Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Trade Show 101

In 2007 Curious Sofa participated in a Holiday Mart Show at the local convention center. Sponsored by the Junior League of Kansas City, 230 vendors displayed their goods over four days to a crowd of 20,000 people and many lessons were learned. Although this was technically not a true trade show as it was open to the public, the set up, rules and logistics are very similar. Keep in mind as I write about my experience, this was a large, well attended show. You may be considering doing something on a smaller (or larger) sale. If the event you are doing is for only one day with small attendance, much of this advice will be unnecessary. However, I feel an event of this capacity is more crucial to our business than smaller venues. But more on that later.

In January of '07 the staff and I met for a State of the Sofa meeting. We voted that because of lackluster sales, the economy and the size of our store we needed to get our name out there. We chose to do three events that year: DIFFA, Symphony Showhouse and Junior League.
(see my other blog entries about those events). Each and every one very different but none with the probable financially success as Junior League. The mere numbers of attendance speaks for itself.

You should know, I was not one for participating in anything like this. I had always wanted to stay secure behind my little counter downtown, or just hide in an antique mall buying my goodies, minding my own business. But when you see that you 'have to do what you have to do' to stay in business, the writing was on the wall. I gave in.

First off: Why do these shows?
#1 reason: EXPOSURE.
Print advertising doesn't always do it. It is rarely memorable, very expensive and fleeting. For the most part, turn the page, a quick look, then on a table to never be opened again. But to do something with an audience that can look, touch, feel, smell and experience your store- and hear you explain it, this is another thing all together.

#2 reason- MONEY.
If done right, sales can soar at a time when desperately needed. I would have given anything for this show to have been in April or June as sales are slow, the shop needs a kick in the pants to get motivated and the timing is perfect. But then it wouldn't be a Holiday Mart. My only dread was it was 10 days before our Christmas redo so the staff and I are beat. But- it is also fresh in our minds and a great dress rehearsal for making our open House come together effortlessly. (well, easier anyway).

#3 reason- ROUTINE.
Do ever feel like Bill Murray in Ground Hogs Day? Same hours, same parking spot, same lunch, same phone calls, same customers, same dialogue? Any event (outside the shop) helps to stir the pot for you and your staff. When owning a retail store you begin to think, 'How many ways can I do Spring? or Fall? or Christmas? What theme, or color, or product can entice this year?' When you stare at the four walls of your store, day after day after day, month after month- these events really help. It's like taking a working vacation (although there is nothing relaxing about it) and it helps your mind focus on something else. It feeds the retail buzz we got in this business for in the first place and educates your mind. If you like the business side as much as I do- there is so much to learn.

So before you think Curious Sofa rolled in the dough, be warned: this was our first time doing anything like this and many products worked, some did not and many ideas were expensive and did not pay off either. So, without exposing a spreadsheet to you right here, I would say we broke a little above even after all the lessons we're learned but we gained a significant amount of new customers for the rest of the year. So the longer we do this, the more financially successful it will become by the shear fact of experience. Many people make their living doing these shows and my eyes were wide open learning how they manage this momentary chaos. It was fascinating! The trucks, the gear, the displays, the condensing, the storage...

I am interviewed now and then by people in the trade and often they ask , "How do you keep customers interested in this economy?" I find myself saying the same thing, 'Take your show on the road." It is needed now more than ever.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Eating Crow

For about 2 weeks now I have felt enormous guilt over having a shop owner blog and giving or posting random thoughts or advice on being a boutique owner. The reason? The current state of the union. I need to rethink every aspect of my business right now which makes me feel as though I haven't a clue where to start. It's different than when I opened for the first time because at least then, ignorance was bliss. Now, I should know better, do better and be better. But currently, I am not. I was not prepared for the state of the union or the customer or whatever state anyone else is in. I know many of you are feeling this too.

Today, I had a number of emails from a retail financial consultant (Jay Goltz) that stumbled upon me through a mutual friend. I jumped at the chance for this man to teach me something. After reviewing my business, he basically told me, "I am full of s..t", "Feeling sorry for myself" and "I don't get it"!!! A lot to handle on Valentines Day. I had such a knot in my stomach all afternoon, my head was spinning with his observations and finally went home thinking I am a horrible fraud.

After I calm down I am going to pick myself up and use this man for all he's worth.
-I need to learn how to think like an accountant instead of an artist.
-I need to tighten the wallet and work from a real budget instead of spending just because we have it.
-I need to seriously evaluate down to the letter what sells, the markups, the turnovers and the square footage that each item is taking.
-I need to look at every shop expense and if it's worth it or fluff.
-I need to know the hard facts of what type of advertising has really paid off.

This new education is painful. It just goes to show that there is always something to learn in business. This retail stuff is never completely figured out and as I have focused my energy on finding great stuff, making the store dramatic, preparing and getting great press- I have ignored the big picture: building a solid financial foundation to get through tough times (and there will always be tough times in retail). I think every few years, despite the economy all of us need to rework the business. Most of us are in the habit of reworking what the customer sees, now it's time to work on what they don't.

I am fortunate to have a lot of cheerleaders for Curious Sofa but especially my staff who care that we stay successful, do the smartest things during this time and help take some pressure off of me. I have been down right humbled at their concern and willingness to help.

In the meantime, let's all get back to business- as well as we can.