Friday, June 5, 2020

Trade Shows Post-Pandemic

Trade shows have been an essential part of the jewelry business in the US for the last half century or more.  We have seen transitions, expansions, contractions, and evolution over those years, but we now confront unfamiliar, highly disruptive forces. Pandemic and social distress.

The pandemic will leave us with an altered retail environment, but it is one that was coming slowly anyway.  Department stores have not been able to counter the efficiencies and range of cyber-retail, and have been shrinking and fading for years now.  Independent stores of all sorts, not just jewelry, have also been disappearing at a rapid rate, though mostly because the country became badly over-stored in the boom years of the malls, and for many other reasons.

So something had to change.  We didn't know into what, but we did know that retail formats were not keeping up with how people lived, worked, and shopped.

What I recall so clearly are the halcyon days when there were dozens of expanding jewelry chains and working at trade shows meant appointments from opening day to the last hours of the show.  For a few years now a few chains dominated, with many dozens of others either closed or merged.  There went the endless appointments.

It was also a time when there were nearly three times as many independent jewelers in the country then there are now.

Some trade shows used to have vendor waiting lists.  Trade shows used to have aisles crowded with buyers.  Trade shows used to be big party times.  Much of that is gone now, pandemic or not.

Does that mean trade shows should disappear?  Not at all.  I listened in today on a CIBJO event on the subject, where the speakers were from four major shows - Basel, JCK, Hong Kong and Vicenza.  It was informative and confirmation of the problems. All the participants fully acknowledged that the shows will be back, but not as we have known them.

There are the obvious new issues to deal with, principally procedures to protect visitors from Covid-19, and dealing with what will probably be a slow return of both buyers and vendors.  There was a consensus that any show going forward will need to be virtual as well as actual, though nobody is sure what that will look like or how effective it will be.  No doubt, plans are being developed that were not revealed during the session.

This is going to be tough, and many questions remain open.  Will the shows shrink to match turnout, and if so, how will the costs be carried?  Will vendors and buyers pay more to attend?  At least as far as we can see, air travel will be resisted, and may not be available.  Will hotels and restaurants be set up to deal safely with conventions?  And how will merchandise be sanitized and handled as they go from one person to another, a problem confronting retailers as well?  And will the shows survive if 2021 does not work?  If an effective way is developed to promote lines on virtual shows, will that in turn produce more actual shows, perhaps more focused and smaller, but more expensive?

If we dig into the issue, the questions and possible solutions are almost endless.  No doubt that the efforts will be made, and 2021 will be the first test of new show models.

However it turns out, shows have real value in this business.  There is serendipity - the chance discovery of a previously unknown line that suits a retailer's business.  There is the importance of working on and deepening partnerships between retailers and vendors, on how to handle product that does not turn well, for example.  There is the maintenance of industry relationships - we are, after all, a small industry - that help in learning about new ways to promote and sell, in hearing of trends, and in general education.

The path will be found, because jewelry has timeless attraction.  It isn't going away!  But shows will need to be relevant, accessible, affordable, and fun!

No comments: