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 For Your Next Trade Show

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 Booth Set Up and Trade Show 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 (PO's)
  • 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 follow 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.

Trade show outreach spreadsheet | Shopify Retail blog

Image: Alexis Damen

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.

Tell us about your recent trade show success in the comments below.