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Has the internet killed trade shows?

  • By Catherine Clavering
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Has the internet killed trade shows?

In spite of triumphant pronouncements in the trade press otherwise,  I think trade shows are a bit dead. Emma from Playful Promises agrees, but what we can't agree on is why - the internet, or the economy?

I'm going to back this up a bit now to explain what trade shows are and why it matters. Skip down if you already know!

Things we take to trade shows; brochures, fabric swatches and people who can wear a corset. Say hi to bex :)

About half of KMD's income for the last few years has come from selling our products to other stores to sell to you, the end customer. Traditionally, the way to find those stores has been to go to trade shows (or go to market, I think they say in the USA) and sit in a very large concrete shed that's been gussied up for a few days, trying to meet as many folk as possible and convince them that we're the best thing since sliced bread.

As always, we keep track of statistics - footfall, the number of people we see - and conversion, how many people we manage to get to buy things. In the last few years we've been forced to add "and then how many of them we actually manage to get payment out of for said order" but hey, we're far from alone in that.

The bonus of selling to other stores should be  bigger orders with less profit that  offset some of the manufacturing costs and reduce our risk, expanding the brand into areas we can't access or don't understand, building a customer base in new places, and speaking foreign languages badly. (The British are the only Europeans who don't speak 2, 3 or more languages to even a remotely competent level, courtesy of a bad case of post-imperialism laziness and a peculiar approach to schooling.)

From your end, it means being able to get KMD in a place that's accessible to you, in your own language, without having to work out if you'll pay import duties or how long it will take to arrive by post (in the case of Russia, Croatia and the Ukraine, the answer is "probably never").

Trade shows come complete with 1930's carousels at parties. This is so we can show you why we like Anna from Paolita.

Some brands write off trade shows costs as marketing, seeing it just as a chance to make contacts and promote themselves, but since we have no investors,  I'm generally more in favour of not losing money doing events, so I'm very "did we get any orders?".

We used to mostly get enough orders - but I chopped Moda, the UK show, after over a year losing money on it, and the same with the US show after I worked out that we were also losing money on that. Now I'm seriously debating the Paris shows, because honestly, our figures are steadily declining; and this is consistent with the brands we share figures with.

At the point where it costs £4000 to do a show plus the opportunity costs and you see less than 40 retailers, well, I really have to think about how much those contacts are worth.

Your 4k gets you some furniture on a carpet, your staff, and free running eletricity. Just remember that the wifi is a lie and that water costs £5 a bottle and you're sorted.

Anyway! This meant that on Sunday, over at the ready-to-wear show Playful Promises tried being at (equally low attendance but free champagne all day), Emma and I got into a debate about *why* show attendance is on the decline.

Repacking your stand can be quite tricksy. Don't even talk to us about the Eurostar.

Her opinion? "The internet killed trade shows."

Why? Well, now people can find suppliers online, and often order online (you can actually order from us without ever speaking to any of us, and though this was rare 8 years ago, most brands have managed to cobble together some way to order withour a physical presence). Plus, she sees retail as moving away from physical stores and onto online, with online being dominated by large stores who are great at IT and logistics, leaving small bricks and mortar stores floundering and excluding niche online stores because they can't access the sorts of schemes large ones can, like free delivery or free, collected returns, and heavy discounting.

Naturally I totally disagree with her, but happily no voices were raised and neither of us care that the other one uses the f-word way too much.

I'm never going to be down on the internet as KMD thrives on it. That said, I agree that in the UK, it's a large part of what's destroying small stores. I just think that means that small stores need to get better at online; get a website, get your social media channels working, and buy in brands that protect their value and work towards an SRP (suggested retail price).  But other countries haven't seen as strong a swing to online retail, and though small stores can't compete with large ones on logistics and money, they certainly can on customer service, brands, and accessibility.

After I left Playful drank this much champagne. This may not have helped packing.

My theory? Trade shows are just part of a pattern we're seeing across the board that's developed and deepened ever since the recession hit - risk aversion. Retailers are running out of cash and running scared; they want to KNOW something will sell. And when you run on fear, you stick with the comfortable, you buy the same brands doing the same products year on year. If you're doing that, why head to a show? It'll cost you in staffing, travel and expenses - all so you can just order the same thing as last year, but in pink.

I think this, more than the internet, is really killing stores - it's just so damn boring! And it's not backed up by the figures, at least for us. I suspect if you're Gossard or Debenhams, yes, last year's figures are a great place to base next year's designs on, but for us? Every figure we have from the last 8 years shows us that it's all about the new and different, if we want to galvanise or grow sales.

So; what do you think is killing trade shows? The move to the online retail and online research, or risk aversion and boring stores?

Fight it out in the comments :)

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