Lessons of a Trade Show Newbie…

What’s that old saying, if you ain’t learning, you ain’t growing?  Something like that.   Well, after our first trade show, I must be ten feet tall.  Part of the reason I started blogging this entrepreneurial journey is that somewhere out there, maybe, just maybe, there’s a would-be entrepreneur scanning blogs for bits of advice, a  few scraps of hope, a kinship with someone else crazy enough to go for it.  After all, that’s what gave me the final push to start Tucktails – reading the stories of those who had gone before and, more importantly, were generous enough to share their hard-won wisdom.

Deciding to attend an industry trade show was necessary, but not easy.  Necessary because it’s probably the most efficient way to reach the greatest number of boutique buyers.  Not easy because it costs a lot of money.  A lot of money.

After a tremendous amount of research, it was decided that the Atlanta Apparel Market at the AmericasMart would be the place to start.   February was the show, and it was time to take the plunge.  Just a few of the decisions to be made were:  Cash-and-carry or order writing?  What about the display?  Show specials?  What, exactly, would the process be once I had a customer standing in front of me?  What to wear?  Should I get a haircut, pack snacks, how many extra extension cords would I need?   Aaaaahhhhh!

But stress isn’t what this is about; it’s about lessons learned.

The first thing I learned goes against my nature of trusting everyone, but it’s that show reps are not your friends. They are there to sell spaces to vendors.  Let me repeat – They are there to sell spaces to vendors. They will tell you what it takes for you to make that hefty payment.   I selected our spot based on the fact we would be located next to the coffee and wine bar…a coffee and wine bar that never materialized.  No explanation was given as to why it wasn’t set up.  There were no responses to inquiries.  There was no recourse.  It was disappointing, but we tried to make, uh, chardonnay out of the lemons.   My amazingly supportive husband ran out and bought a cooler, plastic cups, ice and wine.  We made our own wine bar.

Other lessons are free.  For the richest source of these lessons, listen to the veteran vendors around you.   Throughout the week, I continued to pivot based on what I could hear they were doing.  I quickly developed a comfortable approach and knew what buyers expected to hear.  I started to really get the hang of it.

A basketball coach once taught me not to celebrate after making a basket, but to act like I’d done it before. (In fairness to me, it was the moms versus the eighth-graders and it was, in fact, the first time I’d ever done it.  I really, really was in the mood to celebrate!)   But that lesson served me well at the market.  The first sale didn’t happen until nearly three o’clock on the first day.  My stomach ached.  I was on the verge of tears.  My hands were shaking.  But once that first sale was complete, you’d better believe I wanted to dance in the aisle.  And with each sale that followed over the next few days, I wanted to cheer.  But I managed to keep my cool.  It was pretty obvious, I think, that I was a newbie.  Besides, I was telling everyone anyway.  But I didn’t need to be giddy over the whole experience, as much as it was my heart’s desire.   There was no clapping, no little shuffling dance moves – just head up, eyes forward, scanning for the next approaching buyer.

And I also learned, although thankfully on only one order, that buyers can change their mind.  I did have one order cancel.  But looking back, I don’t think it was ever legitimate in the first place.  It seems as if the “buyers” were collecting information.  I suspect we’ll see them again…as vendors.

(By the way, if any seasoned salespeople have advice on if/how you do extreme vetting of buyers, I’m all ears.  That was a big waste of time.  And since I was working alone, it irks me that a legitimate buyer may have passed without at least taking a card.)

At the end of it all, we more than doubled the number of retailers carrying Tucktails.  It was certainly worth the time and money.  We’re investigating various shows and will definitely attend more.   In advance, I’ll practice my pitch.  The display will be perfected.  I’ll try to pick our locations based on fixed points – like the rest rooms.

And just in case, we’ll be bringing a cooler full of wine.