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Spending Wisely at Tradeshows

Use this checklist to stay on budget, and still get the right inventory for your business.

Tradeshows are some of the best ways to view and source new inventory. You can connect with a variety of wholesale suppliers in one location, view new merchandise, learn about trends and source great new merchandise for your store. Attending a tradeshow also makes you feel a part of your industry, something that is a huge motivation booster for work-from-home e-commerce entrepreneurs.

Because of the sheer size of tradeshows—anywhere from 300 to 3,000 exhibitors—it’s also very easy to exceed your product sourcing budget in a short time. If it’s your first time attending a tradeshow, your eyes will likely be bigger than your budget. Every product you spot will seem rife with possibility! And for new business owners, the first time a supplier says he or she will work with you can be thrilling.

All of this can make even the most budget-conscious business owner go on a spending spree and overspend on inventory or make unwise buying decisions. Fortunately, with a little preparation, you can source the right inventory for your store and spend wisely.

Before the tradeshow

Create an ‘A list’ of companies you know you want to connect with in person at the show
To successfully attend a tradeshow, the work should start long before you ever step onto the tradeshow floor. Skip these steps and you’ll find yourself frantically running from booth to booth, trying to find the right inventory. Follow these steps and you’ll step on the showroom floor with confidence.

  1. Prior to the tradeshow, visit the show’s Web site and print out the list of exhibitors. Most tradeshows offer this in PDF format. You’ll generally find the name of the exhibitor, their contact information and a brief description of their product line. This is enough information to research and identify the suppliers that you want to see the most. It also allows you to be spontaneous in viewing other vendor exhibits at the show, without getting off track.

  2. Create a list of the type of products that you know you are looking for. Ideally, you’ve been building this list throughout the year by watching the trends in your niche. If you don’t have a list, take some time before the show to brainstorm. This will ensure you don’t go to the show, get distracted and forget to keep an eye out for those “must have” products.

  3. Now that you have your vendor and product lists, go one step further and create an “A list” of suppliers. These are the companies you know you want to connect with in person at the show.

  4. If available on the tradeshow site, print a floor map and circle the location of those vendors, so you can plan how you’ll move about the show. While this may seem like overkill, having a good navigation map will help keep you focused.

  5. Establish a buying budget. Ideally you’ve already planned your budget to include new merchandise you’ll find as a result of your trip to the tradeshow. But in case you don’t have a budget yet, now is the time to take a look at your finances and figure out exactly how much you can spend.

    NOTE: Never blow your entire inventory budget at a tradeshow. Just like when you eat brunch at your favorite buffet, you’ll feel better if you leave some room.

  6. Bring a business partner, colleague or friend to the show, if possible. This way, you not only have two people to canvas the huge showroom floor, but you also have someone to bounce ideas off of and be the voice of reason should you get carried away with a buying decision.

  7. Bring plenty of business cards to give to vendors at the show. This is your time to connect, communicate and begin relationships that will be the vehicles for long-term successful product sourcing.

Learn how to find good wholesale suppliers.

At the tradeshow

Listen in to what suppliers are saying and what questions are being asked. You’ll learn a lot!
Once you set foot on the tradeshow floor, the bright lights, colorful new merchandise and people milling about will be intoxicating and overwhelming. Lucky for you, you have a plan to navigate the floor—and room within that plan for plenty of spontaneity.

  1. Keep your buying list handy at all times. Use it as your guide and refer to it often. This will help keep every attractive new product in context to your overall sourcing goals. Without doing this, you can easily come home with a lot of “cool” products that aren’t right for your store. Every product you buy should serve a purpose in your product line. Buying something because “it’s cute” or because it’s a novelty is not a good enough reason to write an order.

  2. Ask the vendors about the show specials. Vendors will generally offer special pricing, free shipping, smaller minimum orders, etc., if you write an order at the show. If you are on the fence about an order, most vendors will extend the show specials for a few days after the show.Remember there’s always room for negotiation. If you see a product you’re interested in, but the terms don’t quite work with your budget, talk to the rep and see if you can work something out. There’s no guarantee, but it never hurts to ask.

  3. At every booth you visit, get the rep’s card and grab a catalog or “one-sheet” that contains the URL to the company’s online wholesale catalog. If you’re interested in the line, give the rep your card and introduce yourself. This gives you a point of reference when you call after the show and place an order.It also helps to take the “buy now” pressure off and avoid impulse buys. Armed with a catalog, you can go back to the office and make some thoughtful sourcing decisions. You can also consider your order when you get back to your hotel room in the evening. Take some time to review the new products, do your market research and determine whether to place an order the next day.

  4. Listen to the questions other retailers ask. You’ll recognize the seasoned buyers instantly—they’re often the ones who don’t look in awe of it all. They’re also the ones who have been attending tradeshows for years and know all the right questions to ask. If a supplier is having a public conversation with a couple of buyers, listen in to what the supplier is saying and what questions are being asked. You’ll learn a lot!

  5. Look both for inventory that rounds out your existing product line and new items. You should come home with some (or a list of) “product line staples” as well as new, innovative items. In my Power of 10 Product Sourcing course, I explain how to use a Product Line Wheel™ to put together the right product line mix to maximize your sales.

  6. When writing orders at a tradeshow, pay close attention to the mix of new products you’re ordering. It’s easy to get carried away with exciting, new cross-sell products and not pay enough attention to the less exciting staples that your core sales are built on.This is where your pre-show work comes in as well. When you head into a show knowing you’re looking to source core merchandise, up-sells, cross-sells and seasonal products, etc., you’ll avoid blowing the budget on flashy new products that don’t meet your overall sourcing goals.

  7. Don’t feel pressured to buy because of a show special, or an overly attentive (or pushy) supplier. Vendors have one primary goal at a tradeshow: to write as many orders as possible. And while they don’t want to sell you merchandise that’s not right for your store, if they sense you’re interested, they’ll often pull out all the stops to convince you to write the order right then and there.Don’t do it! This is not the time to buy on emotion or impulse. While you should use your gut to help you with the decision-making process, your pre-show sourcing list will help reel in your enthusiasm to buy inventory for the wrong reason.

    Don’t feel pressured to buy because of a show special, or an overly attentive (or pushy) supplier

    I’ve worked with clients who have bought the wrong merchandise, solely because the rep had been so nice and helpful, they felt like they “owed” them a small order, and proceeded to convince themselves the item would sell.It can be a lot easier to say “I’ll think about it” via e-mail or phone. But you have to treat your sourcing budget like gold. Remember, this is a business, and you have an inventory budget to work within.

  8. When you write an order at the show, make sure you are clear on all the terms: payment terms, freight terms (to get the product to you), delivery times and costs. It’s not uncommon for suppliers to get back-ordered on a hot product during tradeshow season. This is something you want to ask about before placing your order, especially if you have an upcoming promotion based around delivery of your new merchandise, or if you’re doing some last-minute holiday sourcing.

  9. Review your order; get a receipt and the rep’s contact information. Also, make sure the vendor has accurate contact information for you. Due to the volume of orders placed at the show, and the fact that the vendor reps work long hours, it’s not uncommon to find a mistake on your order.Taking care of it at the show is optimal, but sometimes, in all the excitement, you’ll miss an error until you are back in the office. Sometimes the rep will fail to get all the information they need to process your order back at their office. Make sure you exchange e-mail addresses and phone numbers for post-show communication.

Learn how to make successful first contact with wholesale suppliers you want to work with.

After the tradeshow

The great thing about attending an industry tradeshow is that you will reap the benefits all year! By amassing a selection of catalogs or one-sheets at the show, you can now source throughout the year with the supplier information you’ve brought back from the show.

  1. Block off the day you return from the show, and do nothing but review your show notes, decide which inventory/suppliers you want to follow up on and place any additional orders. Many people return from a show and jump back into the frenzy of day-to-day operations. Don’t do it! You’ve just spent a lot of time and money to attend the show. Maximize your investment with post-show follow-up.

  2. Don’t toss the supplier catalogs into the corner for later. Organize them in a filing cabinet as soon as you return home. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking for a supplier catalog, only to find it six months from now stuffed under a pile of paperwork. Take a few hours (or get a spouse, friend or assistant to do it), and organize your show materials. You can even use a scanning tool like NeatReceipts to turn a pile of paperwork into a searchable, digital show directory.

  3. If there is merchandise you’re unsure about, take a look at your current inventory and see how it fits in. While you can’t play it safe all the time when sourcing new products, it’s important to have a strategy for how this “unproven inventory” fits into your overall product line mix.

    NOTE: Once you are away from the bright lights and stimulus of the tradeshow, you’ll find yourself thinking more objectively about inventory purchases.

  4. If there are suppliers you want to follow up with over the next few months, schedule those contact appointments on your calendar now. You can always change them later on. But if they don’t get on your calendar right away, they’re likely not to happen in the future.

By following these pre-, during and post-tradeshow tips, you’re guaranteed to have a successful trip! Keep in mind that even the most seasoned retailers can feel overwhelmed when attending a big show, so working the plan above will ensure that you spend wisely and source the inventory that’s right for your business!

We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to utilizing tradeshows to source products in your business! For more trade shows tips, tactics and strategies, Sourcing Products at Trade Shows is a complete guide to navigating tradeshows. Learn how to talk to vendors, present your business at the show, and get insider tips for getting suppliers to work with you, and more!

About the author

Lisa Suttora
Lisa Suttora is an internationally known e-commerce expert, internet marketing strategist and veteran trend spotter. As founder and CEO of, Suttora has helped thousands of enterprising entrepreneurs build successful, niche-based online businesses. Since 2004, has provided premier education and a global community for online retailers. To get the latest on hot product niches and trends, subscribe to Suttora's free trend sheet Hot Trend Alerts. Suttora also has a 15-day e-course to help sellers make money on today's eBay. Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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