Trade Show Planning: How Retailers Can Get the Most ROI From These Sales Events

Cabana Show, trade show | Shopify Retail blog
Image: Cabana Show

Trade shows can be an effective sales and marketing tool for small businesses and retailers. But they can also be a waste of time and more importantly, a waste of money. Trade show success can depend highly on how you prepare for them in advance.

Before I dive deeper into trade show preparation, it's helpful to understand what a trade show is and what you can expect.

What is a trade show?

Trade shows are a place for brands to exhibit their products in front of potential retail buyers. Buyers can range from entrepreneurs who own a small specialty boutique in your local neighborhood to a buying team of five from Bloomingdale's.

In my experience, most buyers don't make an order on the spot — especially if it's their first interaction with you. You can use trade shows more as an opportunity to network, show your products, and meet new wholesale customers that you can follow up with later.

It's a good idea to practice your sales pitch and presentation before the show. Buyers usually have many appointments throughout the day with only a few minutes to spare. You can create an advanced strategy to make an impact in the first few minutes that you speak with a potential customer, then test that approach with each new buyer you encounter.

The important thing to remember is that trade shows are an opportunity to meet customers for the first time. From the moment the doors open to the moment they close, there's a chance you will meet your next wholesale account.

How to plan for a trade show 

A mistake many brands make is thinking they can sign up for an expensive trade show at the last minute and just show up, display their products, and walk away with a handful of new wholesale accounts. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. The more work you put into planning for your next trade show, the better the return on your investment.

Here are five things you can do to prepare for your next trade show event.

1. Set clear goals

Having more than one goal for any trade show is fine, but you need to decide what you're trying to achieve at each event. These are a few questions that you can ask yourself before the trade show:

  • What do you want to get out of it?
  • Do you have a sales goal?
  • How many new accounts would you like to get?
  • Are you hoping to get feedback about your product(s)?
  • What is the best possible outcome and what is the worst?

2. Research the trade show

Through research, you can choose a trade show that targets the audience you hope to reach. Ask as many questions as possible and investigate before you sign up. Here are a few questions that you can ask:

  • What is the trade show’s objective?
  • What types of retailers attend the show as buyers? Specialty, department stores, or ecommerce retailers are a few options.
  • What percentage of brands return to exhibit at the trade show again?
  • Will the trade show market your brand on their mailing list and their social media channels?
  • If you're on a budget, ask if you can share the booth. In most cases, there are other brands with the same dilemma.

You can also ask to visit the trade show before signing up for future events. Attending the show beforehand might mean that you have to wait a season before you can invest in your booth. However, at least you'll know what to expect. You can also search the trade show’s website and contact brands that have attended in the past. Other brands might not always get back to you, but it's likely at least one will get back to you and share their experience.

3. Review your budget and book your trade show booth

After completing the research phase, you can make an informed decision about which trade show is best for your business.

Location is key when booking your trade show booth. Ask for a detailed map of your booth space. The info should include where your booth is on the trade show floor, what fixtures they include in your booth, whether it’s in a high-traffic area, and how it’ll be lit. In most cases, a corner booth is more expensive because your booth is more visible to buyers walking the trade show floor.

Trade show booth | Shopify Retail blog

Image: Active Collective

I've been to trade shows that include a visual display in the price of the booth. You can send the organizers artwork that they can print for you and apply it to the back wall of your booth. The artwork usually consists of your logo and a lifestyle image of the product(s) you are selling.

In some cases, all of the booth fixtures (i.e. racks, shelves, and visual displays) are included in the cost of the booth. In other cases, the brand is responsible for the entire build-out of the booth. Make sure all your bases get covered — ask if in-booth displays and fixtures are included in the cost of your booth and make appropriate provisions either way.

Consider your budget when deciding on your booth size. Many trade shows offer two to three pricing options depending on the size of the booth you choose. A smaller, simpler booth can be as effective as a large display. The end goal is to make connections and get new customers. You can also ask if the trade show offers special early bird rates for an additional discount.

4. Plan your trade show booth display in advance

As soon as you sign up (even before), you’ll know the dimensions of your booth. Bringing your product is a given, but there are many additional items that you can add to your list, including decorative items.

Think about your audience and decorate your booth with them in mind. You can think of your trade show booth as a mini retail shop and merchandise it that way. Don't forget to pack your office supplies, too. Use this checklist when you're packing for your trade show:

  • A few decorative plants
  • Pens
  • Clipboards
  • Purchase order forms (POs)
  • Stapler
  • Business cards
  • Lookbooks and line sheets
  • Forms for a potential account that lists their store name and brands they carry
  • Snacks for the attendees (and for you)
  • If you want to get extra creative and specialize your space, you can bring a small area rug. Make sure it doesn't clash with your products.

Think about logistics in advance, too. How will you get your product, display, and office supplies to the show? If it's local, you might be able to load everything into your car or a taxi. If it's a plane ride away, ask the trade show for detailed instructions for shipping your product and display items to the show in advance.

FURTHER READING: Learn how to create a beautiful booth with visual merchandising.

5. Advertise and connect with buyers in advance

As I mentioned earlier in this article, most wholesale buyers have many appointments scheduled each day of the trade shows. Creating a strategy to advertise and market your trade show attendance in advance is a critical step.

I recommend starting about six weeks before and then following up in increments of two weeks to confirm appointments with buyers. You can create a designated Google Calendar for all your trade show appointments. Set reminders for two days before each meeting so you can send the buyers one last confirmation email.

Trade shows can be overwhelming for everyone involved. All the help you can give your potential wholesale buyers can help you have a more successful event and a better return on your investment.

A great way to stay on top of your pre-trade show outreach is to create a Google Sheet or spreadsheet similar to the one I created below. I like to create a color-coding system and highlight each line based on status. That, of course, is up to you.

Start selling in-person with Shopify

Shopify POS is the easiest way to unify your sales channels and sell both online and in-person. Have all the tools you need to manage your business, market to customers, and sell everywhere in one easy-to-understand back office.

3 things to do during your trade show to make post-trade show follow-up easier

Next, we'll look at a number of tactics you can use during and after your next trade show to streamline the follow-up process and ultimately confirm your new wholesale orders.

These three steps can help you stay organized during the trade show so you can be more productive when it's time to follow up with those potential customers.

1. Collect business cards

Every single person that walks into your booth presents a networking opportunity. Whether they’re a potential buyer, fellow exhibitor, or a sales rep for another brand, have a conversation. You never know who you might meet.

To help keep all those new contacts straight, bring an envelope or a jar that you can use to store all the business cards you collect. I like to make a note on each business card I receive to jog my memory later on when I follow up with that person.

2. Take notes during buyer meetings

Anything you can do to make the buying process more comfortable for your existing or potential wholesale clients is a practical approach. One way to organize information is to take notes on your line sheet while you show your products to buyers.

I like to have one master line sheet that I keep all my records (for all accounts) on, but you can also use a separate document for each account that you meet with.

These notes will come in handy after the show when you are following up with buyers to confirm their orders and collect payment. Your notes may include information about:

  • Samples the buyer would like you to send after the show and their preferred shipping address
  • Product(s) from your collection that the buyer liked
  • Product(s) from your collection that the buyer didn't like
  • The desired delivery date for their wholesale order

FURTHER READING: Getting customer feedback, positive or negative, is useful information for future product development.

3. Use a new account form

You can create a simple Google Form that new buyers must fill out to receive samples and more information about your brand. Google Forms are particularly helpful because the data you collect automatically populates into a spreadsheet.

The form can require the following information:

  • Store name
  • Store address
  • Number of locations
  • Buyer's name
  • Buyer's email address
  • Buyer's phone number
  • Other brands the store carries

Asking buyers to fill out a new account form assists you in capturing information about the store, so you can decide if it's an account that is a good match for your product.

Wholesale sellers meeting | Shopify Retail blog

FURTHER READING: Learn more about how to try before you buy with product samples.

How to get wholesale clients: 6 things to do after a trade show

Nurture and build relationships with your new or existing wholesale contacts with these six steps.

1. Create a chart to organize your new contacts

You can also use the data from the chart to determine the best follow-up practices for your next trade show.

Contact form | Shopify Retail blog

Organizing data in this chart can help you keep track of buyers that you want to follow up with after the trade show. The column titled "Follow-Up Date" can be used as a reminder of the last time that you emailed or called each potential client. Keeping track of each touch point can help you stay on top of each account, ultimately securing more wholesale orders.

2. Send follow-up emails to new and existing wholesale accounts

You can follow up immediately, but I like to give buyers a few days to get settled back into their routine before I start emailing them. In my experience, following up two to three days after the show ends works best.

If the show ends on Friday, follow up on Wednesday of the following week. Sometimes buyers ask you to check-in immediately after the show — in that case, go for it. When you follow up, you can include the following items in your email:

  • A brief introduction mentioning that you met the buyer at the trade show
  • An attachment of your lookbook/line sheet
  • A list in the body of the email of products the buyer expressed interest in — you can link them to your website
  • A request to schedule a phone call to answer any questions they may have about your products
  • An offer to send them samples for their review
  • Your product knowledge guide

If you don't get a response to your first email, follow up three days after you sent the first message.

Wait a few more days, and if you still don't hear back from the buyer after those two emails, you can call them to see if they received the information from you.

Boomerang is one email application that you can use to see if your emails get opened. You can ask it to alert you if the receiver opened the email and you can request notifications for emails that remain unopened after a designated number of days. Boomerang also allows you to send emails later — bulk write your emails when you have time and schedule them for a later date.

On a few different occasions, making that phone call is what helped me confirm an order with a new wholesale account. You can take notes during the call and contact your client afterward with a purchase order (PO) form to confirm the order.

What is a product knowledge guide?

A product knowledge (PK) guide is essentially a handbook for your product. It can briefly tell the story about your brand, but there should be an emphasis on your products.

Your PK guide outlines how your products are made, what materials are used, where manufacturing takes place, how your products should be used or worn, and why they're special. Product knowledge guides are also a great sales tool for your wholesale accounts to use once they receive your products and start selling to their customers.

One example is this product guide from children’s clothier Peekaboo Beans.

3. Send samples to buyers

Many buyers like to review samples from all of the brands that they're interested in while in the comfort of their office or store. Try to get notes from buyers about the products they'd like to see after the show. However, if the account did not give you notes on their favorite styles but did confirm that they'd like you to send them samples, put together a package of best sellers to ship to them.

When the package is ready to be sent, you can notify the buyer via email and provide them with a tracking number and an itemized list of samples you’re shipping. You can get delivery notifications sent to your email so you know when the account receives the samples.

Once you receive the delivery alert, give the buyer a day or two and then follow up to schedule a phone call to discuss the samples. You can explain each product in more detail over the phone and highlight your unique selling points.

I like to give buyers three to five days to review the samples before I ask them to be returned. You can include a return shipping label in the outgoing package to help ensure the prompt return of your sample products.

4. Suggest a buy

Getting the buyer on the phone can be one of the most significant challenges you face with wholesale accounts. Once you've made the connection, make the process more seamless for them by suggesting a wholesale buy for their store.

Based on the buyers’ feedback and your knowledge of your best-selling products, you can guide buyers and strategize the best assortment for their shop over the phone.

5. Set payment terms

Before you finalize your buyer's PO define payment terms. This step is critical and sometimes gets overlooked. For small or specialty accounts, you can require payment before the order ships. Larger wholesale accounts will likely request Net 30, Net 45, or Net 60 payment terms.

Net payment terms refer to an invoicing payment term that is commonly used in the retail business world, where the number (30, 45, or 60) refers to the number of days that your client has to pay an outstanding invoice. Try for Net 45 at the most. Net 60 becomes a consignment deal.

6. Issue a purchase order (PO) and confirm the order

Immediately after the call, you can create a PO and email it to the buyer to consider the order confirmed. Walk them through the process and make it as easy as possible. You can use Shopify's free purchase order template or create your own.

Moving forward with trade show planning And execution

Now that you have a better idea of how to prepare for your next trade show event, you can focus on calling and emailing potential buyers and marketing the event.

Planning for your next trade show is only the first step. Another crucial step is the work that happens after the trade show. A thorough follow-up strategy can help you close the sale and begin relationships with new wholesale accounts.

Start selling in-person with Shopify

Shopify POS is the easiest way to unify your sales channels and sell both online and in-person. Have all the tools you need to manage your business, market to customers, and sell everywhere in one easy-to-understand back office.

Trade Show Planning FAQ

How do you plan a trade show?

  1. Set a budget: Estimate the cost of booth space, travel, accommodations, and any other expenses related to the trade show.
  2. Choose a trade show: Research upcoming trade shows in your industry to find the best fit for your company.
  3. Reserve your booth space: Secure your booth space as soon as possible to ensure a prime location.
  4. Plan your booth design: Create a design for your booth that is attractive, eye-catching, and efficient.
  5. Prepare promotional materials: Stock up on brochures, flyers, and other promotional materials to hand out at the show.
  6. Promote the event: Utilize social media, email campaigns, and other marketing tactics to promote the trade show to potential attendees.
  7. Set up the booth: Arrive at the trade show early to ensure you have enough time to assemble and decorate your booth.
  8. Network: Take advantage of the opportunity to meet potential customers and partners.
  9. Follow up: Follow up with contacts you made at the trade show to keep the conversation going.

How long does it take to plan a trade show?

The amount of time it takes to plan a trade show can vary greatly depending on the size and scope of the event. Generally, it can take anywhere from six to twelve months to plan a successful trade show.