Trade fairs – the not so fair trade afterall

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I was at Top Drawer in London last week meeting up with a couple of my favourite suppliers. I have my visit to that particular fair down to a fine art these days and can arrive at Euston at 12.30, get to Earls Court, do the rounds and be on the 16.30 train back home.

I’ve disliked Top Drawer intensely for about 20 years but they seem to finally have got it right and either realised a few things themselves or had so many complaints that they can now organise a drinkies session at a distillery! It was a joy to attend, and I mean it.

For years it seemed everything was laid out on a first come first served basis – card suppliers next to smelly candle producers, next to babygrow knitters, scattered among jewellery makers. So if you sell one or other of those products but not all you literally had to walk every single isle picking your way between things of no consequence or interest. Your day was an unnecessary right-off.

Added to this, of course, is my own phobia of jewellery! So I’d be walking past some people looking like a rabbit in headlights about to pass out when someone offered me the chance to alight their stand and feel the quality! I think not, my sweaty palms would have slid off anything.

These days it’s so much more of a breeze, I can walk past all the irrelelvant stuff to find what does interest me.

As a matter of course I dropped on to one of the stands whose products I absolutely adore and would fill the website with tomorrow barring one obstacle – they refuse to supply online only stores. If you have a physical shop they will happily supply you, their argument being that shops have a greater financial outlay? It’s a bizarre argument. To be brutal, what do they care what the overheads of a particular shop are? To be fair in business is a lovely and perfect sentiment, and one to which I try to adhere but this one is wrought with anomalies in my opinion.

This piece relates in part to a similar blog that I wrote back in March.

The brand in question, who I will not name and shame because I desperately want their gear, are high value, high quality, superb design and manufacture, yet as far as I am concerned not being entirely honest with their explanation. I would imagine it to be far more a case of protecting their brand and not having the confidence to supply a website without fear of it turning up on some online car boot sale.

Their line was that the overheads are so vast with a physical shop that their allegiance has to be those customers first and foremost. They went so far as to say that they have one online only prospect who is now opening a physical shop on the back of wanting their product – don’t do it – well, don’t do it for the sake of one line!

A few years ago another would-be supplier refused to give me a wholesale price for their stock as they had not yet worked out the prices for online only suppliers? WTF? When I questioned why dual pricing I received the reply because the footfall online is greater yet the overheads of a physical shop so much more that it is unfair to offer the same wholesale price. Interestingly they have now completely sacked that idea off and are biting my hand off to take their wares – I don’t think so.

I remain appalled by the apparent ignorance and naivety displayed on the part of some suppliers. Part of the myth surrounding online retail as I see it is that unless you are a large chain, you’re an unknown commodity. So get to know us, engage with us, try to understand where we’re coming from rather than thinking we’re all on-the-make Delboys! Look at our sites, see how we sell, what we do, who we stock and who our customers are.

When I popped my head onto the stand and said I’d made the enquiry a few years ago and asked if the situation was still the same, I was told yes. And then I heard my voice say “But it’s the 21st Century, how can you still be refusing to deal with online only customers?” And all the same reasons were re-cited……higher overheads for shop owners, they have more at stake, they might also have a website which is OK so the only answer is to open a shop if you want our product.

I responded but I have overheads – not least a warehouse! To wit, many of our shops have warehouses as well as a shop. Then there’s the footfall argument. I think they mean potential footfall. But to get anything like the footfall they imagine takes hours and hours of hard work. So I guess it’s an hourly rate argument. They don’t get that your overhead is your desktime charges. Desktop research, endless reiteration and repetition through the social networking channels, digital marketing as opposed to a printed catalogue or flyer.

Many suppliers selling a design-led item are very precious of their brand, their invention, their commodity and I get that and I respect it. You’re pitching your stuff at a certain level and when you can see a shop you have a much better idea of what you’re policing. You are in control. It seems harder online to maintain that control, but it really isn’t. You only need log on to a website once to know if you want to see your work up there.

What shocks me as well is that while a physical shop might be the bees knees on the High Street, their website is merely a political presence which does them and their produce few, if any, favours.

Take Stringers in Lytham. It’s a local store, a dying breed as a department store not a chain. The produce is fabulous, shopping there is a real joy, I’m a true devotee. But their website serves as an online presence and nothing more. It’s clean, it’s pretty, it’s got pictures which change but beyond that it’s boring and offers you nothing of any real value. One month on and their Christmas shopping times are still front page news. But the shop – I couldn’t be a bigger fan. I buy most of my shoes there, I love their separate homestore. As a supplier you’d look at their site and wonder where you came into the frame.

Take another independently owned Fylde department store – JR Taylors. It sells some of the most cherished brands available, the biggest names in ladies handbags, aspirational lines that sell for a hefty price – it is the definition of luxury round these parts……yet no website of their own that I can find at all just a shocking mention on a local site filled with out of focus photos which does it no service whatsoever.

In some respects you would be forgiven for thinking well who is she to talk? I know, my website is on an old platform, but we go live with the new one within the next month, but it takes time (and money) to trawl through 560 products, remove the links, change the photo sizes, make sure everything is still there…..in the meantime, suppliers – have a rethink maybe. We’re not all schysters trying to cheapen your brand to the lowest level, we’re also trying to build a brand name for ourselves as reputable e-tailers providing some welcome competition to the chain stores.

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