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In an ordinary year, retailers would have been pounding the pavement in a sweltering Las Vegas at the MAGIC show in August.

But 2020 is no ordinary year.

Although nearly all trade shows have been forced to become virtual because of travel restrictions and fear of the spread of the coronavirus, the operators are not about to loosen their grip on the market. MAGIC and Project have teamed with NuOrder to service their attendees, while Liberty has partnered with Joor for its show. Even the PGA Show, which has become a regular part of the August market in Vegas, held a series of webinars to replace its live event, along with an exhibitor marketplace.

The first out of the gate was Pitti Uomo, which kicked off its virtual show in mid-July that will run through Oct. 9. Liberty Fairs was next, opening its monthlong show on Aug. 17. MAGIC and Project are planning to bow on Sept. 1 and their shows will run for eight weeks. Agenda, which recently changed hands, is partnering with Brandboom on a virtual show that will launch this week.

Liberty Fairs and Joor

Liberty Fairs teamed with Joor for its show. 

The real question is whether retailers will use these sites to shop and ultimately place orders. The answer? Maybe.

Most of the specialty stores that generally walk the trade shows were choosing instead to work directly with vendors that they have purchased from in the past, replacing showroom visits with Zoom meetings and having samples and swatches shipped to them. In fairness, most said they would likely log onto the trade show sites at some point, but it wasn’t a priority — at least not in the short term. Instead they’re doing their best to keep their stores open and afloat in the midst of the pandemic — and markedly lower sales — and trying to work through the spring merchandise that was left languishing on the shelves after lockdowns before buying anything new.

Dana Katz, owner of Miltons, which operates two stores in suburban Boston, said he hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the virtual trade show sites yet but hoped to log in “when time allows.” Instead, he was holding Zoom meetings with vendors, some of which sent him samples and swatches in advance.

But these are all existing vendors. “My appetite for newness is tempered,” he said. “I’m really only interested in vendors that I know I can count on. If you can’t touch something and see the color, you’re flying blind. And that’s a significant concern.”

He said for spring 2021, he’s only looking at sportswear and shoes. “We’re a tailored clothing store, but we’re approaching that cautiously,” Katz explained. “Most of what we need will be taken care of with replenishment goods.”

Before the pandemic, he had made a deal to open a third location this summer, but that lease has now been pushed back a year. “Next August will be OK,” Katz said. “We’re running at half speed. Some categories like sportswear and footwear are doing better than others, but it’s still a challenging environment. We usually start our fall selling in August, but we’re pushing and elongating the seasons this year and will start fall when the time is right.”

Craig Delongy, who operates seven stores in Florida, had considered attending the market in Dallas, which continued with an in-person show, but decided against it because of the travel restrictions.

“My favorite show is Chicago and I went to New York for 26 years,” he said. “But I don’t see myself going there again anytime soon.” He has signed up to attend the virtual trade shows and intends to look at what’s being offered at Liberty and Project. “I want to be informed,” he said.

But for now, Delongy is working virtually with vendors he’s bought in the past. “I like to buy new things, but I don’t want anything new right now,” he said. Delongy’s stores closed on March 20 with “the absolute height of our inventory. March is our biggest month and April is third so we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. But I’m opening a pop-up shop in Winter Park that I anticipate I’ll keep open for six months to get rid of a lot of product. It may hurt business a bit in the short term, but I hope the margins in our other stores go up when I take out the sale inventory,” he said.

Once the stores reopened in May, sales were stronger than he had expected, although August is turning out to be tough. He hopes the situation will improve as time goes on. At this time of the year, he’s usually preparing for his busy season but has written orders for fall that he never submitted and has canceled others. “No one is going to be coming to me for outerwear this year,” Delongy said.

PItti Uomo Conect

Pitti Uomo created the Pitti Connect site to replace its physical show. 

Hill Stockton of Norman Stockton in Winston-Salem, N.C., took the plunge and went to Dallas for the market earlier this month. But he’s not planning to attend any virtual trade shows. Although he admits he misses the “camaraderie” he experiences by visiting vendors and other retailers in person, he’s making the best of the current situation.

“I’m doing virtual calls with manufacturers,” he said. “We’re making sure to see the vendors who are important to us and who have worked with us the last six months. Finding new vendors is not going to happen. We’ll get back to that at some point, but right now, our open-to-buy is clipped and we’re going to work with the vendors we know. If I’m going to pay $1,500 for a sport coat, I want to feel it.”

He’s had sales reps visit the store and he drove to Peter Millar, an important brand for Norman Stockton whose headquarters are in Raleigh, N.C., to shop in the showroom. “In 10 years, there may not be a sales rep on the road, but I’m not ready for that yet,” Stockton said.

Since reopening, he said he’s been selling mainly sportswear, while suits and sport coats have been negatively impacted by people working from home so they’re not on his shopping list right now. “Until there are events happening again, people won’t be buying clothing. We don’t have the open-to-buy we typically do, but if things open up, I expect we’ll be able to chase things easily,” he said.

Even so, Stockton remains optimistic about the future. “Nobody is traveling so people have money to spend.” And once offices reopen, that should also help boost business. “If you want your company to have a culture, you’re not going to have it with Zoom meetings and e-mails,” he said. “You need interaction.”

David Levy of Levy’s in Nashville was able to reopen his store on May 11 after around two months. He said he has no plans to attend any of the regional markets that may be going ahead with physical shows and is open to trying some of the virtual options. But even then he expects to stick primarily with vendors he’s worked with in the past.

“It’s difficult to add anything new without feeling and touching it and seeing how it fits,” he said. In addition, his open-to-buy for the season is “carefully focused, so I have limited flexibility,” he said. And the store “will still have some merchandise to deal with from prior seasons” that it needs to work through.

So instead, “we’re working with clothing vendors who are using Zoom videos and sending swatches, which is better than I thought it would be,” he continued. But what he doesn’t like is brands that try to virtually walk him through their showrooms. “If it’s a fixed camera, it’s fine; otherwise, it kind of makes you seasick,” Levy said with a laugh.

Since reopening, sportswear, including walking shorts, have been strong, as has golfwear and ath-leisure, which was a category he recognized as an opportunity before the pandemic hit. “We’re not going to abandon tailored clothing and we think sport coats will be better than ever” when special events, a staple for Nashville, resume.

Ken Giddon, president of New York City-based Rothmans, a self-professed fan of trade shows, admitted he misses the experience of walking the aisles, but right now he’s “distracted.” The company’s flagship was looted during the otherwise peaceful protests in the city and has yet to reopen. “We’re trying to determine the future of our New York store,” he said. He’s negotiating with his landlord and expects that the location will be retained, but until he cuts a deal, that’s where his attention is focused.

“Everyone is calling us about spring 2021 and I love that they’re being creative and thinking outside the box,” Giddon said. “I appreciate that vendors are doing their best to get out there, but we’re still trying to clean out spring 2020.”

The solution in his mind is three-pronged: how to deal with paying spring 2020 invoices and accepting fall deliveries before buying more for spring 2021. “When you receive goods on March 12 and close on March 15, you don’t have a lot of open-to-buy for spring 2021,” Giddon said. So while he appreciates that “trade shows have to get product in front of people, I make a lot of mistakes on color and fit when I can touch and feel [merchandise], so it’s more challenging in COVID-19 times.”

He’s looked at the Pitti site, but more to get direction for spring rather than to buy anything, and he may visit the other shows as well. But right now, shopping lines seems to be “so much less significant than the macro issues.” However, when trade shows resume in their more-traditional, in-person format, Giddon said, “I’ll be the first guy to sign up.”

Sam Weiner, divisional merchandise manager of Philadelphia-based Ubiq, attends Liberty and other shows in person every season, but this time around he’s meeting with brands and showrooms remotely and said he will eventually visit the virtual trade shows as well.

“The main reason why we want to still be part of the trade shows — even in this climate — is to support these brands,” he said. But until then, he’s taking advantage of the expanded details and descriptions that the brands and showrooms are supplying. Weiner used footwear as an example, saying that sellers are describing the leather on shoes as nubuck or pebbled. Still, Weiner believes product is king and being able to touch things “is what sets certain products just that extra notch above.”

Dominici Collective founder Dominique Banks said brands have sent samples to him in order to help with sales. Founded in 2017, the Dominici Collective is a web-based retailer based in Manhattan, offering brands such as Daniel Patrick, Hem & Cuff and an in-house private label. Banks often attends the Liberty Fairs, Project and MRket shows, as well as international fairs.

Banks said he actually likes virtual shows because it allows for more-leisurely buying. Physical shows, in contract, can often feel chaotic and retailers feel inundated with product and information.

“It’s been a little bit of a blessing in disguise,” Banks said, and it has been particularly helpful for working with international brands. Virtual shows also help level the playing field for young and emerging designers who might get more attention online than they would at a large physical show, where they might be easily overlooked.

Even so, Banks said he is shopping more conservatively this season and sticking to what his customers know and like. “We like to introduce new brands and style, but in this climate it’s a bit of a risk.”

Fred Derring, president of DLS Outfitters, a buying office for independent retailers, hadn’t logged onto the virtual sites yet, but is expecting to in the future. “Hopefully they’ll be more informative than just looking at a web site. That’s too overwhelming,” he said. “They have to tell a story if they want people to buy. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of merchandise.”

But he said that for his retail members, “it’s going to be a very tough season for buying virtually unless you know the brand very well. Most of our stores will buy what they’re familiar with.”

Derring is also doing Zoom calls with vendors, as well as with DLS’ retail members to help map out the best way to handle the season. “Most of the retailers are doing OK,” he said. “And actually, with the closures of all these larger stores and the move to shop local, they’re actually benefiting.”

Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president of merchandising at The Doneger Group, which holds several meetings and trend overviews for its retail members at the MAGIC show in Las Vegas every season, has already shopped the virtual Pitti and Miami Swim shows and will also visit the other sites while they’re active.

“Every setup is different and we’re figuring out how to maneuver through them,” she said. But she liked how “creative” the industry has become to come up with actionable ways to replace physical shows.

Doneger’s retail members are also using the sites to “explore what the next thing will be. They’re being open-minded about it.” In addition, they’re working with vendors directly as well, who have sent swatches and are doing video visits to “bring the experience to life,” she said.

Nicole Cavalier, merchandising strategist for Doneger, said visiting the virtual trade shows “mirrors what we would be doing at the shows — looking at everything. This just cuts out the travel time.”

Bradley-Riley admitted that while shopping virtually is “not everybody’s first choice, retailers still need to have product on the floor and re-assort their mix to balance casual and career.” Because of the challenges the pandemic put on creating and producing collections, everything is very edited this season, she said, and retailers still have a lot of spring 2020 product they need to work through. “But they still need newness,” she said.

“They’re buying closer to the season and the next few months will be telling for where the consumer is headed,” Bradley-Riley continued. “There’s no roadmap for this, but people are moving forward.”

From the perspective of the trade show operators, they were quick to pivot to virtual markets as the best way to service both their exhibitors and the retail community.

Tom Nastos, chief commercial officer of Informa Markets, owner of MAGIC, Project, Coterie and other shows, said the company chose NuOrder as its partner because of the platform’s reach. Los Angeles-based NuOrder was founded in 2012 and connects more than 2,000 brands and 500,000 retailers and it has driven $35 billion in transactions since launching. It also works with Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, which use the site for market research and help in selecting their assortments.

“The first step was to identify what a virtual trade show would be,” Nastos said. “And for us, that meant building a marketplace.” So rather than just providing a place to pore over line sheets and look books, “we took a different approach. That’s just not enough to make it compelling.” So when its shows launch next month, they will include educational and editorial offerings as well as fashion trends. And because the shows will be available to stores for eight weeks, “retailers will be in control of their schedules so they can do business, discover new product and then revisit it later.”

Participating vendors will work with NuOrder to create digital catalogues, line sheets, 360-degree imagery and shoppable hot spots to connect and conduct business. There will be a centralized digital platform and then “marketplaces” for each of the shows. So a retailer can “visit” Project and then search within that show by brand, category, price point, delivery windows, etc.

Nastos said the Informa shows have also had a strong response from international vendors and will be showcasing brands from Italy, France, Denmark, the U.K., Spain, Colombia, Brazil and other countries. “In a COVID-19 world, having hundreds of international brands a click away is a huge opportunity for retailers when people can’t travel,” Nastos said. And while Informa will return to physical shows as soon as practical, the company believes a hybrid of digital and physical will be the way of the future.

Edwina Kulego, vice president of Liberty Fairs, partnered with Joor because it “has a one-stop shop for trade shows to do business.” The platform has more than 56,000 visitors for all of its events, as well as 11,000 unique retailers. Some 80 brands signed on for the virtual show, 38 percent of which were new.

Among the manufacturers that are participating in the Liberty market are Vince, Woolrich, The Kooples, Studio Nicholson and Ka Wa Key, she said, and retailers including Nordstrom, Macy’s, United Arrows and Storm Copenhagen have registered to attend.

“The format doesn’t have any borders,” she said. “We have retailers that wouldn’t be able to shop our shows and now they can tune in from the comfort of their home.”

Kulugo said that while Liberty expects the better-known brands to get the most virtual traffic, as they would at a physical show, the online platform is expected to also help emerging brands that often get overlooked because of their placement or lack of prior retail relationships. In addition, Kulego said the fee to participate in a virtual show is lower, allowing smaller brands to participate, and Liberty is also creating content, such as the Meet the Founder series, where companies share their stories.

Also, Joor is collecting data at the end of the show that Liberty will share with brands “to make things stronger for upcoming shows,” Kulego said. “We’re in this new phase. We want to make sure digital is in our core business going forward and have metrics. We’d love to have the physical show back and we’re not sure if February will be a reality, but we’re hoping for it and planning for it.”

Agenda was acquired by AZTQ in late 2019, and was scheduled to host its first show in Vegas this month. Instead it will this week launch a platform with Brandboom that will allow brands and retailers to transact digitally. Chief executive officer Issa Jouaneh said the platform is free for buyers and exhibitors and every brand on the platform will be at the Las Vegas market show in February.

“We view virtual technology as an extension of the live and face-to-face experience,” Jouaneh said. “We’re using it to supplement and not replace the face-to-face experience. We’re not planning to replace our live events with a virtual component.”

The partnership with Brandboom will continue through August 2021 and will operate in congruence with the physical show. Jouaneh, who has 20 years of experience in events, recently ended a five-year tenure as senior vice president and general manager at American Express Meetings & Events, and is fully committed to the physical show format.

“Sales revenue growth all happens with face-to-face connections and we believe any investment in that space drives sales growth and revenue,” he said.

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