THE MOTHER PLUCKER FEATHER COMPANY admits it doesn’t make much money at the New York International Gift Fair. But the past few years have been tougher on this maker of boas and feathery underwear, which caters to the likes of Victoria’s Secret models. The recession and Chinese competition have certainly hurt. But what really ruffles its sales staff? Having their booth moved. A while ago, the show organizers relocated it from a prime showroom position at the Javits Center to the back end of an aisle. It could have been worse—they’d been offered a slot in a distant galleria. Says salesperson Rusty Riegelman: “You needed a compass to find it!”
Though it may seem old-fashioned to peddle goods out of closet-size stalls, trade shows remain a major showcase for retail-oriented businesses—a chance to market wares that don’t lend themselves well to e-commerce. The shoe and toy industries are among those still reliant on this retailing relic, but few shows are bigger than the gift fair, where some 2,700 merchants, from incense sellers to Christmas-ornament makers, jostle to get their goods into retail stores.
And disputes over booth spots are as old as trade itself. No doubt coffee-bean merchants had it out in the mud over their spots in 17th century Amsterdam. Today trade-fair habitués obsess over whether they’ll get a prime spot—a “front seat” easily seen from a hall’s entrance, for example, or a nondescript station next to a more popular rival whose traffic could be poached. “I would sooner pass than take a booth in a bad spot,” avows Arra David, of Windham, N.H., souvenir company Sea Stones. “In my opinion, corners are good.”
Roaming a sprawling space like the Javits Center, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in the scrum. Organizers say merchants are assigned their sites based on seniority and the attractiveness of their wares—a potentially subjective mix that can drive exhibitors nuts. Amita Kapur, owner of International Mercantile Agencies, of New Brunswick, N.J., was furious when organizers moved her silver-plated goods into the textiles section one year, though she got a better slot after she complained. After registering late this year, Restore Wellness, which sells a cooling spray for menopausal women, was squeezed in next to the ladies room. The company’s distributor, Daniel Nathanson, saw red: “I’ve only seen five people I know.”
While loo proximity seems an obvious loser, experts say there’s little hard evidence that location matters. There was “an old exhibition belief” that people frequently turned right as they entered, says Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, but such turns were usually due to “another factor—someone giving out free ice cream, for example.” Today, he says, buyers “don’t wander much,” but simply study the directory and determine where they want to go. That’s a challenge at the gift fair, where there’s a 288-page directory with a clumsy map. (“No, we didn’t deliberately make it hard to use,” says a spokesperson for GLM, the organizer.)
At this year’s fair, we visited businesses that seemed to have lost the location lottery, including Black & Blum, of London, which makes a ski pole–inspired potato masher, and Woolly Pocket Garden Co., of Los Angeles, which makes wall containers for plants. One was slammed against a distant wall, the other stuck at the end of an aisle. But both drew crowds with inventive, fresh products. “Is this a bad spot?” asks Woolly founder Miguel Nelson. “We’ve been inundated.”
SmartMoney.com provides news, information, and tools for business professionals and growing businesses. All content provided by SmartMoney is © 2010 SmartMoney®, a Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and Hearst SM Partnership.