How to make the most of exhibitions – an interview with Retail Expert Henri Davis

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A new year always brings a selection of trade shows – be they stationery, gardens, crafting, food or cars! These shows are the cornerstone of any industry, with business, big or small, aiming to make buyers go ‘wow!’


For Small Man Media, trade show preparations begins in November before Creativeworld, before excitedly heading towards the Spring Fair, the Education Show, the Office Products Show and the London Stationery Show.


To celebrate, we’ve interviewed Henri Davis, renowned retail expert about her experiences of trade shows. Henri has worked in the retail industry for more than 30 years as a retailer, product developer, buyer and now an independent advisor in the stationery, greetings cards and heritage sectors!


As an expert in the industry, what would you say are the three ‘musts’ for an exhibitor?


I’ve been to shows in different guises and have tips for all sectors! As a buyer, don’t go into a show completely blind! The saying ‘Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance’ definitely stands here!


Before heading to the venue, have a shopping list with an idea of the types of products you’re looking for, themes that you want to tap into or seasons you are looking for. Everything you do must have the target customer in mind – just because you like the product, doesn’t mean the shopper coming into your store will!


Know how much you have to spend – ultimately, everything has to come back to your purse strings!




Keep in mind your sales cycles and know when you want to have the products available. This is to ensure that you don’t have everything in at once, which helps your cash flow and means you have new products to refresh your displays arriving every 4-6 weeks to keep your regulars customers interested.


However, things are slightly different from an exhibitor point of view. The show visitor must ALWAYS be at the front of your mind. Imagine coming to a show and seeing all stands looking exactly the same!


Think about how visitors will approach your stand, in terms of both of literal direction and frame of mind. Make sure the areas they see first are immediately eye catching and will make them stop and look at your range.


Your new products must be the ones that are set to shine – don’t make your layout the same as the previous year.


Don’t fill your stands with lots of small images, nobody will get close enough to see what they are and they just won’t be obvious enough. Less is more is definitely a good rule to live by! Anything that you do have on your stand needs to be easy to read and immediately obvious what you are selling.


So, we’ve asked you about the musts – what about the major no-no’s?


My one big ‘no’ from a buyer perspective might sound really obvious but I always like to reiterate it – think before you order. It may sound simple, but people always feel really pressured! Don’t order stock at a show unless you are certain it is what you want and how much you need; if you are not sure take the details away and think it through – you can always order the following day!


For exhibitors, don’t spend all your time on your phone or laptop – those emails can wait! You’ve have paid a lot of money to be there and every person who passes is an opportunity. Plus you never know which buyer is round the next corner – it could be your next order or a great new contact.


Should the focus be on the product details or how the product is used and activated by retailers?


I think it’s got to be a real mixture of both. Product details are key. People want to know how it stacks up against what they currently stock. But it’s important to show the full package.


Can they get retail units? Are there people who they can get involved with to launch in-store demos?


It’s about selling your whole package ultimately!



Are more people implementing technology in their pitches?


From what I see, I would say from a stationery perspective that the answer is no. Stationery is such a tactile product that we use every day that buyers will want to open a notebook (often their own!) to test pens or pencils. They’ll want to feel the paper and write on a notepad. From my view, technology only helps in terms of quick access to a catalogue to show full ranges and pricing details. It can extend the scope of what’s already on your stand.


How important is a coherent feel between product, messaging and stand layout?


Absolutely vital! All should all be consistent with the image that a brand wants to portray and the brand positioning for the period of the show. Ultimately, it this is an exhibitors shop front and should be treated as such.


Is pre-show messaging a vital part of an exhibition?
From experience, it often takes around six contacts with a ‘new’ product or brand before a retailer will truly engage with the idea of working with you!


Therefore, the more you can get your offering on show before an exhibition, the more likely it is a buyer will recognise it!


This messaging doesn’t have to be a week before the show either, there can be a big lead up to it.

Keep banging that drum! If there is an opportunity to get your products included in industry magazines months before a show, then you grab the opportunity. This should be supported by using social media in the week before and during a show.


From a retail buyer point of view, I do think it helps to do some preparation before a show, by tuning into the trade press and keeping abreast of exhibition news. Plan your route and timings – where will you want to spend most of your time and where you will you head if you have some extra time towards the end of your schedule?. Likewise, is there any new product that you want to see that could be a trend over the next five years? Are there any suppliers in your current stock that you could change? Do you want to know who won the awards?


Exhibition organizers are constantly increasing the content of their shows to encourage buyers to attend – this also means they’re harder to take everything in. Make sure you know who is speaking and if there is something you want to listen to!


You’ve been a part of exhibitions with retailers and as an exhibitor. What do you think retailers look for in an exhibition?
New product is the life blood for any successful retailer! As the market gets more competitive, being the first to get new products into your store or online before your competitors is vital.


I always suggest that every stand you head on ask ‘What have you got that is new?’


It is incumbent on an organiser to ensure that the exhibitors accepted to a show are going to be those with innovative products that will make the buyer go ‘wow’ or ‘I hadn’t even thought about that.’


By including new product awards as part of a shows content, organisers can help retailers identify products and suppliers that could be just what they are looking for.


Are the days of a traditional stand and leaflets gone? Is there still a place for a more ‘traditional approach’ in markets that are so saturated?
I think many buyers are still pleased to see stands with leaflets and catalogues!


Buyers are very visual people. The ability to be able to have pictures of products and in-store units to take away with them is vitally important to them.

USB sticks and websites are great but to be able to mark up a catalogue with sticky notes and comments and show your colleagues pictures in a catalogue is easier I always find. Trying to whizz them round a screen on a website is less expensive (both in time and in money!)


For me, I will take a catalogue every time if one is offered!!


Many manufacturers and companies will work with a demonstrator on their stand. What are the three most important things to look for when choosing a demonstrator?


Derwent took artist Jake Spicer to Creativeworld, who was well trainined in all things Inktense
Derwent took artist Jake Spicer to Creativeworld, who was well trainined in all things Inktense

Demonstrators need to be extremely good if they are to be an asset to your business. A poor demonstrator will reflect badly on your product, even if it’s the best product in the world.


The demonstrator must be very familiar with the product, can show how it works proficiently whilst having the ability to be able to answer questions with confidence.


If you don’t need a demonstrator, don’t have one. Your sales team can answers the questions. It’s probably best for an arts company to have on though!


Should every exhibitor look to enter an award at an Exhibition?


If they have an eligible product, absolutely! Why wouldn’t you?!


As many of the selectors are senior buyers, it’s the perfect opportunity to get your product in front of a select group who you’ve been waiting to see for months!


Plus, the fact that your product will be one of a select view increases your chance of it being seen! If the awards entry includes being shown as part of a showcase to all visitors, then even more of a reason to enter I think!


What does an award win add to your exhibition?
An award win (or simply being shortlisted) is hugely valuable as it gives you the perfect excuse to contact existing customers (plus prospective ones) with your great news! It’s also a great way to get your whole range in front of those same people.


Mustard's gorgeous Cactus Pen Pot was nominated for an award at the 2017 London Stationery Show
Mustard’s gorgeous Cactus Pen Pot was nominated for an award at the 2017 London Stationery Show


What is your favourite exhibition to attend?
In honesty, it varies from year to year and depends what I need to achieve in visiting! This might sound like a cliché, but my favourite exhibition is one that delivers great results and therefore is time well spent!


However, on a personal note, it is probably the Stationery Show. I’ve been part of this industry since 1989 and the Stationery Show is just like coming home. I know the exhibitors very well – so as well as doing good business, it is a great opportunity to catch-up with old friends.

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