STORES STICKING TO TRADE SHOWS
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — It’s amazing how one word can make retailers forget hours of walking, long lines for coat checks and Bavarian pretzel lunches. The word is “Internet.”
When asked about the Internet’s impact on their trade show schedules, several specialty-store buyers steadfastly defended the need to scour the aisles looking for things that won’t be found in department stores.
“A lot of buyers are visual, hands-on people. I don’t know how many are techies,” said Toby Lerner, who owns two boutiques by the same name in the Philadelphia area. “I like seeing the variety of things at a trade show. I’ll use the Internet to look at a plane fare, an e-mail or place to visit in Italy, but I wouldn’t sit at a computer to visit an art museum.”
They are, after all, self-proclaimed “touchy-feely” people who want to check out the goods firsthand. As Lerner pointed out, “You can’t tell online if something is scratchy.”
Given that, it’s not surprising that most buyers said they were not anxious to visit virtual trade shows or to check out their favorite vendors’ Web sites.
The personal interaction that takes place between buyers and trade show exhibitors is something else that can’t be duplicated electronically, Lerner said. She likes to routinely phone or fax her resources to “bat ideas back and forth.”
“I like the personal relationships you renew and build at trade shows,” Lerner said. “I must be in the Ice Age, because I don’t use [the Internet] yet.”
Despite that mind-set, which is shared by many others, some trade shows are nudging their visitors to become more Internet-friendly in the 21st century, although organizers acknowledge that the Net is more for administrative convenience, not for actual shopping. Web sites for the International Fashion Boutique Show and Style Industrie are being updated and should be completed by next month, according to Michael Press, general manager of women’s businesses for Advantstar/MAGIC. Participants at both shows will be able to register online and send recommendations and surveys to show management so it can make changes for subsequent shows, Press said.
The company is also considering using the Web sites for buyers to schedule show appointments and look at the show’s floor plan to map out schedules, he added.
There are no plans to use the sites to preview lines or to set up a virtual trade show. Retailers still want to feel the fabrics and see the products, Press said.
“If you watch vendors sell a line, the first thing they do is let the retailer touch it,” he said.
Taking it a step further, Yolanda Variano, owner of Palma, a 2,100-square-foot specialty store here, said she was anxious to use the Internet as a preview tool to shorten the walks at the 20 trade shows she visits annually. She recently installed a computer to her store, but glitches have inhibited her from using it.
“I’m dying to do that. I get very tired of walking, walking and walking at all those trade shows. If I saw something I liked, I could focus on that at the show,” Variano said. “It would save a lot of time. As it is, I have to go through a lot of things that I’m not interested in at the show.
Stefani Greenfield, an owner of Scoop, a five-store operation based here, also emphasized the importance of touch.
“I need to touch and feel an item and see how it looks on a model,” she said. “I can’t rely on seeing something on the Internet.”
Greenfield, who visits about 20 trade shows a year, said she goes to shows to meet with young designers, since many customize their offerings for her stores.
Greenfield, who has plans to open two more stores by July, said her buying trips will only become more important. The Internet does allow potential vendors to e-mail photos of their line instead of mailing them, which helps her with initial screening of new resources, she said.
Wendy Red, owner of Up Against the Wall, a 15-store operation on the East Coast, said she uses the Internet to screen new resources, but that’s about it.
“There’s something about seeing a line in person. You can judge the quality, color and texture,” she said. “I might use the Web to check out T-shirt graphics. For most clothes, I would still want to see it in person.”
Using the Web can be time-consuming, Red said. Some home pages, for example, have as many as 50 commands, which complicates finding a destination.
Despite the pros and cons of the Internet and trade shows, both seem to be demanding more time from buyers, Red said.
“Both are definitely happening. I still like seeing things in person, but I’ll also check out things online,” she said. “There’s no time for anything anymore.”
Marsha Posner, president of JP Associates, a buying office here that represents 35 stores, said the Internet had “absolutely not changed” her clients’ trade show schedule. That might be attributed to the fact that they buy designer and better merchandise, which requires in-person inspection.
Buyers from Cedrics, Elegance by Edythe, Martha’s of Palm Beach, Kleinfeld’s and Topps are some of her accounts that prefer to check out the lines personally instead of on the Web.
“These buyers enjoy seeing what’s around. It’s like doing their homework. They like to know everything and see everything that is available to see,” she said. “Our stores are not the kind of stores that sit behind a computer all day.”
Visiting hip restaurants and trendy neighborhoods is an important part of retailers’ trade show travel, Posner noted.
“We always take our buyers to SoHo, NoLIta and Elizabeth Street when they’re here for the trade shows. Even our upscale stores want to know what’s going on downtown,” she said.
Not having a computer in her office has not affected business, Posner said.
“I don’t know that the stores feel any lack because of that. No one is asking for e-mail,” she said, but noted, “We are headed that way. I feel that it’s beginning to happen.”
K.K. Weinberg, buyer for James Davis, a 28,000-square-foot store in Memphis, said her store would have access to the Internet within the next six months, but that should not affect her trade show travel schedule, which requires about 10 annual visits here.
“I can’t imagine buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of clothes on the Internet. There are so many variables involved — fabric, fit, style,” she said.
Many of Weinberg’s customers have indicated they prefer to come into stores to try things on, she said.
“I don’t think the Internet will really affect the better business,” Weinberg said.
Lydia Burd, buyer for Min Lee and 105, two specialty stores on Stanton Street here, said she preferred visiting trade shows.
“It’s still really important to feel the fabrics, see the colors firsthand and to see how the apparel fits on models,” she said. “The Internet can help to a certain extent, but there are so many variations [with clothes]. I don’t know how they will ever get around that.”
Looking for new lines is another incentive for visiting trade shows four or five times a year, Burd said.
Despite her wariness, Burd said she might order online, but only if she were purchasing a line she was really familiar with.
Laura Janney, a buyer for Nordstrom, said she has no plans to use the Internet instead of visiting trade shows. Most of the vendors she sees at shows do not show their lines on the Web, she said.
Judy Armell, owner of Looks, a 1,000-square-foot store in Cambridge, Mass., said she had no plans to visit Web sites instead of trade shows. She will continue to visit shows about five times a year.
“The Internet hasn’t affected me at all. We use a computer to do our bills, but that’s it,” she said. “I just don’t use the Internet. I wouldn’t even consider it. I’m a low tech kind of gal.”