Trade Show Survival Guide: How To Attend Your First Show without Having a Meltdown in the Ladies' Room

Trade shows for a first-time retailer are a little like childbirth. The idea of a family is exciting, then there's the roller coaster ride of pregnancy. When the first pain strikes, all of the enthusiasm is forgotten and "What was I thinking?" is repeated like a mantra throughout labor.

Starting a retail business follows the same game plan. There's the tantalizing idea of owning a boutique, all the preparation it takes to find a space and renovate it - and then comes the first trade show.

I've seen new retailers enter New York's Jacob Javits' exhibition hall starry-eyed and ready for battle. I've watched those eyes glaze over after taking in the enormity of the space, the aisle after aisle of vendors and the huge booths where manufacturers, importers and sales reps show their collections. I've watched their hands shake as they decide whether they should write an order for the pink T-shirt in one booth or the identical T-shirt from a manufacturer three booths down. And, worse, they can't remember if they wanted a pink T-shirt in the first place.

The good news is, every buyer has a first show and all of them live through it. You will too. I've outlined some basic survival skills and asked professionals for their tips.


There are two kinds of apparel, accessory and gift trade shows: national and regional. National shows take place in such major cities as New York (ENK Children's Club and International Gift Fair), Las Vegas (ABC Kids Expo, KidShow and MAGIC Kids) and Atlanta (International Gift & Home Furnishings Market) in an exhibition space. In New York City the Children's Club show is held in the Jacob Javits Convention Center where there are two shows per season (January and March for Fall/Winter; August and October for Spring/Summer). The first is an early preview of styles, and sometimes "fill-ins" or "immediates." These are items the vendor has in stock and can ship right away. A couple of months later, designers exhibit their full collections. Buyers can place orders at both shows. (Note: European collections typically begin and close their buying season earlier than domestic collections. Be sure and contact importers and sales reps for ordering deadlines.)

A national show is filled predominately with vendors who set up booths and a few importers and sales representatives who display their showrooms' collections. (Note: In most instances, buyers will meet and work directly with the owner(s) of a company.)

Regional apparel and accessory shows (Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, New England, Atlanta) usually take place during designated "Market Weeks" in a building that houses permanent apparel and gift showrooms . The sales representatives (who are the primary tenants of regional apparel and gift marts) show their new season's collections during that week, and all through the sales season. During market weeks some vendors who are unaffiliated with showrooms set up temporary booths in the building.


Do not walk into the show without a game plan. If you think you'll just meander through the exhibition and order whatever strikes your fancy, you might as well hang it up now.

What you must have nailed down before you even register to attend a trade show is:

You're an educated consumer who knows what their customers want and understands that it's about them, not you.

You've looked carefully at domestic and European magazines for color and trend information, logged on to The Online Guide to the Children's Marketplace for style info and perused manufacturers' websites to see their latest offerings.

You've come up with an OTB (Open-To-Buy) dollar amount and vowed not to exceed it. You know how much you can spend on each department, and you have money set aside in your budget for fill-ins later on.

You've called the showrooms in advance to see who is attending a particular exhibition and who is not. You've booked appointments at the show or in nearby showrooms. Sales reps always try to accommodate buyers, but established collections schedule meetings early in the season. If you're an out-of-town buyer, you'll be disappointed if you can't review the collection while you're in town.


A credit sheet(s) with the following:

-All your contact information

-Copy of your resale/license permit

-The name of the bank where you keep your business account and the number of that account

-If you've purchased items from other vendors before attending the show and everything went well, then use that person(s) as a reference.


-Business cards


Be true to the style of your store. If your customers are preppy and classic, don't be tempted by trendy collections. If you want a few of-the-minute items in your shop, order some hip accessories.

Order from many vendors but don't go deep. Translation: One-piece per size of any apparel collection and three for accessories is probably enough. Items like basic T-shirts can be ordered per pack of three. You can always reorder!

Wear comfortable shoes. Duh, right? Wrong. I see retailers at every show teetering around in stilettos. Don't do it. Wear something on your feet that you won't mind walking in for eight hours. Sneakers are fine. Trust me, vendors care about your order book, not your footwear.


Do not walk into a booth and ask for a discount, especially if there are other buyers there. Discounts happen after you've established a relationship with a manufacturer, not as a matter of course.

Find out when the vendor can ship their goods and then offer them a delivery "window," usually a two-to-three week period. You should supply them with a cancellation date, too.

The cost of shipping and handling are your responsibility. The manufacturer will add the fee to its invoice, so remember to factor it in when you settle on a retail price for the items.

C.O.D. or credit card is standard for a first time order, but a credit card is much easier for you. After the first shipment you can request credit, usually net 30, which means you have thirty days after delivery to pay for the goods.


Shane Selberg who owns and buys for his one-year-old, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY shop, Orange Blossom, entered his first show knowing his customers wouldn't spend over $50 for most items. His first day at the exhibition was spent sourcing manufacturers with "funkier unique items" that would retail in the $20-$30 range, leaving a few dollars for higher ticket apparel. Selberg suggests a new retailer spend the first day of a show just walking and "writing down the names of collections that interest you." The second day is for writing orders. He also suggests leaving room in the budget for smaller, unique collections that might not exhibit at a trade show. "We have a big gift business. People here have a lot of pride in the neighborhood and like to support local artisans," he says.


Andrea Chafetz, owner and designer of Andrea's Beau, a collection of better children's hair accessories based in Washington, D.C., suggests that new retailers "buy fewer styles in more quantity." Her items are sold three per color per style, so that a new retailer "can see what her customers' buying trends are, making the next purchase more scientific and less haphazard."

The business end of Andrea's Beau, Andrea's husband Marc Chafetz, suggests retailers "be organized and take notes. Have a notebook with different sections: dresses, accessories, shoes, etc. Write down whatever company is of interest and circle the company's name if an order was placed. We have retailers who use digital cameras so they can call up the garments that they've ordered and can coordinate the colors with hair and other accessories."


Tina Rodrigues, owner of Children@Play, an importer (Jottum, Emile et Rose, Barbara Farber, and Vanilla Park) based in New York City, suggests a new retailer "walk the Children's Club show on Sunday, buy on Monday, and visit showrooms on Tuesday." In order for a new store owner to do that, Rodrigues says a retailer must "do her homework" beforehand. Doing one's homework entails tracking down lines you're interested in before the show and calling their representatives to see if they'll be exhibiting. Sales representatives and manufacturers don't necessarily take booths at each show, so calling ahead will save you grief.

Rodgriques compares the trade show experience to shopping at a luxury grocery store. "If you walk through Whole Foods you'll end up buying all sorts of side dishes, specialty potato chips and who knows what else. It's like that at a trade show. So much of it is eye candy to new retailers. It's important that they know what they're there for, so they don't end up buying goods they don't need and can't sell later on."

When approaching a sales rep or manufacturer, Rodrigues says a new retailer should understand that they're entering into a business contract. "It's unprofessional to cancel an order after you've worked with a company for two hours. Be respectful of people's time so you can develop good working relationships later on," she adds.

For more information, check out the California Market Center's "New Buyer's Kit" and the AmericasMart Atlanta "New Buyer Info." -Tina Barry


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