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Our first trade show promoting Willow the Wonder picture books - what we learnt and what we loved

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

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!