Most people assume wholesale shows are the only serious “next step” to building your wholesale business.
They can be. As recently as a handful of years ago, a good wholesale show could bootstrap your wholesale business efficiently and quickly.
Times have changed. It’s not impossible to achieve immediate success with such shows. But it’s not a sure thing anymore. And like any other endeavor we’ll talk about over the next few essays, it takes preparation. Lots and lots and lots of preparation.
A few guidelines to evaluating whether a wholesale show is right for you, and then we’ll explore ways to do them without spending $5,000.
Always–always–walk a show first. Visit and see for yourself what’s going on.
See how many buyers are there and what kind of businesses they represent. Are they stores that would target your audience? And note if they are actually placing orders.
Note what vendors are there. Is your work compatible, similar, in the same general ball park? Or is your work wildly dissimilar? (Not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes skill and insight to work that disparity.) Talk to exhibitors to learn their experiences with the show (when they don’t have anyone in their booth, of course.)
Take advantage of any guest visitor services or programs. The BUYERS MARKET OF AMERICAN CRAFT, a show that targets retailers of fine contemporary American handcraft, offers a stellar Visiting Artists Program run by the Arts Business Institute. (I am proud to say I am a former faculty member of ABI.) Programs like these can be an excellent introduction to the art of doing a wholesale show.
Before deciding to do a show, calculate the total cost of doing such a show. Not just the booth fee (easily $1,400 and up), but the cost of shipping your booth and work to the show (and drayage charges to haul it around the show, if that isn’t included); your travel, hotel and food expenses; taxis (if you find a cheaper hotel far from the exhibition hall); electricity and other services for your booth; support materials (catalog or line sheets, displays, banners or posters, etc.); advertising and promotion (if you decide to place an ad in the show program).
If you do the show, PREPARE. Contact potential buyers before the show, and invite them to your booth. Send postcards to current and potential customers, with an image of your newest work and your show info (booth number, show specials, etc.) Conventional wisdom calls for a minimum of two mailings! (If you don’t have a mail list of current or prospective clients, see a future essay in this series on building a mailing list from scratch.)
You can call your best accounts and extend a personal invitation. Some artists even offer to purchase show tickets and distribute them to buyers. It can be money well spent if it gets your target store buyers to the show.
Last, be aware of the differences between a fine craft wholesale show (such as the BMAC or the new AMERICAN CRAFT RETAILERS EXPO and a gift show like THE BOSTON GIFT SHOW. A gift show may indeed be a good fit for your product. But know that you’ll be competing with vendors selling imported and manufactured goods. There may also be a higher risk of your product ideas being stolen or copied easily.
Let’s say you’ve already decided that a wholesale show, or its buying audience, is absolutely the next step for you. What are ways to explore this market and/or get your work in front of attendees without going 100% all the way?
1) Advertise in materials that will be distributed at the show.
For example, industry-related publishers often distribute free samples of their magazines at the show. A great ad can draw attention to your work at a time where buyers are actively thinking about buying. At wholesale fine craft shows, you can often find The Crafts Report, Niche and AmericanStyle magazines, New Age Retailer, Giftwear News, etc. If you can’t afford a regular ad (ranging from $500 and up), groups such as Wholesalecrafts.com often place large co-op ads in these same magazines at a greatly reduced cost. (pssst! This tip will also appear in an essay on how to have a presence at a wholesale show when you are not an exhibitor!)
2) Try a group or co-op booth.
Large shows like the Boston Gift Show sometimes offer discounted or comped booth space to large craft guilds and associations. (They are, of course, hoping you will love the experience and eventually want to have your own booth!)
If you are–or could be–a member of such a group, you can often participate with the group for not very much money. See my article Boston Gift Show 101. This can be an affordable and highly educational option.
3) Share a booth.
Some shows allow you to share a single booth space, halving your show fees right up front. There are pros and cons, of course, ranging from “Are your two bodies of work compatible or competitive?” to “Are you and your booth mate compatible or competitive?”
4) Travel light.
Select local or regional shows to cut down on travel expenses. It’s a lot cheaper for me to attend the Boston Gift Show, a two-hour drive away, than the ACRE show in Las Vegas, plus I can stay with friends in Boston for free. Of course, this doesn’t work if the ACRE show targets a better audience! Still, it’s something to consider.
If you drive to shows, buddy up with another vendor and cut down on your travel expenses. Share a hotel room. Find alternative ways to eliminate costly restaurant meals. For example, Reading Terminal Market, right across the street from the BMAC show, offers fresh fruits, sandwiches, take-away food that can save you big bucks over fancy dinners out.
5) Keep your booth light.
We all want to have a spectacular booth display. But if money is extremely tight, bring a minimal display to cut down on shipping costs. Tighten your inventory to your best sellers. Rely on large banners over pricey (and heavy) framed posters and wall treatments.
If you have any doubts about wholesale shows, it’s sometimes cheaper to rent basics like lights, carpeting, display cases or tables instead of buying these outright. You’ll also save on shipping costs if you can’t drive to the show.
Yes, a fancy display helps bring people in your booth. Yes, all the extras create a beautiful environment for customers. But your work is what makes them want to buy. If you’re a newbie, use that to your advantage, instead of trying to look like the Big Boys with the fabulous display.
6) Use FREE publicity instead of ads.
Distribute press releases before show (start six months before so your story has time to get picked up by magazines and newspapers). Email potential customers (but send links to your website or images instead of embedding them in the email itself.) Be ready for the media that comes to the show and bring press kits.
7) Be a renegade!
Some artists (like the Baltimore Alternative Show) set up their own mini-shows in nearby hotels while the “big” show goes on in the exhibition hall. You may not get the throngs of buyers, but…a) there aren’t any throngs anywhere anymore anyway, and b) your expenses are so low (no booth fee, just the cost of your hotel room), you don’t need as many buyers.
8) FOLLOW UP!
In every alternative/half measure we discuss, remember that following up on your leads and prospects will double, even triple your success. Make that phone call to the gallery that expressed interest but wasn’t quite ready to buy. Mail that info you promised. Track down every lead, opportunity, connection you made at the show, whether it’s a potential sale, a networking piece, an exhibition opportunity. You never know where your next break will come from.
If you have suggestions for how to drastically reduce the cost of doing a wholesale show, jump in!
Then we’ll take about options besides wholesale shows for growing the wholesale side of your biz.