Show Time: The Insider’s Guide to Shopping the Shows

To help you prowl the aisles and return with the products and connections you need to succeed, we ask the experts for conventional wisdom and trade-show tactics.

Even with the advent of technology that allows us to connect with business associates down the street or half a world away without leaving our desks, trade shows remain the lifeblood of the jewelry industry. Meeting designers in person, getting a hands-on look at merchandise, and chatting with peers and partners are vital elements to a thriving business. We may be plugged in to the world via smartphones, laptops, and other high-tech devices, but for many of us, trade shows are still the highlight of our business experience.

JCK consulted with retailers who have participated in industry trade shows for years—in some cases decades—to get their perspectives on what makes the magic happen once the convention-center doors open. They imparted valuable advice and scores of insights.

Show Layout

“I actually study the floor plan first,” Cathy Calhoun, owner of Calhoun Jewelers in Royersford, Pa., says of her strategy for tackling a trade-show floor. “I map out what I’m going to do by sections.” This divide-and-conquer approach makes even large shows like JCK Las Vegas manageable; Calhoun says breaking her agenda into chunks keeps her from wasting time and energy retracing her steps.

Image Credit: © 2010 Reed Exhibition Companies

“We create a copy of the show floor map from the website and highlight each of the suppliers we work with,” says Abe Sherman, president of Napa, Calif.-based Buyers International Group. “Then we add a list of their booth numbers in numerical order and work through the show in a very methodical way.” This method saves his staff a lot of time, particularly at larger shows.

Gary Gordon, president of Samuel Gordon Jewelers in Oklahoma City, uses a similarly methodical method. He divides vendors by category, then searches for new vendors offering similar wares. He color-codes them by product category and whether they are current or prospective suppliers. Finally, he puts the entire list in sequence so he can work his way up and down the aisles without doubling back.

Some trade shows group new designers together; all of the experts recommend taking time to walk through this area to learn about the “next big things” in development. For shows that don’t have such a section, do a bit of homework. Look on the show website for new exhibitors, or check out trade magazines to learn about new people and products.

Time Management

Lasting nearly an entire week, JCK Las Vegas is one of the industry’s longest shows. But even that stretch of time passes quickly, say attendees. Creating a “time budget” is one of the best ways to stay on track.

“Oftentimes I see attendees walking aimlessly, hoping to see something that sparks their attention,” says Kathy Corey, vice president of merchandising for New England chain Day’s -Jewelers. Avoid that glazed-over look by making a schedule.

Ideally, 60 percent of your time should be filled with vendor appointments. Leave yourself with 30 percent free time to check out new vendors. These unscheduled minutes also act as a cushion, since one late appointment can throw off your entire day. Allow 15 to 30 minutes between appointments, advises Corey. Finally, allot 10 percent of your time to education sessions (about one hourlong session per day).

All of the industry insiders JCK spoke with agreed on one point: Making appointments with vendors on your “must-see” list is crucial. Put vendors that don’t travel to stores or bring only a limited selection when they do at the top of your list. To conserve time, assign lower priority to vendors you see regularly in one-on-one meetings.

Calhoun says she always makes an appointment with popular vendors such as Simon G., Hearts On Fire, Frederick Goldman, and Rembrandt Charms to ensure she’ll get face time. Even if you have an appointment, the exhibitor might be occupied at the prearranged time. Keep a B-list of other booths nearby to visit while waiting, she says.

The Buying Process

Even veteran show-goers admit they don’t always stick to their budget. Getting your necessary purchases out of the way first is advisable; otherwise, impulse buys can eat up a big chunk of your funds. Build a small margin into your budget so you’re not cutting into inventory replenishment money if you happen across something new and exciting.

Image Credit: © 2010 Reed Exhibition Companies

Show regulars are divided on the best time to buy. Some swear by waiting until the last minute in hopes that vendors will be more open to making deals. The downside of this approach: Early birds could scoop up hot items—or the show might close before you complete your buying goals. If an item is a must-have, don’t leave its purchase to chance.

“My attendees want to go first and fast because exhibitors can run out of product,” says Robert Kolinek, president and CEO of Helen Brett Enterprises, a Lisle, Ill., producer that puts on 11 regional gift, jewelry, and apparel trade shows annually. “Try to pre-shop,” he advises. “Know where you’re going to go and who you want to see.”

And though you want to get great deals for your trade show dollars, Gordon claims that hardball negotiating isn’t the best tactic. While the recession wasn’t kind to retailers, the financial crisis actually hit designers harder, he says; many designers simply don’t have the flexibility in their pricing that they did back when the economy was booming. There are, however, ways to get your money to work harder for you.

He suggests asking for a lower cost on the condition that if the items sell out within a predetermined time frame, you’ll reorder automatically. “It gives vendors a ray of hope that they’ll have additional orders,” advises Gordon. And if a vendor requires a minimum order that seems too high, see if you can get a lower minimum by taking additional items on consignment.

Gordon always inquires if vendors have new or updated customer handout material or in-store display. “It’s not automatically offered, but most of the time it’s free, and most of the really sharp vendors do offer it.”

Industry Education

As retailers get more sophisticated, industry education has become increasingly important. At JCK Las Vegas, organizers recognized this by moving sessions to the show floor, rather than running education tracks in a different facility.

In a poor economy, sessions that teach how-to basics for retailers are very popular, says Yancy Weinrich, industry vice president for JCK Events. “The business-focused tracks covering topics like merchandising and inventory are very well attended and received.”

David Peters, director of education and member services for Jewelers of America, visits seven or eight jewelry shows each year to discern what attendees most want to learn when it comes to industry education. “In the good years, people have a tendency to explore their interests more,” Peters observes. “Maybe they’ll attend more gemological seminars or generalized skill seminars. Now, they really want just-in-time information as opposed to having the luxury to think of education as an exploration of their interests.”

Education pertaining to social networking or social marketing is also popular, according to Peters, as more retailers look for ways to reach out to customers in a more targeted fashion. “I’ve attended good sessions on viral marketing and social media,” he says. Peters refers to the potential of the Internet as a “giant toolbox,” adding that today’s smart retailers want to learn all they can about using the tools inside.

When it comes to education in general, Peters suggests embracing anything that takes you outside your comfort zone. What might seem strange or difficult could be your business’s next big breakthrough.

Image Credit: © 2010 Reed Exhibition Companies


What makes trade shows different from one-on-one meetings or Internet orders is the critical mass of people and the buzz of ideas around the floor. Make the most of this wealth of knowledge at events hosted by vendors or show organizers after show hours.

Michelle Orman, owner of jewelry-industry public relations firm Last Word Communications, emphasizes the importance of on-site connections: “Get as many business cards as you can.” At the same time, she adds, try to keep a low-key attitude. “This industry isn’t necessarily keen on a hard pitch. It’s more about creating the basis of a relationship.” If the idea of breaking into a group of people conversing is intimidating, strike up a conversation with someone else who’s alone, suggests Jefferson Davis, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based trade-show consulting firm Competitive Edge.

Networking is a great way to look for a mentor or find someone with whom you can brainstorm ideas, notes Davis. Seek out individuals with a business similar to yours but in another geographic location—that way, there’s no element of competition. Offer to buy them lunch or a cup of coffee during the show in exchange for a few moments of their time and expertise. “The key is to be friendly,” he advises. “Don’t be too aggressive.” In other words, use the same manner you’ve probably already mastered in the course of running your business.