Is There a Future for Trade Shows and Sales Reps?

by Carolyn Edlund

Are these traditional forms of selling working any longer?



You might be under the impression that if you take your line to a wholesale trade show, you’ll be exhibiting at a venue which will produce lots of orders and expand your business quickly.

And you might be under the impression that if you could only get some sales reps showing your line, it will be sold in stores all over the country, bringing increased income and keeping you constantly busy producing in your studio.

You also might be wrong on both counts. Although I want to stress that I firmly believe that exhibiting at trade shows and having sales reps carry your line are still viable options, these two methods of selling have been going through a dramatic upheaval during the last twenty years. That trend is accelerating.

With the advent of internet shopping and an abundance of websites, the face of commerce is continuing to change entire industries. Traditional methods such as traveling to trade shows to place orders for merchandise, or sitting down with a rep for an in-person appointment, have been in decline for quite a while. Still, those face-to-face meetings, and the personal relationships that develop from them, are the glue that creates customer loyalty and drives repeat orders.

Here are some of the problems that have come with current trends:

  • Many independent retailers have closed. Chain stores have been overtaking the “mom and pop” stores for decades now. This is a national phenomenon. Combined with the poor economy, it has led to the closure of many stores that just couldn’t compete, or get loans for their ailing businesses. Empty storefronts are evidence that new independents are not taking their places.
  • Prices for domestic goods are getting more expensive. At the same time, manufacturers are continuing to go offshore to produce merchandise. This floods the market with cheaper items that put U.S. small businesses on the ropes. And it becomes essential for those in handmade industries to differentiate themselves, sell on value rather than price, and to choose their markets carefully.
  • Many larger-sized gift and accessories companies have given up on an employee sales force, moving to outside rep groups so as to avoid offering salaries and benefits. A trend has emerged where these manufacturers then suddenly reverse course, dismissing all reps in an attempt to save on costs. After finding that an in-house customer service staff can’t make enough sales over the phone and online, outside rep groups are again hired. This type of whipsaw treatment leave reps not knowing which end is up. And it can cut their income dramatically, especially if they have lost core lines which can’t easily be replaced. Their smaller lines (like yours) then suffer because they can’t provide the base income a rep needs.
  • Sales reps are under increasing pressure, with costs such as gas and lodging skyrocketing, and fewer accounts to call on. For a rep to have a profitable day, they have to book enough solid appointments to make it worthwhile to get on the road. Sometimes that means they spend a lot of hours in the office prospecting and not so many outside. As a result, many long-time reps are leaving the business, and the next generation is not filling in the gaps.
  • Trade shows are in a major transition, and will continue to evolve and consolidate. In the heyday of the 80’s and  90’s, creative industry shows had huge numbers of vendors, and competition was fierce. They have since shrunken in size, and many times the quality of merchandise being displayed has deteriorated. Quite often these events have moved to lesser-expensive cities and promoters themselves have moved to cheaper corporate headquarters and laid off staff to save on costs.

What’s a creative entrepreneur to do?

Are there fewer opportunities to sell your work? Actually, no – there are more! With ecommerce, you now have a global audience, not just a local or national one. The answer lies in working smarter, evolving your business during this transitional period by identifying new trends and niche markets you can exploit, and creating strategies that enable you to grow rather than stagnate. Here are five ways to do so:

Diversify your income

By using multiple channels to sell your products, a varied stream of income is created. You can’t count on one method alone anymore. Selling both retail and wholesale, online and in-person, having a store and shopping cart on your site, and considering art licensing are all options that could work. Identify and experiment with different marketing strategies. Expand those that are working for you, and stay attuned to trends to stay on the cutting edge.

Update your product mix

If you make bookmarks, and the world is buying Kindles, you have a problem. Research the market to find new product categories that are emerging, and how you can adapt to them. Also consider using techniques to boost the ticket on each sale and increase your profits.

Create a professional website and use social media

Branding is essential to attracting attention and being identified. Make sure you have a dynamic presence online, using inbound marketing techniques and social networking to stay in front of your audience. This becomes an integral part of your whole package – without a professional, user-friendly website, you will be left behind.

Be a partner to your reps

It’s not enough to send samples to a sales rep and expect them to perform. Provide everything they need to remove barriers to sales, making it easy for their buyers to say “yes”. If a rep is working smart, they are evolving into a consultative role with their customers and using new technology.

This may mean reps are connecting with buyers via Zoom, using your website to present new product releases, and maintaining an online presence such as a blog, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube to stay in touch and cement their business relationships. Do you have a PDF of your line sheet? Are you providing your sales force with plenty of sales aids, both physical and virtual, to make a great impression and reinforce your brand? Do you provide excellent customer service? Buyers are more likely to purchase when you have a serious business presence.

Make smart choices on trade shows

Thoroughly research whether a trade show is right for you and your product line before you commit. Check exhibitor listings, and view their websites to scope out your competition. See whether the promoter has listed major attendees. Are they your type of customer? Chat in forums with previous exhibitors for feedback on their experiences at the show. Walk the show before you do it to find out for yourself – this experience gives you tons of information, which could save or make you thousands of dollars.

When you do choose a show, make sure the promoter provides excellent communication. Look for lots of support in terms of pre-show informational webinars, and lectures and seminars on trade topics during show week as well.

You can survive and even thrive in this changing world by increasing your level of awareness of how your potential customers are making choices and what they are buying. Both trade show promoters and sales reps themselves need to adapt, and you as a creative entrepreneur do also. When you transition your business along with the evolving market, you can stay lean and mean and take advantage of good practices to expand your business.

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  1. Hi Carolyn and to quote you…”Create a professional website and use social media. Branding is essential to attracting attention and being identified. Make sure you have a dynamic presence online, using inbound marketing techniques and social networking to stay in front of your audience. This becomes an integral part of your whole package – without a professional, user-friendly website, you will be left behind”. This is the key to surviving as an artist. the bricks and mortar art gallery route is in sad decline and is now only for the uber-rich famous artist. Just do not waste your marketing effort or time on seeking gallery representation. Your art at best will only clog-up their store room, meanwhile they are rapidly going broke.
    Your website will work for you 24/7 every day of the year in every country too. All you need is a well thought out shopping page with a shopping cart and say Paypal to get the money. Research those shipping costs now. Learn a few basic language skills too. If I can do it it must be fairly straightforward…me? a computer thick’o pensioner too!!

    • I agree that having a strong web presence is absolutely essential – however, I don’t believe the in-person selling methods are dead. The National Stationery Show, which took place in NY last month, got rave reviews for a very strong event. Touching and seeing merchandise in person is really important, and websites alone cannot provide this. My suggestion is a multi-pronged approach where the online presence is used to enhance the empower trade shows and sales representation.

  2. trade shows and sales representation? Again for the UK only the uber-rich!!

  3. excellent article.-K

    • Thanks so much, Kate. I totally respect your opinion – you’re a real pro!
      And yes, whenever I get to CA I will look you up for that chocolate martini!

  4. Thank you for contributing such an honest look at these very real industry issues!

    • Meryl,
      You are a real expert on repping and the industry, and as you know our conversation brought some of these realities to the light. Anyone interested in finding out more about the world of sales reps for the gift industry should read and subscribe to Meryl’s blog at

  5. Great article! As an artist with a greeting card line, I use many different avenues to sell. I can’t rely on just one. I also am branching out to new products such as soft goods and am learning new printing techniques to try and keep my line fresh.

    Thank you for your insight!



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