Taking the plunge into wholesale

Last month, I took part in my second trade show as a greeting card publisher. When I signed up for my first show, I began searching the internet for advice but found surprisingly little to put my mind at ease. Over this series, I’ll share everything I’ve learned (so far!) about taking part in a trade show. I'll cover topics like applying for a stand, pricing stock and invoicing buyers so that you can make an informed decision for your business. My experience is in the Greeting and Stationery sector - things may be different in other sectors so you might want to do a bit more research if greetings cards aren't your specialism.

What is a trade show?

Unless you've attended one of these events before, chances are, you might not actually know what a trade show is. So, let me give you a quick intro...

A trade show is a big event that usually takes place over several days in an

exhibition centre. Each hall will showcase a different sector, for example, Greetings and Stationery, Jewellery, Garden and Home etc. The halls are divided into aisles with booths of different sizes built end-to-end, packed with business of all sizes showcasing their products and services to buyers. Depending on the show, there may be a range of buyers in attendance. This can include:

  • Independent shops: A local high street boutique, lifestyle store etc.

  • Multiple or small group: A group of shops operated by the same owner, usually in the same geographical area.

  • National business: Think household names such as Paperchase, Oliver Bonas, John Lewis etc.

  • International buyers: This can be anything small boutiques to large stores from outside from overseas.

  • Distributors: A company who distributes your stock to buyers on a consignment basis. More information can be found on the Greeting Card Association website here.

  • Sales Agents: These are independent, self-employed individuals who represent different card of giftware companies in a specific UK territory. Again, the Greeting Card Association has some useful information on agents here.

Is a trade show right for me?

Now that you’ve got an idea of what a trade show is, it’s time to start thinking about whether or not attending one is right for your business. To do that, I'd like to give you a bit of back story into how I arrived at the decision to join the wholesale market...

I began selling my own work, mainly hand-lettered chalkboards and wooden signs, back in 2016. I did craft fairs and had the usual mixed results (we've all been there, am I right!?). I also started using the Etsy shop I'd set up two years before. At this point in time, I wasn't thinking long-term. I was making product (because I enjoyed it) and so that I had something to sell.

I had a bit of success in the early days but I knew that chalkboards and wooden signs wasn’t what I wanted to make long-term. So, I bought Adobe Illustrator and taught myself how to use it so that I could convert my hand-lettered designs into digital artwork that could be reproduced as prints and greeting cards. I also bough a heavy-duty printer so that I could print my own designs from home, making it possible to print on demand rather than ordering surplus stock. Again, I was focused on having a product to sell rather than thinking about am authentic style and consistent brand.

For the next few years, I kept going to craft fairs/markets and slowly built up my credibility on Etsy. I had a few lucky breakthroughs with some popular designs. My Explore the World print came from making a wedding gift for a friend of a friend. The design struck a chord with me and I knew it was something that would appeal to my buyers. For Christmas 2017, I created my best-selling card “May You Never Be Too Grown Up To Search The Skies on Christmas Eve”. This card sold out time and time again to customers from across the UK and USA. Two things struck me with the popularity of these two designs: 1. Attention to detail and uniqueness of the design pays off and 2. These products could be scaled up– it didn’t matter how many times they sold out; more could be printed. After the initial design work, it was easy(ish!) to turn a profit.

I spent the last two years building on the success of these two products, creating a consistent design and slowly building my personal brand. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been a few design flops, but I’ve learned from them and pushed on.

My income from events and my Etsy shop has grown year-on-year, but ultimately, at some point, it will reach a plateau (if it hasn’t done so already). To have a successful and sustainable business, you need to have a diverse income stream. So, at the end of 2018, I started approaching a few local independent shops to see if they would be interested in stocking my products. To my amazement, I had two shops place orders. I knew this was a side of the industry I wanted to explore further, and that’s when I started looking into trade shows for the following year.

I spoke to my friend Rebekka from BekBek Makes who had done a couple of trade shows already and her reply was “You NEED to do it!”. She pointed me in the direction of the organisers of Autumn Fair. This is the smaller cousin of the renowned Spring Fair. As a total newbie, I decided to try Autumn Fair before taking the plunge into a “big, big” show like Spring.

My first trade exceeded all expectations and hopes. I signed up 8 new stockists from across the country AND I made a profit. Despite the success of the show, there were a lot of things I did wrong and I learned so much that I will share with you over the next few weeks.

With my story in mind, here's a few things to ask your self:

  1. How many products are in your range?

  2. What type of customer does your work appeal to?

  3. Could you make your products at large quantities?

  4. What is your niche within the market?

In next week's post, l'll talk about the minefield that is choosing the right stand for you.

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