A Fair to Remember

Exhibiting at a trade show or fair can make your new product unforgettable-if you do it right.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the February 2004 issue of Entrepreneurs StartUps Magazine. Subscribe »

County fairs, Renaissance fairs, craft shows, home and garden shows, sports shows and auto shows are just a few of the events inventors can attend to sell their products, make some instant cash and test-market a new innovation. Your presence at a trade show might even be the launching pad for landing new investors or setting up a distribution network. All you have to do is pack up the van, drive to the show, set up a booth and start selling. You control everything, and substantial sales success can point the way to a big future market. However, your success at the show depends largely on how well you present yourself and sell others on your ideas.

First Things First
Before jumping into your first big show, ask yourself some questions. For instance: Will your product sell well at a trade show? Ideally, it should fill a need most people who attend the show have, and it must have a simple, direct message. Fairs are the perfect starting points for products with broad appeal that would ideally be sold in supermarkets, department stores and mass merchandisers. Normally, those markets are difficult for a small inventor to penetrate. But entrepreneurs can build up sales at fairs, sometimes selling as much as $70,000 over a weekend, which can give them the success they need to crack the big retailers.

Perfect products are those that lend themselves well to demonstrations. A real-life demonstration is best, but pictures, videos, slides or posters can also work. Your product or demonstration should sizzle and catch attendees' eyes. Being able to show a before-and-after result simply and quickly is a good way to persuade people to buy at a fair. Other types of products that do well are ones people can play with or try out, such as toys, musical instruments or sporting goods. Finally, food items and family recipes can do especially well. People can taste a sample and, if they like it, buy it.

Next, ask yourself what kind of shows are best for your particular product and industry. You want shows that appeal to your target customer, have plenty of visitors, and allow you to sell products. Start out with local shows. You will have fewer expenses, and you will be able to work more closely with the show promoter.

Contact your local chamber of commerce or convention center to get a list of upcoming shows. Next, call the show promoter and ask for a copy of last year's convention guide. Once you receive it, call at least three or four past exhibitors, and find out how many years they've exhibited. Exhibitors will keep going back to good shows, so make sure at least half the people have exhibited at the show for two or more years. Also ask the exhibitors what types of products sell best at the show and what prices do best.

  • The Trade Group sells products and services for trade show exhibitors, including exhibits, graphics, point of purchase displays, kiosks and more.
  • Trade Show News Network offers a variety of resources and provides information on more than 15,000 trade shows and conferences.
  • United Inventors Association can provide a list of local inventor groups in your area, which usually have a booth at state fairs that many inventors share.
  • Western Fairs Association represents more than 150 fairs in the western United States.

Before exhibiting at your first show for a promoter, though, try to visit one of the promoter's other shows, as most promoters do similar shows in a variety of cities. You want to see what other booths are like so you can design yours to stand out. This is also another great way to talk to exhibitors and get more information about how the show works, how much merchandise you can expect to sell, and what steps you can take to maximize sales.

Unfortunately, successful fair products are frequently knocked off by other fair sellers because the products are relatively easy to make. If you're confident the product will sell, consider patent protection. Apply for a design patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for $165, which allows you to post "patent pending" on your product.

Once you start selling your product, you have one year to apply for a utility patent. You can apply for a utility patent on your own as the one-year "on-sale" time limit approaches; in this way, you can retain your "patent pending" status for a total of two to three years. That gives you time to establish your product in the market. You might want to consider using a patent attorney and obtaining a utility patent if you eventually want to take your product into the general market.

Secrets to Success
To get the most out of your first trade show, consider these top 10 tips:

1. Don't let show sales cause a major accounting nightmare at tax time. Set up a simple accounting system before you begin.

2. Get the best location possible. Don't be right in front where all the traffic has to pass by. Instead, be in an area where there is enough aisle space for 10 to 20 people to watch you demonstrate a product. Also, don't be next to a busy booth where people will be attracting a large number of visitors or giving their own demonstrations.

3. Make sure your product stands out as a one-of-a-kind item. People won't purchase a product if it's readily available in other locations.

4. Sell, sell, sell. Products, no matter how great they are, don't sell themselves. You must generate the excitement that gets people to buy. Before you exhibit, attend at least two or three shows to observe the styles and tactics people use to attract a crowd.

5. Have people participate in a demonstration or interact with you during your presentation. That involvement will dramatically increase sales.

6. Have your booth look active at all times, but make sure people don't pass your booth because no one is available to talk to them. A successful booth needs a staff of three to four people for a busy show.

7. Sell products you can make yourself or that have minimal manufacturing costs. If your product isn't cheap to make, shows aren't a good long-term strategy. Either your product will be too expensive, or you won't be able to sell enough to cover your upfront costs.

8. Try to run out of your inventory just as the show closes. Predict how much you might sell based on discussions with past exhibitors, then take 20 to 30 percent more inventory than you think you'll sell. If you sell out, you'll still have had a successful show.

9. Sell products in the $10 to $30 range. Your best show strategy is to create impulse sales based on a demonstration or a person trying out a product. Though some inventors who sell higher priced products feel they can get leads at a show and sell to prospects later on, this is a mistake. The urge to buy drops once people leave a show, so you can't count on these sales.

10. Use booth promotions-such as free giveaways, two-for-one specials, combination packages of products and 'buy two, get one free" offers-to double or triple your sales. Try a variety of promotions at different shows to figure out what works best for your product. Also, check the types of promotions other people are offering.

If your first show doesn't go as well as you had hoped, don't get discouraged. Realistically, you will be a runaway success if just 10 percent of the people who stop by your booth like and buy your product. That leaves 90 percent who won't buy. So don't set your expectations too high when you go to your first show. If you persuade 10 out of 100 people to become customers, you've had a great sales performance.

Get the most out of your trade show, and take your profits to the max.

For each show, be sure to keep a record of these expenses:
1.Booth rental
2.Travel, food and lodging: This includes costs to ship the booth and products to a show.
3.Literature: Add up creative and printing costs, and divide the total by the number of bro-chures printed. A brochure should cost 50 cents to a dollar.
4.Money paid to all employees: Consider sales commissions and other related expenses, such as booth setup.
5.The manufacturing cost of items you've sold: For example, if your product costs $1 to make, and you sell 2,500, your manufacturing cost is $2,500.
6.Promotional items
You must make about $3,000 to $5,000 per show over and above these expenses, and of that, $1,000 to $2,000 needs to be applied against one-time start-up expenses such as booth design. The rest is profit.
If you're not selling enough, rethink your display, demonstration and sales presentation. At each show, determine how much you've sold compared to what other booths are selling. Analyze what's working at other booths, and then adjust your presentation for the next show.
Also, cut costs where you can. If you ship your booth and inventory to a site prior to a show, the convention's freight and drayage charges can often be 50 to 100 percent of the actual booth expense, so eliminating those costs can save you a significant amount of money.

Adapted from Entrepreneur magazine's Start-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Marketby Don Debelak

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