As a designer in my early years and a brand builder over the last 15 years, I’ve visited many trade shows in my time. I’ve sourced fabrics, yarns, manufacturers, even a client or two, during my casual chats and of course, trend prediction. They were always bustling with the most important people in fashion retail and innovative companies, selling their ideas, finished products and materials, but not anymore it seems.
I have to admit, I haven’t been to as many Trade Shows as usual over the past couple of years. Costs are rising, my time is squeezed more than ever before and somehow, they just don’t hold the relevance to me, that they used to.
It could, as my husband keeps reminding me, just be my age. I am, after all, no spring chicken these days. But yesterday I made some time to visit a local Trade Show. Fashion Access and Cashmere World, in Hong Kong and after chatting to a few people at the show, I was happy to hear that my age had nothing to do with it.
Over the past year, I’ve had a lot of clients asking me whether they should do Trade Shows to attract more buyers, so I guess it’s a topic that needs some discussion. In this post I’ll explain why Trade Shows are no longer the way forward for new [and old] fashion brands and what your alternatives are, to attract more customers, buyers and sales.
WHAT ARE TRADE SHOWS?
If you’ve never visited a trade show before, let me take a moment to explain exactly what they are. Most people have visited a market at some point, which is a pretty good analogy, so think about that market for a moment.
Lots of stalls, selling products on narrow roads. Lots of people, pushing past you to get to where they need to be. Noise. Hustle and bustle everywhere. People’s shopping smacking into your legs as you walk past. Stall holders trying to attract you to their stall. Restaurants and food stands with people standing around trying to eat as quickly as possible and lots to look at. Pretty accurate?
Well Trade Shows are fairly similar. Widen the streets a bit and change the pavement to carpet. Put the market stalls inside a big conference centre, with more modern stands and make sure everyone there has a lanyard with their ticket to enter. Add a few talks and presentations. Exhibition areas for trends and products, and remove the sellers who shout into the crowd [mostly] and you’re there.
Most Trade Shows are fairly specific and are put on per material or product type. For example, Pitti Filati in Florence is a knitwear and yarn show. Everything, including the trends and exhibition areas are focused on knitwear, including the exhibitors. Bread and Butter focuses on streetwear and SMOTA is a trade show for footwear…. although there are many more across the world.
Essentially, Trade Shows, at least in the fashion industry, are just lots and lots of fashion companies and manufacturers, trying to attract buyers to purchase their products and materials, just like a market. It’s a tad more civilised [most of the time] but it’s just as busy and manic for both visitors and sellers…..or at least they used to be.
THE TRADE SHOW
At the start of this post, I mentioned that I visited a Trade Show yesterday. Well, let me give you some background and describe what it was like 2 years ago, to put yesterday into context.
Most conference on convention centres are huge buildings with different floors and rooms. This one in particular is held at the Wanchai Convention Centre, which is approximately 500,000 sq metres across it’s many floors and halls. In previous years, Fashion Access has taken up the entrance hall, 3 floors. Walkway space for exhibitions and additional seminar rooms for events and talks. I would think it took up around 50,000 square meters of the centre.
This year, the entire show, including talks and seminars, registration booths, trend exhibitions, seating areas, cafes and a few empty booths, was in 1 hall, which was around 10,000 square meters. I must have walked around it in 3 hours and 45 minutes of that, was listening to Michael at Fashion Snoops give his trend prediction talk.
I chatted to Michael about his experience this year with trade shows and he confirmed my suspicion that they were becoming smaller and far less relevant within the fashion industry. I had seen this happening slowly for the last few years. Many of my fashion friends had told me that they were not attending as many shows as they used to and I too had stopped making time to go. The reports for all trade shows, across the world, have revealed less and less visitor numbers attending. The reason for this is probably not what you think. Interestingly, the end consumers are the reason why….
WHAT IS CHANGING?
If you don’t remember the 80s and 90s, you may not know that mass production and huge retail chains, developed during this time. Huge retailers brought cheap goods to millions of people across the world and expanded quickly. It was their golden era. But with the rise of the internet, which really exploded over the last 10 years, consumer attitudes are changing. If you throw in a few recessions in the Western world, shoppers having the choice of global goods and brand loyalty loosing appeal with so much choice, you get the situation we’re in today.
There will always be consumers who want cheap products and the only place you can get them, is with large brands who have the manufacturing power to demand cheap production. However for the masses, with the global choice of products available, consumers are returning to individual, ‘different from their friends’, product choices and focus is returning to quality in order to reduce costs. It’s longevity rather than throw away fashion.
So with global choice, handmade goods for individuality and quality over quantity becoming more relevant, is there a point to trade shows anymore? Should you show at one?
SHOULD I DO A TRADE SHOW?
My short answer is ‘No’. But my answer is for many reasons.
- Most suppliers, brands, manufacturers and mills have websites. So after you build a relationship with a buyer, their companies are happy for them to look online, rather than spend thousands on flights, food and accommodation for their teams. The recession hit big companies too, so you have to bear that in mind.
- Unless you have an established brand, people won’t be there to see you. Sure, you might get a bit of exposure from the odd passing buyer, but generally their time is limited and they will want to see their established suppliers. Unless your booth literally jumps out at them, they won’t notice.
- Larger companies can afford larger booths in more prominent positions. As a new or small company, you’ll get placed where there is space, usually to the back of the room. If it’s the first time you have exhibited with them, you also don’t have the relationship with them to command better positioning. So again, foot traffic will be low.
- My last point really sums up the whole experience of a fashion trade show and the previous points I made in my list. Like a physical shop or website, unless there is traffic, you’ll never get a sale and if buyers aren’t coming, then the cost of doing it, really isn’t worth it.
SO WHAT CAN I DO?
If you were thinking that a trade show was going to be your path to success and are now wondering what you can do instead, of course I have some helpful tips for you.
Like a trade show, you need to build relationships. Whether that is with buyers or consumers directly, the advantage of the internet is that social media and websites allow you to do just that. The other thing that trade shows do, is give you the opportunity to find new buyers and customers. Whether online or off, if you spend some time focusing on finding the right people, who will love your brand and products. So here are some tips for doing these two things, without a trade show:
- Make sure that you are collecting email addresses or contact information [with their permission of course] of customers, so that you can tell them when you have promotions, events or new clothing lines available. Never buy likes, fans or email addresses. It’s a waste of time and honestly, it’s just nasty tactics that won’t help your brand image.
- Create or participate in events that are tailored to your customer, or buyer, by making them feel special and appreciated. This can include pop up sales, special lifestyle events or bringing your products to them.
- Think about the lifestyle of your customer, not just the product you are trying to sell. Whether you are selling online, in a market or at an event, give them an experience that they will remember, not a shopping trip.
- Don’t assume anything happens overnight. Building a relationship, gaining trust and creating a memorable brand, takes a long time. You should be doing everything you can, as early as possible, even if you have nothing to sell. Think of each consumer, or buyer, as a friend. Support their projects. Give helpful advice and comments. Be happy to see them and always ask if you can do anything to help them. When it comes time to launch a new collection, or promote your offer, then people are far more willing to help you succeed, when you have done so much for them.
Now that we’ve talked about trade shows and their decrease in fashion buyers and visitor numbers; how consumer attitudes are changing to products and how shopping habits are changing, I think we can safely say that trade shows are a dying promotional tool. But we’ve also discussed some ideas for keeping up fashion brand interest and how you can help to increase your sales.
[wc_fa icon=”cogs” margin_left=”” margin_right=””] Action Steps:
As a final task, I want you to take some action and think about your brand, your customers and an event you could create, that you think would create interest. It can be completely hypothetical if you haven’t started your brand and even something you think would happen in the future, when you have more funds. I want to hear what you would do, so tell me what you think and comment below with your ideas.
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