The value of trade shows to the retail industry

Discussion
Jul 15, 2015

As long as I can remember, there has been a debate about the value of trade shows, conventions and conferences to the retailing industry. Twenty or so years ago, one prominent food association show attracted as many as 35,000 attendees and most major food manufacturers exhibited. Consolidation, other ways of reaching customers, and a failure of trade show execs to listen to constituents very nearly led to the show’s demise.

Today, the show has rebounded a little, though it is a fraction of its former self. Even retail technology shows have gone under, failing to adapt to changing attendee needs and a fast moving tech world. Yet, in the e-commerce space, there are currently at least four major events annually (IRCE, Shop.org’s Summit, eTail West, and eTail East) so it is possible to be successful with large trade shows, even though potential attendees have many easier ways to get information, mostly online.

My own view is that trade shows still have a lot of value, if done right. Having attended hundreds of events over the years, here are a few suggestions for attendees, exhibitors, and conference producers:

For attendees and potential attendees:

  1. It’s OK to be selective about what you attend, but you need to get out there several times a year, to see what you are missing while chained to your desk.
  2. Soak it in. You and/or your company paid good money for you to attend, yet many convention goers pay more attention to their smartphones than they do sessions or exhibits.
  3. Keep your eyes and ears open. With the right attitude, you could learn something that will make you more successful.
  4. Take notes and follow up on them.

For exhibitors:

NRF booth

Photo: RetailWire

  1. Put someone in charge of your booth who will keep those staffing it alert, engaged, and friendly. Many companies waste their money with booths staffed by bored individuals, or groups of individuals who spend their time looking at their phones or talking to each other.
  2. Educate all your booth staffers so they can converse intelligently about your products and services and their role in the industry, instead of serving as highly paid badge scanners.
  3. Put a little creativity into your booth design and make it a fun and enlightening place for prospects and customers to visit.

For event producers:

  1. Actively seek feedback from attendees and exhibitors and respond to it.
  2. Can the celebrity speakers. One, or even two inspirational talks may be OK, but industry gurus can teach your attendees a lot more.
  3. Encourage speakers to take questions. Too many prominent speakers take only canned questions or none at all.
  4. Reconsider your reliance on “pay to play” (charging vendors to present) as a major part of your revenue stream. Are paid presentations the best way to make sure your content is top-notch?

Do you feel retail trade shows and conferences continue to be valuable? What advice do you have for those attending, exhibiting, and producing shows?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Trade shows are kind of like circulars. If you don’t do them, people forget about you or think you’re going out of business (this applies equally to attendees as exhibitors). And while you would think that digital could replace circulars, people’s behavior just doesn’t change that quickly — the same is true of trade shows."
"Trade shows can really help if you want to do the networking and attend the workshops that help your business. I was asked to come to work for RetailWire by Al McClain several years ago at our NGA convention, so go ahead and blame him for my rants."

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21 Comments on "The value of trade shows to the retail industry"


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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

I think the author forgot the most important success factor for exhibitors. Pre-book as many appointments as you can.

Just hanging around waiting for passersby is a prescription for failure, even in an otherwise successful show.

On the flip side, I’ve seen exhibitors be successful in “dog” shows when they’ve pre-booked appointments with prospects.

No matter how you look at it, the trade show is an opportunity for retailers and providers to both maximize the value of their time by being in the same place. Vendors can see multiple retailers, and retailers can see multiple vendors without getting on yet another airplane.

Tom Redd
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
Trade shows are still a great space for attendee learning. For vendors most of their show staffers need to be re-trained to understand how important the attendee’s time is. They need to re-think how they talk at shows. Most staffers are not show pros. They still say stupid things like “how is the show going for you?” when an attendee walks by their booth. They still say “how are you?” When someone enters their booth they take little time to properly qualify the prospect. If the name badge says “Nordstrom” or “Macy’s” or “Walmart” they dive into their pitch vs. finding out who the person is, the challenges that they are facing, etc. Shows are sharing points — sharing the right information with the right people at the right time. Too many staffers think shows are: work the booth, party, and drag back to the booth the next day. Treat a show like an opportunity and you can prosper. Lastly, too many companies see the show as a pipeline tool vs. a brand strengthening marketing… Read more »
Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
6 years 4 months ago
Trade shows are kind of like circulars. If you don’t do them, people forget about you or think you’re going out of business (this applies equally to attendees as exhibitors). And while you would think that digital could replace circulars, people’s behavior just doesn’t change that quickly — the same is true of trade shows. There are other alternatives out there but they just don’t seem to do better, mostly because people’s behaviors haven’t really changed that much when it comes to the benefits that a trade show provides — networking, education, taking the pulse of what’s out there. My advice for attendees: Make appointments to meet exhibitors but don’t schedule yourself wall-to-wall. Leave some time for discovery. For exhibitors: Pre-schedule as many meetings as you possibly can. Don’t expect to show up and hope to fill your pipeline from walk-around traffic. You will be sorely disappointed. For show organizers: Create spaces where people can hang out. It makes opportunities for chance networking. Then give the time for that networking to happen. Some of the best connections… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
My advice is, at least for me, is to focus on shows that are attended by senior executives, store owners or the “check writers” in the company. Usually any major or senior level FMI or NGA event and to some extent state association shows. For those attending, relax and spend time networking. Don’t be overwhelmed by the abundance of prospects. Those exhibiting, get your booth in a high-traffic and visible area. Make sure you are NOT located across from a booth with attractive models because no one will be looking at you when they walk by. Those producing the shows, do whatever it takes to get the major brands to attend. I was disappointed not to see Miller Beer at FMI. My further advice is for those who want to attend and your company will not send you, take some vacation time and pay your own way. The networking opportunities are invaluable that will pay off big down the line. I was a nobody working in a cubicle for a supermarket company. Because of the… Read more »
Roy White
Guest
Roy White
6 years 4 months ago

Although huge increases in technological capabilities in B2B communications have hurt trade shows, many of the industries the author of this discussion piece grew up with have consolidated into a limited number of retail players. As a result there’s less of a reason for the shows, unless other services, such as education, lobbying or tapping new markets (international, for example), are able to give such trade shows renewed relevance. The e-commerce shows he correctly cites as successful address a broad audience with a serious need to meet players face-to-face on the other side of the table. Trade shows aren’t dead, they’re going in new directions with new missions and new players.

Ian Percy
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Excellent Al. I’ve often seen trade shows as a way to replenish my supply of pens.

As a corporate speaker, and this is admittedly self-centered, I think “can the celebrity speakers” is a great point. True, the right one can put “bums in seats” but it’s usually all style, no substance. This is especially true of old sports celebs who make little contribution. The celeb trick is to create legitimacy with a business-like speech title like “Leadership Lessons from Golf” or “Teamwork: Your Competitive Advantage.” Then you tell the same old stories you always tell. For most guys, however, the real value is getting one’s picture taken with the celeb.

For those of us who work hard at our research and have actual industry expertise, celeb speakers make us really … jealous.

Tony Orlando
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Trade shows can really help if you want to do the networking and attend the workshops that help your business. I was asked to come to work for RetailWire by Al McClain several years ago at our NGA convention, so go ahead and blame him for my rants. Seriously, it is important to attend if possible to gain insight on future trends and new product ideas.
A little socializing or networking are the keys to increase your knowledge of your industry, and I love going to NGA, especially since it is in Vegas, where I probably spend a little extra time on “socializing.” As a proud member of NGA, I look forward to heading west every February to escape the cold and join up with my friends to have some fun and see what the trade show vendors have to offer. Thanks Al for bringing me on board, as this has been a great experience learning from all of you.

Robert Hilarides
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

I find great value in shows like FMI, NRA and Expo in surveying the landscape and assessing emerging trends and trade winds. What ingredients are popping up frequently in the smaller companies? What technologies or problems are the bigger companies addressing? What seminar topics are best attended?

If everyone is putting on their “best face,” what does it look like? What a great opportunity to understand where the industry is going.

Peter J. Charness
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Agree with most of these comments, but not all trade shows are the same. The NRF is a little like visiting the Mall of America for half a day — huge, maybe a bit intimidating in terms of what stores to visit, where to go, vs. smaller very focused shows. For visitors I’d go along with the comment of allow time to just wander around and see what’s new and interesting. Some of those small booths are packed with some good ideas. For exhibitors it really is best make appointments, you have to be a destination and not count on walk by traffic. For show producers there are two types of attendees at the show, exhibitors and delegates. You have to look after both their needs, not just assume the exhibitors will be happy if the delegates are happy.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Trade shows can have value, but changes on both sides are needed. Before the internet and supplier consolidation, shows help established a personal relationship. Today this is gone. New product awareness is the key for suppliers. Also new programs if they make a real difference. Retailers need to be always looking for changing their product mix. A minimum of 10 percent SKU change out should occur every year. Education is an important element of any trade show. Too often the education program is limited to a select group of consultants selling their solutions. This results in ever-decreasing attendance.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

I am extremely selective with the face-to-face events in which I participate. There are ones with value, as measured by the new leads that actually produce revenue, and the meetings that moved existing opportunities forward towards closing the sale. If I see something for the first time at a trade show, then I feel I missed it before. I feel it’s old news by that time. Few exhibitors exceed those expectations of mine. As an exhibitor, I preschedule meetings to fill every minute of the event so no one is standing in the booth waiting for people to fall into it.

Lee Kent
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
Having been on the event and party side of shows for many years, it has always been a bit dis-heartening to me how many retailers attend shows to hear the keynotes and then be wined and dined by vendors. They really don’t come to see what is new on the floor. They often never walk the floor. So many vendors have put together great presentations of what they are up to and the trick is to get the retailer there. Once upon a time, trade shows were all about deal making. Buy today and get X% off. While I understand that is hard to do for many vendors, still think there may be some opportunity for vendors to use shows as a way to introduce new products and services, first seen on the floor! Hey, I love the shows! It tells me what the vibe is in retail and what is emerging. Extremely valuable for everyone in the industry and the content and demonstrations are usually first class. The trick is packaging that up so… Read more »
Brian Hart
Guest
Brian Hart
6 years 4 months ago

For me, I’ve enjoyed the presentations—my own company’s, competitors, and others. NRF does well because it includes technology and for all verticals (grocery, fashion, hardlines)—but is heavily fashion and somewhat specialty oriented.

FMI is for grocery and attracts senior merchants to a degree, and has a strong focus on store equipment. There has been a technology area, but fewer IT and retailer marketing executives have been attending.

One standout is The Category Management Association (CMA). Their annual Fall conference in Orlando is small at less than 400 attendees, but if you are a grocery merchant, don’t miss it!

Dave Wendland
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Here’s a brief column I contributed last fall to Healthcare Distributor magazine that touches on the value I see in industry trade events.

Trade shows do require great scrutiny and should be selected after discerning review. But, if you are committed to attending … then attend and make the most of it. Find the one opportunity that will make it time well invested.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Paula made a major point of booking appointments in advance of the show. The more customers and prospects you can see gives your company more bang for the many dollars they are putting out.

Here is a small twist to that. Some conferences and trade shows have “desktop” sessions a day prior to the show. Companies have a table. Vendors line up to see and spend 5 – 10 minutes each with the companies they want/must see before leaving the show. This sets the opportunity to make appointments for after the show. Naturally the vendors have to sign up in advance and pay a fee for participating in this event.

Shep Hyken
Guest
6 years 4 months ago
There is tremendous value in face-to-face interactions during a conference or trade show. Beyond the obvious of seeing the latest and greatest in product innovation, it may be the conversations in the aisles and halls that has some of the biggest ROI. Just like any business, sometimes it is the relationship that you have with customers that counts. That isn’t that easy to do over the Internet and even the phone. Exhibitors should take advantage of preregistration lists to connect with people before they get to the conference or show. This is also an opportunity to set an appointment. In the booth the sales-people (and any other employees) must be proactive in creating the “attendee experience.” Step out from behind tables and counters. Proactively engage people as they come by your booth. Ask about them, their needs, and what they’ve found at the show that’s interesting. Build the relationship, even if it is just a moment of two of rapport building, that earns you the right to ask the attendee to spend more time to… Read more »
Daniel Backhaus
Guest
Daniel Backhaus
6 years 4 months ago
Clearly, trade shows and conferences continue to be valuable, though their role and purpose may have shifted. And this shift is what necessitates some of the changes vendors, exhibitors and attendees need to make when it comes to preparation, mindset and attendance as mentioned in earlier comments. While events may have been the primary means of gathering information on the market and offerings before, this has largely been replaced by research online, outbound marketing by vendors, webinars and more. But shows are still where chance encounters happen, relationships get made (or deepened), and where true conversation happens. Events also force us to disconnect (to some degree at least), set time aside to learn, connect and explore. For vendors it’s the best place to find prospects that are truly in-funnel and contemplating an investment. For retailers, it’s a one-stop opportunity to learn more about their industry, not only new technology and solution offerings, but also what their competitors are up to, who changed jobs, what the latest scuttlebutt and rumors are and connect with colleagues, partners,… Read more »
Brent Buttolph
Guest
Brent Buttolph
6 years 4 months ago
At least one annual trade show by industry sub-segment can be valuable, if nothing else, just to take a look at new products and equipment and networking if done right—after all, distinctive products and customer experiences are still best executed within brick and mortar. For technology or analytic solutions, a completely differnt story. In the end, the value of these shows really comes down to retailer involvement and engagement. Along with NRF, I also attended that “once prominent food association show” this year and while it has been a number (4 or 5) years since I had last attended this show, I was SHOCKED at how poorly attended (by retailers and vendors alike) it was. Not only have they merged a once separate technology/equipment focused show, but also two to three separate general product based association shows over time, it was an eye opener to say the least. I was able to walk the floor, chat with several vendors, attend a few educational sessions and out the door in a day. I’m dumbfounded that this… Read more »
Kim Barrington
Guest
Kim Barrington
6 years 4 months ago

The shows need to be adjusted to the new world and to who is doing the shopping. There is a great opportunity for disruption here, and given the sort of work I do, I say go for it.

The industry will be grateful!

Jim Nowakowski
Guest
Jim Nowakowski
6 years 4 months ago

I’m always amazed how many people don’t know how to work a booth at a trade show. In many cases, the philosophy is: “If you build it, they will come.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You never know who will walk into the booth or by the booth. It is up to you to find out. And, you won’t do that sitting, texting or talking to your associates. I wrote a blog about this recently on our website, http://www.interlinegroup.com called THE TRADE SHOW FLOOR. I related a couple of experiences that your readers might find interesting. Thanks for bringing up the discussion point.

Maria Brock
Guest
Maria Brock
6 years 4 months ago

As retailers, creating the optimum customer experience is the goal. Exhibitors should be thinking along those same lines at trade shows. How can we create an experience when you set foot in our booth? As for the relevancy of these events, like retail, it’s all about the relationship. And good opportunities for networking sparks those relationships.

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Braintrust
"Trade shows are kind of like circulars. If you don’t do them, people forget about you or think you’re going out of business (this applies equally to attendees as exhibitors). And while you would think that digital could replace circulars, people’s behavior just doesn’t change that quickly — the same is true of trade shows."
"Trade shows can really help if you want to do the networking and attend the workshops that help your business. I was asked to come to work for RetailWire by Al McClain several years ago at our NGA convention, so go ahead and blame him for my rants."

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