Our first trade show - what we learnt and what we loved

Updated: Mar 16

After two long years, Australia recently had it's first trade show - AGHA's Sydney Gift Fair - and we were there for it! It was our first retail trade show and boy, did we learn a lot. It was wonderful to get the product validation we had gone looking for - but the unexpected love from strangers was what really bowled us over! And yes, we also made some rather costly rookie mistakes... Here's a download of all that we learnt and loved.


The preparation


Trade shows are a costly, time consuming and logistically involved exercise. But with the right preparation and crowd can also be very rewarding. Besides designing the stand can be (and was) a lot of fun :)


So what does the right preparation entail?


We had a whole page of tips to work from. The trade fair organisers had very thoughtfully compiled these over the years from experienced exhibitors and provided it to us. With the benefit of hindsight, here's the top five things I would suggest any future exhibitor to be all over:

  1. An aesthetically pleasing stand or at least one that displays your products in the best light

  2. Clear view of products and pricing - always handy to have a price list to give to customers

  3. A compelling and timebound offer for the trade fair - things like extra discount for orders received on the day, free shipping etc.

  4. Some way to take orders (electronically or on paper) and critically, process payment on the spot.

  5. A positive mindset ... there can be a lot of standing around involved and yes, 'rejection', so go in willing to make the best of whatever transpires

The four days of the fair provided many opportunities to stuff up on all of the above ... and of course learn from too. Glad to say that we got pretty good across the board towards the end. Thankfully there were also plenty of unexpected (pleasant) surprises in store.


Major rookie mistake: Don't just take their word, take the payment!


Being relatively new to the retail trade show scene, I must admit that the whole business of taking down large orders and processing the payment caught me by surprise ... I had not (rather naively) realised how much selling actually happens on the day in a B2B retail trade show.


This was perhaps a conditioning from my years working in 'service industries' where trade shows are undertaken as more of a brand awareness exercise; you exhibit to make yourself known, network, gather leads and follow-up vigorously afterwards.


A lot of the above still applies in retail but B2B retail trade fairs are, as I learnt, primarily used by countless small (and large) business owners as way to do the bulk of their buying (for the coming season or even year) - and conversely by wholesalers, to do a lot of the actual selling to new and existing businesses.


Buyers and business owners come to a retail B2B tradeshow to shop - and like their customers, a lot of their decisions are impulsive.

As an exhibitor, you need to be able to close the deal and get the payment to avoid the inevitable buyer's remorse that follows. Otherwise you stand to lose 90% of the orders you see on the day!

The above insight is from a fellow (experienced) exhibitor who kindly stopped by to give me some impromptu coaching (thanks Odi).


"Sounds rather hard core", I replied.


His response, "you are actually doing them a favour ... helping them make up their mind and get the deal done rather than waste time and energy umming and arring about it later".


His advice proved providential - we lost 90% of the orders that we didn't take any payment on ...

And I must add, this wasn't because I couldn't take the payments there and then ... I had my 'online wholesale ordering portal' all built and ready to go. I just thought it was "nicer" to say thanks and I will invoice you next week ... #RookieError.


Thankfully, I did have the sense to listen to Odi and made sure to take payment on orders from that point onwards - and you know what, it felt rather nice to be putting my wholesale ordering portal (which I built myself mind you) to use in front of customers and being able to process payments there and then.


To my surprise, most buyers did not think twice about whipping out their credit card and paying for the orders in full on the day! And that means no receivables and no need to spend time chasing people to pay the invoices - the part of small business I do not enjoy at all!


Unexpected delight: Forget product validation, we got an outpouring of love!


One of our objectives going into the trade show was to launch a new product - a plush toy of the 'unlikely hero' of our picture book series, Willow the Wonderer (who also happens to be the cutest, most adorable, little wise ass around). We were also trialing a fairly premium gift set that packages together the full sized book and toy (and stands miles ahead of similar products in the category that are typically badly designed, cheaply put together and wrapped in single use plastic...).


The market for books, by itself, is limited and exceedingly crowded so the intent with these is to expand further into the gift category (although I still firmly believe that books make the best gifts...).


But before we sink a whole lot of cash into inventory, I wanted some external product validation.


And thankfully, we got plenty of that.


What we weren't expecting was the spontaneous outpouring of love and support that came with it!


It was staggering how many people, total strangers, stopped by to tell us how much they loved what we were doing, to keep going, to feel proud of all that we have achieved and to not give up!

As a new business operating in a challenging retail environment, in a challenging industry, this was a much needed morale booster!


Being very much a rational, analytical type of person, I found myself wondering afterwards though - where this sentiment was coming from?


Why were people connecting so deeply with what we were doing? What triggered it? Was it the book, the toy maybe, the beautifully crafted illustrations, my 'incredible' writing ...?


The answer I believe goes back to the first principles of business strategy and also marketing - the 'why' is more important than the 'what'.


It's our purpose that inspired the love.

We started our own indie publisher because we wanted to create stories we wish we'd grown up with; quirky ones that plant a seed of wisdom.


Why?


The narratives we grow up with shape us - and continue to influence us through life. Most of the narratives we grew up with, has proven to be untrue... We can see now that we would have saved a whole lot of time/energy/anguish growing up, had these nuggets of universal wisdom found it's way into our psyche whilst we were still impressionable young children. It was time we wrote a different set of narratives.


I distinctively remember the moment Darren and I arrived at this insight. It was around May 2020 and we were having a leisurely afternoon walk along the South Valla beach. There was no story, no book and certainly no business at the time! Just two people having a 'DMC', reflecting on their lives and learnings...


This purpose resonates in all that we do; it's in the story of our first book, it's what we talk to in our 'pitch', it's at the core of all our products and it was also the theme that we designed our exhibition stand around.


When you start with the why, it seems you win not only the 'pockets' but also the hearts and minds of your customers - and the latter is a lot more valuable over the longer term.

Bonus: The company made all the difference!


Even though this was the first trade fair in two years, it was slow.


The show was half if not a third of the size of the usual affair we were told. Apparently many businesses cancelled last minute due ongoing concerns about the Omicron wave that was washing over Sydney. Another industry trade fair cancelling a parallel event did not help either. And not too many buyers showed up either. The NSW State government cancelling all the trains on the last day of the fair also did not help the cause ...


Apart from a surge in the crowd from about 11am to say 2pm, it was all quite on the Western front. Exhibitors were required to be there from 9am to 6pm (5pm last day) so we all had a lot of time to kill.


And this is where the next unexpected benefit of the fair came to bear. The incidental ideas and learning you get from chatting to others is invaluable - and everyone there was very generous with their knowledge, experience and contacts.


Seeing that we were newbies to the fair, quite a few experienced exhibitors also took the time to stop by and share their 'war stories'.


This was by no means "business as usual" they told us, and to not use this particular trade fair to judge the success or returns one can expect from such events.


We learnt of other fairs we may like to try that would probably be more suited to our products (and how to get in with the best rates). They shared contacts of agents, buyers and distributors who could help us. We ourselves connected to one of the major distributor's we had no way of getting in front of before.

It was fantastic in particular connecting with our immediate neighbours - the ever smiling cushion wholesaler from India (Vivek) who was continuing on a business his father started about twenty years ago and the farmer from regional Victoria (Jim) who does water-colours of rural landscapes and produces postcards from these.


It was wonderful getting a peek into very different lives and living their stories if only for a brief while. (I also scored a few free cushions :-)


So would we do it again?


At the end of the day, whilst it was disappointing that it was a rather slow affair, the consensus seemed to be that it was good that the trade fair went ahead anyway. At least the recovery had started.


And yes, wed' do it again but we'd be a lot more selective about the fair, timing and cost. We were fortunate to have gone in on special rates for new business (thank you AGHA!) otherwise cost recovery would have been difficult this time around - it will be a key consideration in future fairs.


The future no doubt has many more lessons and surprises in store for us.


For now, we'd love to thank everyone - trade fair visitors, buyers, small businesses, fellow exhibitors and AGHA - who made this a wonderful first experience!

 

Interested in learning more about Wise As Stories? Email Reeta on wiseasstories@gmail.com

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