Image by Philadelphia Gift Show

At this point, you have a profile of your target customer (wholesaler or retailer; product category; and mass, main, or high-end market) and you have marketing materials ready to present to buyers.  You are now ready to approach buyers!

In most cases, relationships with buyers are established with face-to-face meetings.  You may introduce yourself to a buyer by email, fax or phone and open a dialogue about your company, but most orders and custom product development projects take place when you meet in person.

The most common places to meet a buyer are at a trade show, when your buyer visits you in your showroom or workshop, or when you visit your buyer in their offices. The internet (email and websites) is an excellent communication tool but it does not replace making personal contact with a buyer.

Are Trade Shows Right for my Organization?

Trade shows can be a valuable way to meet potential new buyers. They also require a substantial investment in terms of time and costs to participate. It is extremely important to consider the advantages and disadvantages before deciding to participate in a trade show. If you decide to participate in a trade show, a great amount of organizing and preparation is required. Successful trade show participation requires careful planning to ensure that the benefits will outweigh the costs.  Experienced trade show exhibitors say that it is necessary to participate in the same trade show three consecutive times before receiving substantial orders.

Here are some questions to consider if you are thinking about attending or exhibiting at a trade show:

  1. Is a trade show the rights sales promotion channel for your business?
  2. Will your product stand up to the competition?
  3. Is your business able to meet the expectations of the buyers at the trade show?
  4. Do you have the resources to prepare and participate in a trade show and do sufficient follow-up afterwards?
  5. Can you afford to participate in the same trade show at least 3 times?

Advantages and Disadvantages to trade show participation:



  1. Access to a large number of potential buyers at one time and in one place
  2. Instant feedback on products and pricing
  3. Learn about markets, products, trends and product competition
  4. Identify new market opportunities
  5. Experience the market in the country where the show is held
  6. Learn about booth display techniques
  1. Expensive
  2. Time consuming
  3. Very competitive
  4. May not be cost-effective
  5. Takes time to become established at a show
  6. No instant results or guarantees
  7. Difficult to assess if benefits outweigh costs
  8. If you are unprepared, you could lose buyer’s confidence

Adapted from How to make the most of trade fair participation – a toolkit by IFAD and Traidcraft

Choosing the Right Trade Show

There are different types of trade shows and different ways of using them.  Selecting your trade show(s) and determining how to participate in them are important decisions. Your target product category and customer will guide your selection of trade shows.

1. Product categories:  Select the trade show or location in a trade show that relates to your product categories.

Trade shows are organized around standard market categories. (See explanation in Product Development section for detailed information about these categories).  Some trade shows are dedicated entirely to one category.  For example,  “Accessories – The Show” held in New York, NY and Las Vegas, NV is dedicated entirely to fashion accessories and jewelry.  The Tabletop Market Week in New York, NY specializes in tabletop products including ceramics, home textiles and table lighting.  Other trade shows might combine multiple categories.  The High Point Market in High Point, NC is the leading furniture show in the US and offers furniture, accent furniture, lighting, home textiles, and rugs and floor coverings.  The NY International Gift Show is an especially diverse show representing multiple product categories.  This show is organized into different sections that focus on different products categories (tabletop, stationary, home accessories, bath & scents, children’s, and museum collections) as well as different market segments (General Gift, Handmade, and Accent on Design).

2. Target customers:  Select your trade show based on the types of buyers attending and types of companies exhibiting

There are three main type of trade shows: retail, wholesale, and export or FOB, and each show has a different profile of companies that exhibit at the show and companies that attend the show as buyers.  Research your trade shows well to identify these characteristics.

Type of Show Profile of attendees: Profile of exhibitors:
Retail show The end customer or general public attends and buys individual products at retail prices. Cost of exhibiting in these shows is lower and buyers pay an entry fee. Retailers, wholesalers, exporters or producers may exhibit.  It is important to sell at retail prices, not export or wholesale prices.
Wholesale show Retail store buyers attend and expect to buy small volumes at US wholesale prices.The cost of exhibiting at these shows is more expensive than retail shows and does not includes any services – electric, furnishing, etc. US wholesale companies exhibit and sell at US wholesale prices.  Some overseas exporters exhibit and sell at US wholesale or landed prices, not FOB prices. **
Export or FOB show Importers, either wholesalers or direct-import retailers, attend the show and expect to buy larger volumes at FOB country of origin prices.Export shows can be  distinct sections of a US or European wholesale show. Or they may be a regional trade show that attracts export customers. * Exporters and manufacturers exhibit and sell at FOB country of origin prices.

*Some trade shows, for example Ambiente in Frankfurt, Germany, have multiple sections of the show for different customers and terms.  At Ambiente, the majority of sections are for European wholesale companies selling at European wholesale prices.  However there are 2 halls where overseas exporters and manufacturers exhibit at FOB country of origin prices.  In the U.S., most trade shows are wholesale shows although increasingly we see overseas exporters and manufacturers exhibiting at either FOB or wholesale prices.

Regional shows, such as the India Handcrafts Gift Show held in Delhi, India, the  Hong Kong Gift Show or smaller shows such as the Peru Gift Show, focus both on local, regional and export customers.

** Be careful when exhibiting a wholesale shows:  A common mistake is for an artisan group to want to exhibit at a US wholesale trade. During the show they exhibit at FOB country of origin prices and take orders from retail stores who assume those prices are wholesale prices and they include international freight, customs clearance and import duties.  When the shipment is sent to the retail buyer they are invoiced for the order plus international freight, customs clearance and duties, an amount they did not expect and do not want to pay.  They may either not pay for the shipping or decide to return the order.

Preparing for a Trade Show

Learn all you can about a trade show before attending. Study the trade show’s website to learn about the product categories featured at the show, how the show is organized, what types of buyers attend the show, and profiles of exhibitors.  Ask the show management about product categories, buyer and exhibitor profiles.  It is also useful to talk to exhibitors or buyers who have attended the show in the past to get their opinions and insights.

Here are some questions to keep in mind when choosing a trade show that is right for your organization.

  1. What types of products are exhibited?
  2. Is it a trade or consumer show?
  3. What sector of the market is represented – mass market, high end, specialty, etc?
  4. Is the show well established?
  5. What services do the organizers provide?
  6. What volume of sales is typically achieved?
  7. How many visitors attend? Are they retailers, importers or wholesalers? Do they come to buy or to just look?
  8. How many exhibitors are there? Who has exhibited in the past?
  9. What do past exhibitors have to say about the show?
  10. What is the cost of stand space? What are the costs of other services? What are the costs of airfare, accommodation, local transport?
  11. How and when do you have to apply?

Adapted from How to make the most of trade fair participation – a toolkit by IFAD and Traidcraft

Attend or Exhibit:  Deciding how to participate in a trade show

There are two ways to use trade shows to approach your customers:  exhibit or attend.   Most companies do a combination of both exhibiting and attending trade shows.

Exhibiting at a trade show generates more sales orders and buyer contacts than attending but is also more costly and time consuming.  Exhibiting entails renting a booth/stand, constructing display fixtures, exhibiting your products, and taking orders from attending buyers.  Selecting the trade show and location in the show based on your product category and target customer are important.  Your target customer is the buyer attending the show.  If you want to sell to end consumers, select retail shows.  If you want to sell to retailers, then exhibit at a wholesale trade show and offer US wholesale prices, or attend an export or FOB trade show and sell at FOB country of origin prices.   If you want to sell to wholesalers, exhibit at an export or FOB show and sell at FOB price terms.

Attending a show is a good marketing activity, particularly for cultivating relationships with existing customers.  When you attend a show you are targeting the companies exhibiting at that show — an exporter at an export show, a wholesale company at a wholesale show, or a retail company at a retail show. To do this, you must make yourself available to hold meetings with those buyers in their booths, usually in the hours before or after the show (as during the show they are focused on selling!).  This is a great time to show them new samples you are working on, to see what products are selling well in their collection, and to plan out new product development projects and order schedules.

Attending shows is also an excellent opportunity to do market research and observe trends in the market.  It can also help to prepare you for exhibiting at the show in future years.  There is a lot you can learn from attending a show, here are just a few examples:

  1. Market trends and competition
  2. Products available in the market
  3. Quality expectations
  4. Prices
  5. Buyer behavior
  6. Packaging and presentation of products
  7. Promotional materials
  8. Stand designs and display methods
  9. How to interact with potential buyers

Timeline  for trade show success

Planning for a trade show should start 12-18 months before the show to make sure that products, booth, logistics, and promotional materials are well prepared.

Trade shows do not give immediate results in increased sales. You must often exhibit in three consecutive trade shows to reach your maximum sales.  The first time exhibiting, most buyers are meeting you for the first time.  Buyers are wary of placing orders with a new company so they might comment on your products and take a catalogue.  The second time you exhibit (and bring back new and expanded product lines), the buyer is reassured to see you there again and impressed by your new products.  They will place a small order to test your products in their market.  The third time you see the buyer at a trade show they have tested your products and know they sell well.  It is at this point that they may begin placing significant orders.   Throughout this process you must continue to implement good market research, product development, and customer service.

More Information on Trade Shows

Entire manuals have been written on preparing for trade shows.  If you are considering attending a trade show, consult the following resources for more information:

From Contacts to Contracts by the Swiss Import Promotion Program (SIPPO): to download the 130 page manual in pdf format, click here .  It will take several minutes to download the manual.

U.S. Trade Show Information – this document gives information on some of the main trade shows held in the United States as well as websites to get listings and calendars of trade shows.


A Ghanaian ceramics workshop specializing in low-fired terra cotta planters and pots participated for several years in the Ambiente trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, in the hall dedicated to overseas producers.  This hall offered mostly home accessories and gift items.  Their sales and buyer contacts at these shows were sufficient, but not exceptional.  Their product line is in the garden market more than the home accessories and gift markets.  They decided to switch trade shows and attend the GAFA market in Germany instead, a trade show specializing in garden and outdoor living products.  Their sales increased dramatically at this show, proof that positioning based on product category is important.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: