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Let’s Trade: Behind the Scenes at the National Stationery Trade Show

Jun 16, 2008

by paperstories

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Back in January I wrote an article for the Storque reviewing the book Craft, Inc by Meg Mateo Ilasco.  The book is a business primer for anyone in the craft field.  One section of the book discussed the basics of showing your work at a trade show.  Since I was already planning to attend the National Stationery Show (NSS) in New York, I decided this would be a great opportunity to pop in on several Etsians who were participating in a large trade event.  Prior to the show, I interviewed six designers but was lucky to run into several more during the show.  Those I interviewed included my friend Hannah at piebirdpress,  Katie at micahandme, Shelley at albertinepress, Marty at letterarypress,  Lisa at sweetbeets, and Jennifer at jhilldesign.  They gave wonderful insight for anyone interested in this often daunting and sometimes mysterious scene.

A trade show is a ‘trade only’ event where sellers (you, the craftsperson) show their wares to buyers (retailers from small boutique shops to big box stores) in hopes of landing wholesale accounts. Trade shows are not open to the public and to  “walk the floor” you usually have to either have a press pass, an exhibitor pass, a retailer pass or otherwise prove you are in the biz.  Most trade shows occur over several long days in which the buyers can either place orders at the show, or take your catalog home for what you hope will they will buy later.  One thing to note is that you do not actually give them the goods at the show.  You simply have a display featuring your items.  When buyers place orders, it is up to you to set your terms which include how soon after the show you will ship them their items.

If you do decide that you are interested in selling wholesale, and you have the means to produce larger quantities of your products, as well as having enough items to attract a variety of buyers, then a trade show may be a worthwhile investment.  But note that it IS an investment which can quickly add up to a pretty penny.  Booths can cost $2000+ for only a 10’ x 8’ booth.  This doesn’t include electricity, flooring, walls, furnishings/display, not to mention travel and hotel expenses for the week.  For this reason, I would suggest making sure you have a well developed line with several years in business under your belt before tackling the trade show circuit.  Also, once you commit to exhibiting at a large trade show, it is often an unwritten expectation that you will exhibit every year (unless you ask for a sabbatical).

Sweet and simple sums up the sweetbeets booth display:

The National Stationery Show is the largest paper goods trade event in the country with approximately 1300 exhibitors and nearly 15,000 national and international retailers.  Sweetbeets says it best: “I decided to go to NSS because it is THE show for my market and will help me expand the wholesale side of my business.”  It runs 8 hours a day from Sunday till Wednesday annually in mid-May.  While the smaller booths chosen ranged from 10×6’ to 10×10’, the majority of these lovely gals chose the 10×8’ booth as their temporary home away from home.  As for years of experience, this was the third year for two of them, the second for one, and for three of them, this was their very first year.  When I asked how long they had been preparing for the show, many of the first year exhibitors said they started planning for the show 1 ½ to 2 years prior.  As micahandme put it, “About a year and a half ago… I came across an article online about a girl who attended (NSS) the year before.  I made a promise to myself that day that I would be an exhibitor at the 2008 show …and it’s a promise that I’ve kept!”

A gorgeous wall of cards by micahandme:

When it came to the money, most of the exhibitors I interviewed had budgeted roughly $5000-7000 for exhibiting.  Some were spending as much as $10,000 and one as little as $3000.  The discrepancy in costs often is attributed to where you stay (with friends vs. nearly a week in a hotel, if you have to travel far to get there and even the costs of getting your display to the show).  These costs also don’t include the expenses involved with developing and manufacturing their lines.

So how many products do you need to have at a show like this?  Obviously the more products the better, with more choices for the finicky buyer to choose from.  But a large line also means that many more designs you will have to produce.  The number of items available at these ladies’ booths varied from around 50 up to nearly 150 different designs.   Some of the larger companies had designs running in the hundreds of items.  While hundreds of products may be a little out of your capability, it is important to have realistic goals.  letterarypress told me, “If I take enough orders to cover expenses, I will be thrilled.  My main goal is to open as many new accounts as I can, meet with reps, and maintain a presence in the industry.”

A fun display for letterarypress’ cards:

Of all the ladies I spoke with, jhilldesign was the only one sharing a booth with three other companies (two of which also have Etsy shops — Tara Hogan of Ink + Wit and Anna and Sean of Sub-Studio).  This allowed them to afford a larger booth than they would individually.  But don’t think you can cram 10 of your best buds in a booth with you.  Large trade shows have serious rules, many of which involve how you can and cannot share a booth.  Typically everyone sharing must be represented by a larger “rep group.” Some of Jennifer’s best advice on gleaning info: “I always tell people to find someone who does what they want to do and ask them every question under the sun.”

A trio of beautiful displays from tarahogan, substudio, jhilldesign:

So if you are considering a future in the trade show market, hopefully these final words of advice from the two veterans of those I interviewed will inspire you — yet keep you grounded at the same time.  Piebirdpress mentions, “The wholesale world is pretty brutal, and you have to be really serious about your business to get involved.  You really can’t go to a show like NSS and expect to print cards per order, or produce editions of 50 cards at a time.  If you aren’t equipped to step up production, you will flounder….If you do decide to go, a creative booth display is really important.  Make sure you wear good shoes and dress comfortably…You should have plenty of promotional materials available: linesheets, business cards, giveaways… It’s important to be really friendly to everyone, and be prepared to point out what makes your cards special, even if nobody asks.”

A deliciously decorated booth from piebirdpress:

Lastly, according to albertinepress, “Participating at NSS or any other trade show is a huge endeavor.  Don’t go in unprepared, and don’t expect to be a huge success overnight.  Spend a lot of time to make sure that you’re reflecting yourself and your work in your booth display.  Buyers are visiting over 1000 booths (or rather, walking by over 1000 booths).  You need to give them a reason to stop at yours.  Then you need the products to keep them there.  But have fun!”

Stunning patterns and colors from albertinepress:

Some other Etsians I ran into include:

The orangebeautiful ladies are sitting pretty in their lovely booth:

A warm and welcoming feel from dutchdoor:

Overall, the show was wonderful to see.  Every year I come away with a new list of designers I admire.  My favorite part, hands down, was meeting the talented and lovely Etsians exhibiting.  Even in the larger booths, when I asked if they knew of Etsy, they all were like… “Oh yeah, yeah.. I know Etsy.”  That was a nice feeling.

Some other Etsians who exhibited at NSS include:
Susyjack, pearlmarmalade, angelaliguori, and magnoliamoonlight

Further Resources:
American Craft Council  Baltimore Show
Craft and Hobby Association
EXTRACTS (bath and body trade show)
George Little Management: A trade show organizer
International Contemporary Furniture Fair
New York International Gift Fair
Philadelphia Buyers Market of American Craft

For extended coverage of the show from more of a design perspective that includes Etsians and non-Etsians alike, visit my blog at www.paper-stories.blogspot.com.

Looking for more info about trade shows? Check out this post on the International Gem and Mineral Show

38 comments

  • Mizdragonfly

    Mizdragonfly said 10 years ago

    Interesting read. Wicked 'behind the scene' pics. Thanks for sharing!

  • turquoiseheaven

    turquoiseheaven said 10 years ago

    Love the article. Especially the pictures of the individual booths.

  • paperstories

    paperstories said 10 years ago

    Thanks. I actually could have written a much longer article with much more info but alas there are limits. Everyone I talked to was super...

  • boygirlparty

    boygirlparty said 10 years ago

    what an awesome article! i'm loving everybody's paper goods too (just made a purchase from pearlmarmalade cause of this article) it's always been my dream to go to the NSS also. someday, someday.

  • JustAnotherDay

    JustAnotherDay said 10 years ago

    very cool! i decided about 6 months ago that i WOULD SHOW AT NSS!!! I have a goal of getting there by the time I am 30, and that is just 5 short years away! Thanks for all the advice and tips!

  • paperstories

    paperstories said 10 years ago

    For NSS and any other trade show I would HIGHLY suggest you walk the show one year first before exhibiting. It is an eye opening experience to see what is involved and how everything is set up. All trade shows are different too. Some are very simple with just curtains and a table and others, like NSS, can be very elaborate with drywall, crown-molding, and hardwood floors. Walk the show, talk to other exhibitors, take notes... (don't take any photos without permission from each exhibitor first).

  • letterarypress

    letterarypress said 10 years ago

    Thanks for the nice write up! One month later, I think I am finally recovered from all of the buzz and excitement and deliciously overwhelming paper extravagance of the show. It was great to meet you. Hope to visit you there next year in your own booth....

  • Earmark

    Earmark said 10 years ago

    Fantastic write up! Seriously helpful and informative. I will feel much more comfortable doing this when we do decide to go forward. I am waiting to live back on the east coast to cut down on expenses :) Thank you again! GREAT JOB! I hope all of you had and are having extreme success!!

  • Earmark

    Earmark said 10 years ago

    I also second the go "visit it first" comment... i went a couple of years ago to check it out and it would be so intimidating to go and have never seen the surroundings. NSS houses ALOT of wonderful stationers...

  • paperdragonfly

    paperdragonfly said 10 years ago

    Excellent article, paperstories! Loved the great pics too.

  • LindaLWeeks

    LindaLWeeks said 10 years ago

    What an amazing group of artists. The designs featured are just wonderful, so imaginative. Etsy has so much talent going for it! What grand colors and patterns! Stick with it, guys, you are all great!

  • LindaLWeeks

    LindaLWeeks said 10 years ago

    Oh, yes, the story was very well written, too. I was enjoying the subject so much, I didn't even notice how well it was done!

  • whimsystudios

    whimsystudios said 10 years ago

    Very informative and well written article! I've always wondered how to take the leap and take on a huge trade show like that. It was really helpful to see the photos, too. Any feedback on how well the participating Etsyans did? Their booths were fabulous!

  • paperstories

    paperstories said 10 years ago

    not sure why that posted twice. i typed once and hit submit once. weird.

  • Lieblingartcrafts

    Lieblingartcrafts said 10 years ago

    Oh! Same thing happened to me (posting twice)

  • paperstories

    paperstories said 10 years ago

    that is weird. now the comment i left that posted twice is gone. shucks.

  • TheGreenZebra

    TheGreenZebra said 10 years ago

    Thanks for that informative article. Just a quick question. How would you go about getting passes to a trade fair if you're not part of the press or an exhibitor or anything that you mentioned earlier in your article? If you're doing this as a small-time biz from home, it might be difficult to proof that you're "in the biz".

  • paperstories

    paperstories said 10 years ago

    green zebra, you have to provide some sort of verification that you are in the biz, even if it is as a small time operation. if you have a website, that would work. usually you have to select whether you are press, a retailer, an exhibitor, a designer, manufacturer etc. also it is $40-50 or so for a ticket. if you go to the website of the trade show, usually there is a link that says, "register to attend". this should give you all the info. plus the people are usually very helpful, who run the show.

  • paperstories

    paperstories said 10 years ago

    whimsy, my deleted post had info about post-nss feedback. basically i have heard that this was one of the poorest attended NSS's in recent years. the economy has taken its toll on the smaller shops and many were unable to attend and therefore place orders. many of the folks i interviewed had a good time but most did not make enough sales to cover expenses even. it really becomes about publicity. most of the folks said they would return but a few said they might not since it was just too expensive and did not yield the return they needed on their investment. it really is a gamble only you can decide if it is worthwhile to take.

  • SusyJack

    SusyJack said 10 years ago

    that's true, but starting a business is not about sticking your head in the sand when things get tough out there. i'm really glad i did the show, besides, first timers should never expect to get a return on their show investment. It's just that...an investment. Thanks for the mention! susy

  • papibeads

    papibeads said 10 years ago

    wow that is so beautiful. I have one qestion though... how do you start a letter/stationary business? hehehe im just curious. thanks.

  • yummyink

    yummyink said 10 years ago

    Great article! Thanks!

  • singjaspreet

    singjaspreet said 10 years ago

    http://tradersindia.synthasite.com/ The Forex market is a non-stop cash market where currencies of nations are traded, typically via brokers.

  • RAGGEDedgeGear

    RAGGEDedgeGear said 9 years ago

    fanominal article! and perfect timing. we just started getting our foot in the door with some wholesale orders last month :)

  • artdelight

    artdelight said 9 years ago

    Thank you for the info!

  • chinesegemstone

    chinesegemstone said 9 years ago

    Thank you !

  • SkantiqueJewels

    SkantiqueJewels said 9 years ago

    Great Article! Another fabulous location for shows is the Atlanta Americas mart - The temporary booths are a good place to set up and catch the draw of the permanent show rooms.Go to http://www.americasmart.com/markets/

  • JudiPaintedit

    JudiPaintedit said 9 years ago

    Wow...2 grand for a booth!!!

  • funnytails

    funnytails said 9 years ago

    I have did the craft show circuit as a jewelry designer for 4 years and gave it up. The shows are expensive and I did not get enough sales to cover my expenses. I would suggest starting off in local shows that are not too expensive to start off and see how your product is selling before investing as it is a tough life setting up and taking down The climate is not good now for crafts. Maybe the wholesale shows are better but talk to some people who exhibit before you invest. The best way to find out who is exhibiting is go to the show's website and they will have a list of past exhibitors and email them. I have found craft people are a great group and like to share their experiences.

  • forexmicrolots

    forexmicrolots said 9 years ago

    nice post dear......thx for sharing Traders India

  • tarahogan

    tarahogan said 9 years ago

    thanks for featuring INK+WIT

  • upup

    upup said 9 years ago

    excellent article. this answered questions i didn't even realize i had about exhibiting at a trade show.

  • tweeprints

    tweeprints said 9 years ago

    this is a great article. i didn't even know such show exists. thanks! how does one get involved in a local show first?

  • jinlongyu121

    jinlongyu121 said 8 years ago

    http://www.cn-center.com this is a great article. i didn't even know such show exists. thanks! how does one get involved in a local show first? can you wholesale them

  • vanolga

    vanolga said 8 years ago

    Thank you for sharing

  • jasumner3

    jasumner3 said 8 years ago

    It is really nice to find so much worth while info being shared by experienced people in such a competitive field. Having made a living for over 10 years at art fairs selling mostly matted prints of the originals I would be show there, I am just now trying to transfer my images to greeting cards. So I am finding this and other on line tips about the business a great help. Thanks Much! John Sumner, of Inner Spud greeting cards.

  • bpdmso

    Mary from MarySanzJewelry said 5 years ago

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing!

  • FieldsOfVintage

    Fields Of Vintage from FieldsOfVintage said 5 years ago

    Very informative stuff here. Thanks

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