Trade show experience, Christmas 2008

After a good two months, I feel like I’ve finally recovered from my Christmas trade show. Eleven days spent selling and demonstrating, and especially being away from my kids for about 16 hours a day really takes a lot out of me. Add to that all the post-show sales and follow-ups, and then having to delve into the season’s spirit of decorating and gift-making, and you can see how I felt quite worn out all last month. But at last, I feel that I’m ready to sum up my experience. Although I always enjoy myself immensely at this trade show (both as a customer and as a vendor, hard work notwithstanding), this year’s Christmas show was memorable in a few ways:

1) First off, the economy was the undeniable elephant in the room, and the question that surfaced periodically was how we sellers of consumer goods would fare this year. How much were people willing to spend on gifts or necessities this year? Although it was still a great financial decision for me to exhibit at the show, same as last year, I realised that for some of the other sellers, it was not a profit-turning venture, and they had to seriously consider whether or not to come back in the spring, and then the 2009 show. I know that we were all affected negatively by the economy, whether we were selling slings, soaps, jewellery, or knick-knacks. The bad economy is here to stay for awhile, so the spring show will no doubt still be a question mark. Let’s hope that by Christmas 2009, we see better financial times.

2) The Bad Experience: The Competitor. On one of my busy days, I encountered the first of only two negative social interactions at the Show: I met one of my competitors. For a full year, through two shows, I was lucky enough to have been the first and only one to sell slings. My friends and fellow exhibitors warned me ominously, “Enjoy it. It won’t last. Once any of your competitors find out that you’re here, they’ll be in.” And true enough, this Christmas, I noticed two other sling-sellers listed in the guide. Now I don’t mind a little healthy competition, because I’m confident enough in my product to know that I can stand out. My only fear would be losing a sale to a customer who walked the show in a certain order, and would find one of the competitors (and make a purchase) before they had a chance to visit my booth. (At trade shows, just as in real estate, location is key.) So while I have nothing against other sellers at the show also hawking slings, I’m not out to make friends with them. Apparently, though, one of them didn’t mind coming to chat me up. On one of my busy days, a woman approached me during a lull and introduced herself with a cheery, “Hi, I’m (insert first and last name here).” For a moment, I racked my brain, wondering if I had met her before, or if she was on my customer list.

But then she continued, “I’m over there in the corner, and I sell slings too. Since we’re competitors and in the same industry, I thought I’d come over and introduce myself.” I didn’t know what to say. Was she trying to pal around with me, or was she keeping an eye on me? After a bit of small talk between us, I believed that I figured out her intention. She proceeded to glance around my booth, saying things like, “Oh, what a nice booth you have”, and “Oh, that’s a great idea.” So perhaps it was not a purely friendly visit after all, but a reconnaissance mission of some sort. When I told a few of my co-exhibitor friends at the Show abut this incident, they were all in agreement: “She was checking you out”; “You keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”; “Don’t be surprised to see a few of your ‘great ideas’ in her booth at the spring Show”; and “Maybe she thought that if she came over and smiled and introduced herself, then it would be all right if later on down the road, she copied you.”

So while I understand that everybody has to make a living and even “check out the competition”, I personally feel that a healthy distance is required and appreciated among competitors in such a small retail setting. The smile and introduction on her part certainly didn’t make that sling-seller any closer to me. And the only thing worse than the bad experience with the Competitor was . . .

3) The Bad Experience: The Customer. On a Thursday afternoon, I had a most astonishing and unfortunately memorable experience with a bad customer. Bright and early, on the dot as the show opened at 11 a.m., a woman and her mother entered my booth, all eager. (You have to know, being located in the middle of the vast convention centre, we in aisle E generally did not see customers on the dot as the show opened. If someone was there at the opening bell, it was for a very specific reason, and they knew that they had to go to this location first.) Little did I know what they were so eager about. I gave them a moment to talk privately between themselves, and when I smiled and approached them, I caught these words on the daughter’s lips, and then her mother’s murmured reply: “Well, what do you think?” “Hmm, you’re right. I haven’t seen this type of construction at the shoulder before.” She then proceeded to turn over the sling shoulder, and inspect the hem.

At this point, I stepped in assertively, realising what kind of customer this was: The Copier. (I’ve encountered many Copiers or people threatening to be Copiers in my short career in the sling business; they’re the ones who love my sling design so much that they figure with their sewing skills, they could take apart one of these things—literally, or figuratively, with their eyes—and copy one without having to pay me any money.)

“May I help you find something?” I asked them politely.

“Oh no, we’re just looking for now,” replied the daughter. “I saw you earlier this year at the Spring Show, and I have two children. Someone gave me a second-hand sling for my first child, and it’s falling apart now, so I need one for my second child. But I can’t buy one just now.” Well, at least she was honest. Then the next question, from the mother, caught me slightly off-guard in its frankness.

“How wide is this?” she asked. Knowing full well what her intention was, I politely replied, “Our slings are big enough to carry your child from newborn to toddler, about 30 lbs.” She tried a different tack, hoping to gain insight into my sling-making process:

“Where do you get these rings?” she wanted to know. Many other Copiers before her have posed the same question, and they get the same type of guarded response from me: “These are strong, industrial rings that I buy specially. They’re rated to withstand a weight of up to 400 lbs.” Here, I paused and then said firmly, “You’re welcome to try on a sling.” The daughter politely declined, and with that, the two walked off.

At 3 p.m., when my employee, T., showed up to help me at the booth, I eagerly relayed to her what had happened this morning with the daughter-mother team. I warned her that there would be customers like this, who are inspecting carefully a seam, while nonchalantly asking questions about measurements and suppliers. Fifteen minutes later, as my back was turned to T. and I was helping another customer, T. tapped me on the shoulder and said excitedly, “Was that her? The woman from this morning?” She pointed to the back of a woman quickly walking away from my booth.

“It sure looks like her hair and the top she was wearing,” I replied. “Why?”

“Well, you’ll never guess what happened! She came in to the booth while you were helping the other customer, and I asked if I could help her find something. She replied, ‘No thanks’, and before I could stop her, she whipped out a tape measure and measured the width of one of the slings. ‘Twenty-four inches’, she said, then quickly walked away before I could do anything.”

The audacity of that customer shocked me. The nerve! Having not received an answer from me this morning about the sling’s width, she had decided on purpose to wait her turn, when I would be pre-occupied, to come and get her measurement herself, without permission! Now, dear readers, you have to understand that the show management has always had a strict “no photography, no videography without permission” policy in place. This is designed to protect the ideas of hard-working designers so that crafty do-it-yourselfers won’t come into the place, snap a photo, and then head to the privacy of their home to “duplicate” that great item. To me, boldly pulling out a measuring tape was just as bad, if not worse, than snapping a photo; the intention was still the same. With that thought, I left T. in charge of the booth and immediately went off to find management, to relay the story. They sympathised with me, and said that if I saw either that daughter or mother on the Show floor, to alert security, who would have a word with them. But what would have been the point? With her measurement already tucked in her mind, she was already long gone, and would have no reason to return. My only triumphant thought was that in her rush to grab that number without being seen by me, she had measured too hastily, and had come up with an incorrect measurement! I wonder how safe that baby will feel in a sling made with a wrong measurement . . .

My only consolation after these two experiences was that I’m certainly not the only one to have gone through that. It’s amazing, once you rant and complain, how many other similar stories you hear from other designer friends, on the topic of idea-stealing competitors and customers. So, what did I learn from this year’s show? It’s a tough world out there in consumer retail, especially during a bad economy. We all have to survive, some of us in different ways than others.