January 14, 2020 • Sarah Schwartz
A Brave New World
It’s hard for me to believe, but 2020 marks my 22nd round of Winter gift shows (45th if you add Summer shows to the mix). Back in 1998, the trade show experience was completely different from what it is today. I can remember coming home from shows in those early years, accompanied by boxes of catalogs and press kits, confident that they held the next big thing every independent retailer absolutely had to stock in the coming season.
These were the years of scented candles, numbered and signed pieces of collectible resin and lots and lots of Thomas Kinkade. No one talked about utility, the environment, packaging or sustainable materials — and according to Pew Research, only 41% of adults were even going online!
So much has changed since then; it really was a different age, and, some would argue, a different country. But rather than dwell on what changed everything, I’d prefer to examine where we are now. Some shows have completely restructured, new shows have appeared (as well as disappeared), and there are also myriad online marketplaces from which to shop.
Whereas once many bigger vendors travelled from city to city to set up the same booth at different shows — I can remember fondly bidding farewell to exhibitors in Dallas with a “See you in San Francisco!” — now even the big players don’t go to every show.
So now, instead of one huge gift market, there are so many niche markets — and it gets confusing for even me to keep up with! In assembling our Show Section (which starts on page 64 by the way), there were several instances of vendors mentioning exhibiting at shows that I hadn’t even heard of. (If the show seemed tangential to what we focus on here at Stationery Trends, I didn’t include them — no need to confuse our readers as well!)
We all know that a niche-y market is not without challenges, but that doesn’t mean there’s no benefits at all. It’s this: Your customers don’t expect anything specific from you; There is no one cookie-cutter conception of what a gift store, or what a card and gift shop is or should carry. Each and every store owner gets to define their own brand and what they fill their store with — as well as how they buy and sell it.
That is actually a really freeing concept — it just requires confidence and careful planning. So while I don’t know your distinctive brand and audience, I do have a general sense of which way the wind is blowing. And I’ve had a lot of fun distilling it into these pages, so happy reading. And if you see me in the aisles of one of the season’s shows, please say hi!