Don’t tell me what to buy

I recently attended a trade show and had a rather bizarre experience of what I’d call “forced merchandising”. I will give a little bit of background so you have a frame of reference. First of all, I love trade shows and will attend any related trade show that I can get into with the business credentials that I have. Often I attend trade shows for ideas, inspiration, to find out about new products, and stay updated with trends in retail.

Other industries often have merchandising, product, packaging and promotion ideas that the apparel industry can adopt, and this is why I love these shows. However, all too often, you’ll see companies in other industries who try to get into apparel and never develop an understanding of the market well enough to service retailers adequately (the subject of this post).

As I was lingering in an aisle waiting for my friend, I spotted a booth. This was a “beauty” products company that seemed to be starting to offer a line of what I would call “lifestyle lounge wear.” Think Hampton’s, beach house attire, Martha Stewart Living or Real Simple magazine. After eyeing the merchandise I felt that I should just go over and ask about the line.


One of the first things I noticed was that they probably would have fit problems with some of their tops. They were made of a woven, non-stretch material, and the armpits seemed to extend too far, but that’s a whole other story. I asked about price points and asked for a line sheet when the sales rep showed me a document that explained their minimums.

Now, one thing you should know is that in the “beauty” or bath and body industry, it is very common for a company to have an overall minimum and a merchandising requirement. That means that in order to write an opening order, you may be required to purchase stipulated quantities so that you can merchandise the entire line.

One example of this is that they put together merchandising collections and if you want that portion of the line, this is your opening order. For example, let’s say there is a line with two collections: Summer Rose and Spring Rain. The requirement may be if you choose to order one of the collections you must order 2 bottles of 8 oz hand creme, 4 bottles of bath and shower gel, 4 bars of 4 oz soap, and so on. The goal is to make sure you are merchandising appropriately and not offering a little bit here and there (also known as “cherry picking”).

Well, this company had done the same with their apparel collection! They required merchandising by story (they had three print collections and three items in each print collection), and they had size run requirements. To top it off, certain “merchandising packs” were offered only to new customers, while others were offered to repeat customers.

This struck me completely off guard. In fact, I can’t think of a time when I have ever seen something like this out of the smaller companies. Prepacks exist but I have not seen something that required not only a pre-pack, but required you to offer specific items. Obviously requiring merchandising of an entire line is common in beauty and bath but it’s not common to apparel! You can’t force buyers to merchandise your entire line. If you want to stay in business, you can’t tell me what to buy.

What if my customers are all small, what if they are a bit larger, what if they don’t like the sleeveless top because they are older and prefer cap sleeves or 3/4 sleeves? When looking at this line, I thought it would be great “filler” (more about that in a later post) because sometimes you end up with gaps in your merchandising and you find a company, but you only want one style that they have to offer, not everything. You don’t need to merchandise their line because you are buying their line to merchandise with something else you have.

As you can see, the incident with that company still bothers me. I joked to my friend that I felt so offended that I wanted to walk back to that booth and give the catalog back (by the way, it was beautiful) but, it was a large trade show floor.

Now, the company did a lot of things right, first of all, they had professional line sheets and a fold out “catalog” with photos. In the beauty industry full color catalogs are practically a necessity, so they didn’t have sketched line sheets. They also had very clear terms and conditions. Lastly, they had a gorgeous booth that was well merchandised, all necessities carried over as a result of being in that industry.

But I have the feeling that they just didn’t understand how apparel buyers buy. And I’m sure that isn’t their primary market, but companies that retail bath and body products usually carry simpler apparel like robes and pajamas. They were crossing over into another market, but creating their own roadblocks. It probably would have been more effective if they offered merchandising suggestions rather than requiring a specific type of “buy in” to open the order.

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2 comments

  1. Patty Sampson says:

    I enjoyed the post about the trade show, and it prompts me to ask about how to create a professional looking line sheet. I am a trade show first timer, and feel intimidated about not being properly prepared. I have looked at trade show display web sites,and I feel that the displays available for purchase lack creativity. Is it appropriate to do something unusual, and “whimsical”, or is this serious business that requires cheap royal blue polyester table cloths, and banners printed on vinyl?
    I am thinking of choosing a satellite show that is held twice a year in conjunction with the MPLS gift mart. I have used Kathleen’s book, and would love it if she happened to be sitting in my livingroom right now so I could pump her for information. The fact that I live in northern Minnesota probably precludes her arrival on my doorstep in February. I look forward to any input I may find in response to this quiry.

  2. MW says:

    You should never show at a show that you haven’t visited. If you’re showing at a gift show, then the sky is the limit. I have seen all types of booths at shows like that. Whereas with many smaller apparel shows, they seem to prefer booths that fit in with the standard curtain, racks, table etc…

    Be careful. Because one large cost is the transport of the booth back and forth. AND having to pay (in most cases) union dues to the people working at the location to bring your booth stuff from the loading dock to your booth space.

    I love the gift show for their creative displays and merchandising. So I would get inspired, within reason and budget.

    There is also another post somewhere around here about creating a line sheet :)

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