I doubt Robert Frost ever attended the New York Gift Show, but he unwittingly captures the enormity of the job facing buyers, merchants and retailers today. It doesn’t matter what category or trade show one attends (and I have attended my fair share in my time), they are mostly gargantuan in size, the food is awful, they exhaust you mentally and physically, you are excited when you find one new idea or product no matter how small and that serendipity keeps you coming back.
In my days as a young and intrepid retail entrepreneur, I sought out those trade shows especially south of our border in order to get a leg up on my competitors and be able to carry unique, ‘never-seen-in-Canada-before’ merchandise whether it be gifts, apparel, accessories or even Hacky Sacs. I remember I was one of the first merchants (maybe even the first) to carry Swatch watches in our country in my 1200 square foot store (in an acrylic spinning display that sat on my cash counter).
Today, even with the overabundance of suppliers and the fact that Asia is now that much more sophisticated at manufacturing to exact specs, I believe it is more difficult to be unique and original. That is why the direct-to-retail licensing business has exploded the way it has so that large chain stores can claim unique “brands” and merchandise to entice consumers and retain credibility (not to mention healthier gross margin).
That is why I was overwhelmed when I attended the NY Gift Show last month. I was reminded of the rows upon rows of suppliers/distributors showing sometimes hundreds of SKU’s of product aisle after aisle after aisle. For independent retailers, this is a great way to “shop” for your store in a one stop situation without further travel expenses that can be an extremely efficient use of time. But it can be intimidating and overwhelming to those who are new to the business.
Along with the internet capabilities, buyers are swamped with product options regardless of category. But in the gift world, for example, in a typical 1500 square foot independent store, how do you assort your store without blowing your budget or rendering the store unshoppable due to being overrun with inventory? How do you choose from amongst the thousands of vendors that set up booths at the show plus all those you find online or roaming about town in other stores?
I believe it all comes down to a very clear and focused point of view on who your customer is and the kind of merchandise you want to carry. You need to put filters on your assortment planning so that you (or your staff in larger situations) have a road map as to what to look for and what to focus on. You cannot possibly go to every booth or every website and figure that out. There must be categories or customer groups that you need to prioritize in order to fend your way through the morass of product online and down the aisles.
The best merchants/buyers/retailers are master curators. They are able to whittle down the array of product they see and cherry pick the very best available for their own consumers in order to maximize the shopping experience and their sales. That’s what merchandising is really all about – editing an assortment and presenting that assortment in the most exciting and appealing way possible to your target group either in a store, online or on a mobile platform.
Should you be able to accomplish this, walking the trade show aisles will become easier, more effective and way more efficient.
I am sorry to report, however, that your feet will still hurt…