandisers and 30-day billing don't do much good for a catalog.


* Worst of all: Everyone goes to the same shows, so every merchandiser sees the same stuff. The result is a lack of uniqueness. And, in most cases, catalogs run on uniqueness.


Life beyond trade shows. Trade shows: We can't live without 'em, but we can live pretty well beyond 'em. I'm not saying give up your reservations at the convenient hotel near the showrooms or cancel your appointments with key vendors. I'm simply proposing a few viable ways to find fresh products in a timely manner before or after the trade show season. Using the ideas I propose, you'll get the uniqueness you need, when you need it, without bumping into every other catalog buyer. And, seeing my list, you'll probably have your own thoughts that are better or more practical. But here are ways to make a living beyond the standard trade shows. It takes planning and creativity, but the results can be rewarding.


Vendor solutions. Have the vendors come to you. On your schedule, arrange for your best suppliers to come to your offices and present their new lines. Make it worth their while by developing a partnership relationship: share your sales results and returns, introduce your staff, brainstorm new products, show them your pick-line and shipping area to see whether there are ways to streamline product intake. Such a meeting can have lots of benefits beyond new products. Take a week before or after the show to invite five to 10 best vendors and give vendors a timetable for presentations.


This keeps the process on your schedule, not theirs. It can lead to better, stronger, more mutually beneficial relations with your best suppliers. Also, if you've already met with your key suppliers, it frees you to spend more time exploring the temporary exhibitors at the trade show, where you're more likely to find what's fresh and new.


Or, go to see the vendors, but on your schedule. Set up a few days to a week's worth of meetings outside the show schedule. Most vendors will gladly meet you at their showroom when the mart is empty to show you their newest samples. It takes careful scheduling, but can result in a distraction-free visit, in a relaxed and productive atmosphere. Again, it's on your schedule and frees you and the vendor from the crowded, hurried sessions during hectic show days.


Virtual solutions. Virtual trade shows: Approach key vendors to do your shopping, or at least previewing, online. Your key account rep has his or her own sales goals to meet and often will welcome newer, simpler ways to approach the presentation process. Challenge your rep to compose a model line of new products for you to review. Many sales reps welcome the creativity and the empowerment of acting as consultants to help you grow your business.


Also, there are now reliable, extensive, virtual showrooms that you can shop on your own time, from your home or office - in your jammies, if you wish. These online showrooms have many of your large vendors/suppliers as well as new items that you will not find in a trade show - they're too new, untried or from untested first-time suppliers. As with all things on the Internet, beware, beware, beware. Request catalogs and information as well as references from other customers before you commit too deeply.


Un-trade shows. Consider going out of your industry to an alternative trade show for ideas, insights and unique finds. These shows can offer fresh approaches to your business that you would not have considered. We have attended the Advertising Specialty show, where we found many new ways to personalize products. We've also attended a contemporary furnishings show. We don't sell any contemporary furniture, but the colors, trends and astounding new ideas gave us a jolt of creativity unlike any other.


Arts and crafts shows are a challenge because the artisans are often limited in their ability to fill orders. But art fairs can lead to artist discoveries and new product innovations like no other.


Small regional shows beyond the main gift centers can yield special rewards. These are best when they feature temporary exhibitors. The temps are full of new vendors, first-timers and one-product artisans. They're showing in a way they can afford, and you may be their chance for national exposure. You could be the first to find the diamonds in the rough.


Try foreign shows, if you can afford it. I've attended the Birmingham fair in England; Guadalajara, Mexico; and in Hong Kong. These are fabulous shows. Some result in new vendors, all result in great new ideas and contacts unavailable in any other way.


Internal trade shows. Here's an analysis opportunity when you return from a major trade show: What are you not seeing at the show? Make a list of products and formats, and look back through the show guide. Brainstorm with fellow buyers or merchandisers to determine what's not there. Discuss reasons why. It can be fruitful to consider the reasons and the rationale behind the void. Here's your creative chance to fill the void with new-to-the-world products. You can occupy the profitably empty spaces - as Yogi Berra said, "Hit 'em where they ain't."


Challenge your internal creative teams to develop new product directions. Set a date for a "trade show" of new products and new processes that your teams create for the market - based on their years of experience seeing what sells. Invite everyone to review the concepts. You'll be amazed at the outpouring of creativity. The best way to encourage this is to use something that your team proposes. Nothing discourages like empty promises, and nothing encourages like real-world sales results.


Change the eyes. Finally, if you can't change or supplement the trade show because of budgets or schedules, you can change the eyes that see the show. Bring a person who has never attended a trade show - a staff artist, a catalog designer or copywriter, or one of your marketing staff. They'll be amazed and enthusiastic about things that you take for granted, and they will tend to see the showrooms for the bursting, sensory overloads that they are. And you'll have a chance to train them to look, to see, to discover the new, to find the fresh, to follow their instincts and to discover the gems.


Trade shows can be wearing on the senses, punishing on the feet and torture on the back. But they can be a source of great new products. Training untrained eyes to see through the glitter to the essence can be the best way to re-experience this wonderland of new products.


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