Fashion Trade Shows 101
It’s trade show time. It’s actually always trade show time somewhere around the world, depending on your niche and product. Unless there is an ongoing pandemic of course.
Many of you brand owners ask us:
- Should I exhibit with my brand?
- Are trade shows a good idea?
- Are trade shows still effective? W
- hat do I need to think about?
In this post we are going to dissect the whole thing:
- What exactly are trade shows in case you haven’t been to one?
- Why you should or shouldn’t be at one?
- How it can be beneficial for your brand plus tips on how to go about at exhibiting.
- Booth display tips
- Checklist for things to have with you
- Checklist: Don’t attend a trade show until you…
- Good to think about – tips
What is a trade show, or trade fair?
It’s a place where industry people meet, where you can showcase your collection and products to potential buyers.
Most of the trade shows are business to business only – for wholesale purposes. You can not sell to an end consumer. You meet with store product buyers that see your collection and eventually place an order. If you have a solely Direct To Consumer brand and business, then there is no need for you to attend a trade show. If you want to expand into other distribution channels, like retail or expand your distribution in new countries, then this is a fantastic way to broaden your network of buyers and get your styles into physical stores.
Trade shows are all over the world, mainly in big cities like New York, Hong Kong, London, Paris and of course many other cities as well – take a look at our very popular blog post, Fashion Trade Shows and Sourcing Fairs 2020, for a list of trade shows that would suit your product segment and market.
The fairs are almost always indoors, in exhibition centers or in big hotels for example. This depends on the fair and the city. The location can vary from year to year, but most of the time the same fair is in the same place.
At the fair location, the exhibition hall space is later divided into smaller sections, into booths that you as a brand can rent and showcase your products. Depending on the fair you can create entirely the space that you want. Sometimes there are walls, sometimes the space is completely empty and you have to build up the area and create your own “space”. Check with the exhibition coordinator in advance. Building your own booth takes some time and required some planning.
The booth size depends on you and how big of a collection you have or how much money you want to spend. Again, discuss it with the exhibition coordinator.
Some trade shows offer the same space for all brands, again, you have to check with the event organizer. In this case, you have to plan ahead on what styles to bring with you if you have a big collection. You don’t want to overcrowd the space and only bring the samples that matter and probably not your carryovers or your basics.
Some trade shows have also halls for sourcing and manufacturing. It can be a great thing for you to also do some sourcing and meeting potential manufacturers and suppliers while you are there.
More on this subject…
Read the Sourcing Fair Guide about how to best source your materials.
Reasons why it’s a good idea to attend a trade show
The main reason is to raise brand awareness.
To get your brand out there and sell it. So buyers can see and buy your collection. If people don’t know your brand exists, they can’t buy from you.
You are there to sell! And if the buyers are not placing orders on the spot, at least they are very hot sales leads in a near future.
Get feedback on your brand and products.
Some buyers will give you feedback regardless if you ask or not.
But if you embrace and welcome constructive feedback, this is a great chance to get it. The quality of feedback will depend on the quality of questions you ask.
Get in the habit of asking looooots of questions. Here are some examples: Where are you from? What shop do you represent? What brands do you carry at the moment? What are your best selling brands and why? What are you looking for now? What direction is your shop moving into? What product types are you going to focus on etc
Check out the competition.
In order for this to work, you have to be 2 people at the fair. At least for a half-day or a couple of hours, to give yourself time to do the tour and see the other booths and brands. You are there to check what they are doing, not to copy! You want to know what they offer, so you can make your brand stronger by focusing on YOUR thing.
See what is new in your field.
Product types, colors, materials, trends, etc. Take notes or record on your phone so you can digest this later. You will be overwhelmed and tired from meeting so many people. Also, you will only remember a fraction of the things you see.
Many fairs have a ton of reporters, journalists, bloggers, and YouTubers walking the shows and it’s a great way for you to get PR. Be prepared mentally that a reporter might walk into your booth, put a camera and a mic in your face and ask you about your brand and collection. It can happen and it’s a fantastic thing. It’s a great chance for you to talk about your brand, tell your story and get free marketing! So know your pitch!!!!
Travel to new cities and get inspired.
Mentioned this in the last episode of the Apparel Entrepreneurship Podcast number 37 about sourcing fairs, if you haven’t listened to that yet, we recommend you to do that because it’s packed with valuable tips. We mentioned that you should take advantage of actually seeing the city. Take a tour and check out shops, see trends, and also check out potential retailers that you would want to carry your brand. Check out the stores, talk to the sales reps and ask them for the contact info to their buyers. It’s great info to have for next time you are in town exhibiting at the trade show. Contact them in advance and book a meeting with them to see your collection.
You know the saying: It’s not what you know, but who you know? That’s how it is in this industry. The more people you know the better. Maybe you can find other brands to colab with to grow your customer base. Collabs are huge and can skyrocket your brand.
Is retail dead?
Some say retail is dead. That is not entirely true. It all depends on what shops you contact and do business with. Many smaller retailers are doing a fantastic job, so it’s more a matter of the work you put in, prior to a trade show. If you are just going to a show, without doing any marketing and booking meetings before, you will have a very hard time at the fair. And probably a very empty booth too. You don’t want that! It would be a waste of money and time! Plus a big punch to your ego and mindset.
A little story from when we ran our own brand Sinaia:
We exhibited with Sinaia, many times at different fairs both in Sweden and abroad. It was such an exciting thing. We got to meet buyers, showcased our collection, got feedback, talked about the products and potential products and created relationships with the buyers. It was such a massive endorphin kick and an optimistic boost to be at a fair.
Our takeaway was that if done right, you can get soo much constructive feedback that you can use, in your marketing, in your coming collection, even the pitch itself can be changed based on how customers perceive your brand.
We were at the fair to make business, to sell our collection. And we did! Our biggest aha was how different nationalities approached our brand and products. Japanese and Italian buyers just pointed at the products and asked where they could fill out the order form.
Swedes were, in general, a very tough crowd. Conservatives and wanted to play safe with commercial products and brands they knew would sell.
Canadians were fairly easy to do business with as well.
When you take notice of things like this you can later use it to approach every buyer and adjust your pitch to suit their style.
The thing with trade shows is that they always come on top of whatever else you have to do. The busy everyday running of the brand. That’s why it’s crucial to start way in advance, plan wisely and get help.
Because you will need help!
The help can be added in 2 areas: at home where you have someone that tackles ground control with grocery shopping, preparing meals, cleaning and all that or at work. If you don’t have any employees, you can get help temporarily, someone who can help with the booth setup, structure of the garments, helping out will all the print material and the marketing, and as we mentioned earlier someone who can be with you in the booth and talk to buyers and press.
What is your business strategy, mission, vision, and story?
What problem are you trying to solve? Before you know this we would recommend that you don’t go to a trade show. This information is vital for your pitch, for making you stand out and also for your credibility. The buyers will ask you about this information and if you don’t know or just mumble something lame, it won’t fly.
What is the exhibition goal? – choose the right trade show.
Trade shows specialize in product areas. And you want to show at the fair where you know your target customer and buyer will be. Outdoor brands go to outdoor shows, swimwear brands go to swimwear shows, denim menswear brands go to denim shows etc. Choose wisely to maximize your sales.
Know your target shop/buyer.
When you have done this research and know what shops you want to be in, it’s easier to contact the buyers and ask them what fairs they visit during the buying season. That’s where you will go too.
If you know that you want to increase your brand awareness and sales in a specific country then exhibit at those fairs.
Do your research.
Yes, this will take time, and yes, it’s a tedious job, but many fairs are declining in visitor counts. You want to go to a fair that you know will be busy and that you know will have a lot of traffic from media and pr people. Also call and talk to reference brands. How was their experience at the fair previous seasons? You can see the exhibitor list online on all the fairs including contact information to all the brands.
Know your USP.
Why should someone buy your products and not from the other brands?
You can talk about your unique materials, you can talk about your sustainability story, your patented cuff solution, whatever makes your brand and products unique, that’s what the buyers want to know.
Schedule meetings ahead of time.
This one is not always so easy to do but with some persistence and time, it’s doable.
It means that you have to research buyers, find their contact info before you even reach out. They are busy people and probably get 5000 emails just like yours, from brands that want to pitch their collections. Give yourself a loot of time and reach out to buyers months in advance.
Market way before you attend the show.
As soon as you know your booth number, talk about that in all the outlets and invite people to come.
Timing is everything.
This ties back into how many collections you have per year. What season are you working on? If the trade show is for SS20, and your collection is for FW20 then that would be a bad move to go to the show.
The time needs to also be right in terms of where you are in your business, if you are ready, if you have a solid collection, if you know you can ship the products etc.
Make the calculations.
To exhibit at a trade show costs money. There are exceptions though – some fairs have competitions and if you are a finalist you get to exhibit for free or at a very low fee.
Before you plan to go, make a basic calculation on what it will cost you with the booth, with the travel, the hotel night, the marketing material like banners, signs, look books, the booth display, etc. When you have a figure it’s easy to put that in relation to how many orders you need to get in order to cover your cost. And yes, it would be a bad business decision to go to a fair and make a loss. You want money coming in, you want to make a profit and not lose money. So, check what your ROI needs to be before going.
Design for your customer.
The booth display, the look book, and all the documents, the backdrop, everything that you will show in your booth should be designed to fit your target customer. It should speak ONE visual language to make it clear, to make it stick and to make it unique. Keep it cohesive and preferably a cleaner look is more impactful than a cluttered look.
Know your pitch.
This goes without saying right? You have to know EVERYTHING about your business and it’s products. The buyers want to know everything, they are curious and the more stories and details and arguments you have the more intrigued they will be. Buyers can sense this miles away, and some buyers even test you without you knowing it. They want to see how you can take the pressure and the questions. They want to make sure you know your stuff.
Calculate your deals and discounts for buyers who want to negotiate.
Negotiations are part of business. Good buyers will want to have some sort of a deal or discount. Plan this in advance and have a list with a couple of options in case they ask. What you don’t want to happen is that you are completely blank when they ask and you answer with: Eeeeeeee… Common alternatives are minimum by the number of pieces or price amount. For example, a minimum order of 10 dresses or 5% reduction of the price if they place an order by X date.
Confidence and professionalism.
Sales is a confidence game. If you are confident and exude it, buyers will sense it and trust you. They will be contaminated by the vibe and their decision might be drastically different than if you would be shy, insecure, fiddling with your phone instead of inviting them in and talking to them.
Have everything ready and go straight to the point, make it easy for them to make a decision.
Be at least 2 people in the booth.
Your booth should always be staffed. It’s easier to have help with a small presentation, with notes taking and with just welcoming buyers in the booth and get them drinks and some snacks. Plus at some point you will have to take small breaks. Your booth should never be empty, not even for a second. You can also take turns and walk the show, see what the competitors are doing, maybe attending a seminar, do some sourcing etc
Train the sales team.
We just mentioned that you should always be 2 people in the booth. Both of you need to know the collection, the prices, the story, the entire pitch. Do train the team so they can be professional, and represent your brand in the best way possible.
Be prepared to exhibit more than once to establish a proper business.
Many buyers want to see continuity in both collections, a steady business, and a solid brand. Have this in mind, and play for the long game.
Negotiate with the show organizer to get the best booth place and rate.
This is easier to do when you are early in the process. Many returning brands renew their contracts for the next fair on the spot, half a year or a year in advance. Don’t leave this to the last minute, talk to the event organizers and pick a booth place that has the most traffic. This is along with entries, the big isles, close to food areas or toilets. If you get a bad spot, change it! And yes you can also negotiate with the organizers on price or what should be included in the price. Lighting or extra lighting, booth furniture or electricity is always a great add on.
This is where you will convert the visitors into sales. A no doesn’t necessarily mean NO, it means that they haven’t gotten back to you with a definite answer. So be persistent, call, email do whatever you have to get that answer. If the answer is no, maybe they are interested in seeing your next collection. Have an open honest discussion with them.
Booth display tips
Your booth display is extremely important. It says, in an instant who you are as a brand. The display should have ONE clear message. People should be attracted to your booth when they walk by, they should be curious and want to see more.
Create an experience and try to tap into as many senses as possible.
First is, of course, VISUAL with the booth design and products. Second, you can add SMELL. There are candles, diffusers, indoor perfumes can trigger memories and increase the vibe you are trying to have. It’s all in the details:). SOUND (not all fairs allow music, so check first) but you can have music that reinforces your mood and collection vibe. TASTE – offer snacks or candy or something that ties directly to your brand, concept or collection.
Keep it clean and simple.
It should be evident what it is you are selling, and what your story is about.
Don’t overdecorate the booth. Both you and the buyers should walk around in your booth with ease, have a space to sit and write orders and just take it all in.
Make it interesting and inviting. A plain, white booth, with nothing on the walls, with one rack at the end is not going to attract visitors and will not get you many sales. Buyers that see that you have put in effort in your booth will also understand that you put effort on other areas of your business as well.
Lighting lighting lighting!!!
It can make or break your booth. It doesn’t matter how great your products are if people can’t really see the colors properly, or the details, or the materials. Get the extra lighting at the fair or get your own from IKEA. This is extremely important.
Use natural elements like wood and flowers.
Natural elements are details that will attract people to your booth. Flowers give a nice welcoming, and wooden elements create warmth and give an authentic feeling.
Here is a checklist for you to use before attending a trade show, to make sure you have everything you need for a successful fair.
- Business cards
- Look books and workbooks
- Price list
- Order form
- Notebooks and pens
- Material swatches – for your products, to chow several color options or patterns for example
- Color card
- Stapler to staple business cards into your notebook to keep track of people and notes
- Organization number, re-sale certificate, and tax id number
- Payment terms
- Tape measure
- Clipboards – solid surface to write orders on:)
- Box cutters and tape
- Scissors, needles, safety pins and paper clips – To help with the fitting on dress forms or set up products on racks or walls.
- Small toolbox to fix the booth. If you are building something, if you have frames or shelves and things on the walls
- Chargers and power banks for phones and computers
- Extension cords – different sizes and lengths
- Steamer – all your samples should be wrinkle-free (unless it’s a feature in the material of your product)
- Hand sanitizer – keep safe, you will be shaking a lot of peoples hands
- Extra shirt – one can get very sweaty in an important meeting or you might spill coffee on yourself. An extra shirt can come in handy
- Tissue and cleaning wipes
- Chewing gum and mints – bad breath is never a good thing when talking to people
- Water – tons of water. Keep hydrated to endure the long days
- Name tags. Makes it easier for the buyers and booth visitors to remember you and your name
- Press kit – a lot of media is usually attending trade shows to check out the latest of the latest. Make sure you are well prepared. Some might even have a camera ready to record.
Don’t attend a trade show until you:
- have a sellable collection or product.
- know that the styles can be produced
- have great looking, qualitative sales samples
- have calculated the wholesale prices and recommended retail prices
- have calculated and made sure you have a proper margin on all your products.
- have a positive, collaborative, everything-is-possible mindset
- Live close to the trade show. Most of the time the mornings are early and the nights are long.
- Have a mirror for people to try on your products in your booth
- Have a tv screen with a product or collection video running in the background to showcase your collection and also to give the vibe of your brand
- Dress the part – be and represent your brand, dress in your own products if applicable.
- Ask TONS of question. The more you ask the more you learn. And make sure to take notes or record so you can go through the information later and use it in your future collection or marketing
- Serve drinks like water or coffee, have sweets/snacks on the table. It’s a hospitality thing plus people will be tired, and you want their energy level to be at the top when you present your collection:)
- Have an after-party at your booth. Have snacks and drinks and network. Events are great for getting your brand out there and for people to get to know you, the person behind the brand and hear your story.