Our regular contributor from the USA, Gina Schaefer interviewed long time and very experienced hardware store buyer, Willa Reddy, to get her suggestions and advice on making the most of visiting trade shows or any buying trip.

Spring trade show season is here, and a selling season can be more successful with the right efforts at trade shows. At A Few Cool Hardware Stores, we’ve always had a progressive buying program, meaning we don’t impose many guardrails or financial constraints because we want our team to be thoughtful, fairly aggressive and unencumbered when they are thinking about what would make our company better. This does not mean that we don’t expect results and follow up reporting – you’ll read about a little of that below.

We currently have two buyers for our thirteen locations and a big chunk of their time is used to keep our garden programme growing (sorry about the pun!). Live goods alone account for $2.7 Million or 6% of our sales. And to put it into perspective, about half of our locations only have a small sidewalk space from which to sell plants. Each location, however, does a robust houseplant business which has become a very profitable niche for us. My colleague Willa has been part of our company for 10
years, making her way from sales associate to Assistant Manager to Junior Buyer before becoming the Senior Buyer six years ago. She estimates she’s been to 30 buying shows, bringing back unique ideas, new product lines and a wealth of knowledge about consumer trends.

So, let’s jump right in.

Why do you think going to trade shows is a good idea for hardware store owners?
It’s important to keep our stores fresh and to keep a pulse on industry trends. I’ve found that I can only get so much information from on-line sources, so I like to attend in-person events. It makes buying more fun and the products really come to life with personal introductions. It’s a lot like when we get to explain a product to a customer in person.

How many Trade Shows a year do you attend?
We attend between two to five shows a year with two of those being the ACE Hardware Cooperative conventions which take place at different venues each year.

How do you decide where to go?
Besides the ACE shows we take a couple of factors into consideration. Location and timing of a show is important – if we can attend a similar event in a more geographically convenient location, we prefer that. We also very seriously consider category gaps we are trying to fill. For example, in 2011 we planned to upgrade our housewares departments so for the next several years we focused on houseware shows attending a few big ones around the country.

Because of this activity, this is now a healthy product category for us. We continue to attend the shows that we found, rotating a few every other year or so. This exercise has led us to one of our best sources of seasonal décor and housewares.

How do you research what shows you will attend?
We count on word-of-mouth input from other store owners and their buyers. We are fortunate to have a strong network through the ACE Hardware cooperative, many of whom have unique niches for which they source products. We also have supportive vendor partners who tell us what shows they like. Trade Magazines are also a great source of inspiration.

What categories do you look for that you don’t find at ACE?
We have a couple of strong categories that we source inside and outside of our ACE buying program. We like to keep our impulse aisles fresh, so we often look for new and exciting impulse products. I already mentioned our strong housewares program, and I’ll add gifts to that mix.

We are very strong in lawn & garden, so we attend at least one garden show a year. This category includes barbecue
grilling as well as patio furniture, live goods, and a first-class selection of pottery. Also, I’d like to mention the locally made items we carry.

We pride ourselves in carrying things that are produced in our communities – this includes food items, greeting cards, candles, and textiles like dish towels.

What pre-planning do you undertake?
I always start by getting input from store staff – what they want us to look for based on customer requests or gaps they see on the sales floor. Next, I look at our inventory levels to make sure we don’t over-buy. When I look at last year’s sales numbers for a category, I can predict buying levels more accurately. Then I make sure I have lots of business cards and shipping labels to take to the show.

What do you expect to see on the days of the show?
My goal is to see new products first and foremost. I like to be able to interact with items I might have seen on-line so I can judge quality and performance in person. We always look for buying deals like free freight and low order minimums.

Do you look for training opportunities?
We always incorporate training days when possible. Vendor hosted product training, or even training on any of the pieces of technology we use are always useful. One of my favorite events at all the shows we go to is the `Women in Retail` event at our ACE Hardware Convention. I get to interact with dynamic female business owners and leaders from around the country who are always a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

Do you go with a budget in mind?
I’m fortunate that I am not given a specific budget. Because we are buying for 13 locations, we believe in spending enough to make the trip worth it. We want a big margin return and if we don’t spend enough, we won’t have enough products to sell.

Because we often buy six months in advance, we give items time to come in, get on the shelves, and time to sell.
Then I report on the success of the items, especially if  they are new or trendy for us. Based on the results, we will gauge the success of a particular show and decide if we should keep attending it.

Who do you take to the show with you?
There are two buyers at our company so at least one of us, sometimes both go to each show. We then add in several store managers to help create enthusiasm and buy-in. It also helps to have more sets of eyes to work the show floor. If a show is local, we take as many managers and sales associates as possible. The team likes the outing and it’s educational.

Do you have any advice for exhibitors on how they display products and engage with visitors?
We like seeing nice stands, fully merchandised with product information and pricing up to date. We like specific show deals or perks, front and centre to draw us in. And snacks! We love treats to keep us energised.

Can you share your post show routine?
We send a detailed report to each of our stores. That report includes purchase order numbers, pictures of each item, and display suggestions.

I think it’s fair to say that trade shows and conventions are an important and frankly fun part of the hardware business. I could not be successful in my current role without visiting these trade shows and bringing back inspiration into our business.

Gina Schaefer is a recently retired ACE Retailer and former co-owner of ‘A Few Cool Hardware Stores’ with her husband Marc and now her employees. They currently have 13 locations that range from 4,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet.
They have expanded from Washington, DC into Baltimore, Silver Spring, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia. They have about 250 employees and will add 50-80 more when their spring season starts. Of the 13 stores they purchased four and built the rest from scratch. Their revenue average is approximately $3.5 Million (€3.3 Million) per location.