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How can retailers, brands and distributors do business better together at 2024 trade shows? Let’s discuss.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE a pet industry trade show? Shopping for the latest and greatest products. Catching up with friends — professional and personal. Setting your business up for success in the months ahead.

All that said, attending trade shows has its challenges. How could it not with the thousands of attendees and exhibitors involved, each with their own wants and needs and business practices? Are there ways to improve the buying and selling processes at Global Pet Expo, SUPERZOO and the many distributor shows happening across the U.S. in 2024 and beyond?

The PETS+ Brain Squad believes so. Our retailer survey group offers a variety of suggestions here. And as the best business relationships are partnerships, leading brands and distributors share insights and advice in return.

SHOW PREP

Many retailers say that they prefer to get information before shows begin so they can plan better and start the ordering process earlier.

“I’d love to know in advance which brands have new items. That would allow me to better prioritize my limited time at shows,” Shane Somerville of Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, says. Errin Jolley of Purrz and Paws in St. Helens, OR, likes to factor show specials into her prep and shares an example of a distributor that makes it possible: “Animal Health International gives customers a catalog of everything being offered at its show, one week in advance. This gives us time to look over the book, create a game plan for which booths we want to hit first for ordering, and then continue down the list to visit those booths where we want more information on products.”

Retailers say such efforts would benefit brands and distributors, too, in terms of sales and exposure. “I would take better advantage of the deals if I had a week or more to peruse them and plan purchases better,” Karen Conell of The Bark Market in Delavan, WI, says. Jennifer Guevin of Holistic For Pets in Bradenton, FL, adds, “It’s so much easier for me to do my orders in advance and turn them in for the brands and products I know, which leaves me more time at the show to look at new products and vendors.” And pre-orders need not mean brands miss out on increasing a total sale, Marcy Cardona of High Altitude Holistic Pets in Lakewood, CO, points out: “I love to preorder online or via email, and then add products on site.”

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These brands excel at making sure retailers have what they need before the show floor opens. They offer these helpful tips for the most complete prep.
+ SET A TIME — Natalie Hennessy, director of public relations and marketing for P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle And You, recommends booking time with exhibitors on your must-see list: “Making an appointment will ensure you can talk directly with your rep and have dedicated time to discuss new products or anything you may have questions on.”
+ LOOK AT YOUR SALES — “If retailers can be prepared to give feedback on what is selling, what is not selling and what they see for the future, that would be very helpful,” Alexandra Barone, marketing and sales specialist at Tall Tails, says. Britte Bennett, West Paw vice president of sales, adds that with that information, “Reps will be able to offer suggestions of other products to bring in and/or quick training bites on slower-moving items.”
+ BE STRATEGIC TO GET QUICK DELIVERY — Bennett offers tips specific to West Paw, but they also may work with other brands: If you haven’t ordered from the company but plan to, “Fill out our retailer application before the show, as this will make processing your order much easier.” And hit the booth ASAP if you want product ASAP. “Order early to get your product faster! Orders placed on day one of a show ship in less than a week, while orders placed near the end can take up to two weeks.”
+ BRING LABELS — “One little thing that makes life a lot easier for us is when retailers show up with a sheet of address labels that they can stick to the top of an order form, especially if they include email and a phone number,” Barton O’Brien, founder and CEO of BAYDOG, says. “It’s easy to read, facilitates follow-up, and is a big time saver when taking orders.”
+ LEAVE ROOM FOR DISCOVERY — Don’t schedule your every minute with a set list of exhibitors. Leah Nagel, B2B marketing manager for ZippyPaws, offers this advice: “It’s important for retailers to know what they are looking for when going into a show, but to also keep their minds open to new product offerings as new launches often coincide with these major industry events.”

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GO DIGITAL

Quite a few retailers want an update to the ordering process at shows — ditch the paper forms for an online system, they say.

Julie Sterling of Julz Animal Houz in Marysville, WA, would like to see, “An ordering process that can easily be used on an iPad, scan compatible, so we can submit orders by simply scanning SKUs, as opposed to writing everything by hand.” Alexis Quiroga of Pawsitively Sweet Bakery in San Antonio, TX, agrees that it would speed up ordering at booths that have more customers than reps: “We usually have to wait in line — sometimes a very long time — to place orders. How about iPads or kiosks?” And Julie Johannes of Happy Hounds Pet Supply in Bigfork, MT, suggests, “Having a digital catalog that allows one to research products when reps are busy with other customers and to be able to leave feedback or sign up for more info with this method.” Security of payment information ranks as a top tech need for Kirsten Puhr of The NW Dog, Poulsbo, WA. She says, “I don’t love writing credit card info on a piece of paper that could easily get lost.”

BRAND THAT DOES THIS: Tall Tails is among the brands that use tech to speed up ordering. “We utilize a barcode scanning system to write orders quickly and easily,” Barone says.

ELEVATE YOUR CUSTOMER SERVICE

Just as retailers make customer service a priority at their stores, many say they would like to see improvements in this area at trade show booths.

“I’d love to see food brands more prepared with specific information and willing to share that information. When I look for a new brand of food to offer, I ask companies for their digestibility data, who formulates the food and their credentials, and their sourcing,” Elizabeth Zikmund of Give a Dog a Bone in Evansville, IN, explains. “In most cases, whoever is at the booth can’t answer any of those questions, and then I’m in an email thread for months trying to get those questions answered.”

Staffing levels also prove important for retailers such as April Meier of Pawsitively Scrumptious in Crestview, FL. She wishes brands and distributors would, “Have more people at the booths to speak to when there is high volume, and that we can get them to take orders.” For those in-demand brands, Lauren O’Hanlon of Ruff House in Fort Lauderdale, FL, recommends, “Handing out samples or having some sort of incentive to want to be at their booth, especially if we have to wait to talk to them.” And just as Beth Staley and her team at Happy Dog Barkery in Downers Grove, IL, greet all of their customers, she wants exhibitors to, “Acknowledge all buyers coming into their booth.”

Lastly, this suggestion to improve customer service by adjusting booth layout comes from Johnna Devereaux of Fetch RI in Richmond, RI: “Put all new products in one place! I have limited time and don’t want to be searching in between products I already know and carry.”

BRAND THAT DOES THIS: The Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company and Against the Grain Pet Foods booth always has an elevated customer experience. Holly Sher, president and owner, gives as an example: “At each show, we try to always have something fresh and new for our retailers to learn and to engage. From photo ops to giveaways and specials to educational games like a big wheel to learn and save money, we want to keep our retailers excited for the quality food and food innovation they know and expect from Evanger’s.”

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To get the best possible customer service at a show, these brands and distributors offer insight and advice specific to stated retailer concerns.
+ EMAIL AHEAD — Liz Schmitt serves as vice president of sales and marketing for Packer Mellem Sales, and co-owns Momentum Carnivore Nutrition. To get less common questions answered, she offers this recommendation: “Reaching out to the brand before a show to find out the times the knowledge keeper is scheduled for the booth would be a great way to ensure you’re stopping by at the right time.” Bennett with West Paw says, “If a customer knows they want to cover a specific topic, in-depth appointments make sure the right person is available and that they are prepared to answer every question.”
+ SKIP THE BASICS — If you didn’t make an appointment, Jenny Gilcrest, vice president of marketing for Skout’s Honor, says, “There are always a few of us who have more of the scientific knowledge that certain customers are looking for, so retailers can just ask for the best person to answer technical questions.”
+ STICK TO BUSINESS — O’Brien of BAYDOG shares this perspective, which can lead to a mutually respectful relationship that will improve customer service: “For many vendors, especially smaller businesses and startups, a trade show represents a significant investment. Keep this in mind when talking to vendors, and be respectful of their time. They are there to sell their products and try to recoup that large investment. As a vendor, there’s nothing worse than having someone talk your ear off about a topic that has nothing to do with business while potential customers walk on by your booth.”

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MORE SAMPLES, PLEASE

It will come as no surprise to exhibitors that retailers say they want more products to take back to their stores.

David Owens of Barks N’ Rec in Chicago, IL, would like more toys available at shows: “It’s easy to make a durability claim, but we love to put them to the test.” Keeping the trade show momentum high proves important to Cait Lauria of Groomington Coat Factory in Midland Park, NJ.: “I know it will add a lot of weight to my luggage, but my team loves seeing trade show finds, and sometimes the excitement wears off by the time the items ship and arrive.” And Adina Silberstein of Queenie’s Pets in Philadelphia, PA, says she would be more than happy to pay for product samples and points out that the common practice of pre-selling booths, “Makes it zero cash and carry, when some of us would really like some one-off products. Plus, I feel like they could run that as a special and make hella money.”

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Sampling varies not only by brand but by category. These brands explain why some samples may be readily available, while others not. And they share tips on how to get your hands on products to go.
+ ASK AHEAD OF TIME — Hennessy with P.L.A.Y. offers this insight and advice: “If there is something specific a retailer wants to sample, they should reach out to their rep to make sure they bring extras to the show. A lot of vendors use the same inventory they have at the show for other shows, so they may not be able to give any samples out.” Blake Anderssen, founder and CEO of Pet Parents, points out that this will lead to more informed buying at shows: “I encourage retailers to ask for samples ahead of the show to touch and feel the product before, so that they can come prepared with any questions to protect their time during the show.”
+ BE STRATEGIC WITH REQUESTS — Barone of Tall Tails offers this context and tip: “It is very hard for brands to manage extra inventory to give or sell from the booth. Booth space, especially storage space, is extremely limited. The best time to ask for samples is in the afternoon on the last day of the show.” Amy Snell, director of sales and marketing for Northwest Naturals, shares, “We have been known to give away full bags, especially the last half of the show.”
+ ASK FOR SAMPLES TO BE SHIPPED — “For retailers who are on the fence about a product or category of ours, we always offer to ship them samples,” Barone says. As does Northwest Naturals, keeping travel in mind. Snell says, “If the retailer does not have the luggage space, we will send them directly.” Skout’s Honor actually prefers to send samples post-show, for both the retailer’s and brand’s benefit, Gilcrest explains: “Because our products are liquid-filled and can be heavy and difficult to travel with, we don’t bring extra product to give away. We do sometimes offer sample sizes, depending on the products we’re highlighting or what’s new. However, we’re always willing to ship full-size samples to interested customers post-show, either directly or through our distributors, which makes it much more convenient.”

RETHINK SHOW SPECIALS

Specials garnered the most responses to how brands and distributors could improve the show experience for retailers. Answers often varied by size of store, relationship status and attendance at shows.

Corey Heenan of Boutique and Pet Spa in Altamont, NY, says, “We are a very small business that cannot afford to buy $500 of any one thing. I wish they would offer small bundle deals to us little guys. Or potentially more percentage off open stock so we could order three to six of an item instead of 24.” More flexibility in specials ranks high for Diane Marcin of Benny’s Pet Depot in Mechanicsburg, PA: “How about a ‘Build Your Own ISO’? Make it the same discount as the ones that are already put together. I’d love to bring in new lines at 30% to 35% off, but I’m not going to spend $850 on one new toy line.” And Natalya Schilling of Pets on Brady in Milwaukee, WI, suggests, “Not one but two initial stocking order first deliveries, at least for indie stores like mine.” She explains that this would encourage those with smaller budgets to take a chance on a new line. “Sometimes at a trade show, I don’t realize how good the products are and thus miss out on delivering an amazing new product to my customers.”

Such changes would boost show attendance by smaller stores, many retailers point out. “2023 was the first year that I didn’t go to a trade show. It wasn’t worth the cost to travel to not be able to buy a bunch of products because, sadly, most of the specials are for large deals and pallets,” Nicoll Vincent of For K-9s & Felines in Westfield, MA, says.

Be sure to give love to existing customers at shows, Lorin Grow of Natural Pawz stores in Texas reminds: “Stop chasing the new retailers with promos and leaving out those of us who already have you, support you, promote you and sell you. I’ve lost count of how many times the deals were only available to new stores. I came to buy, so reward me for that, my representation of your line in my store, and my loyalty.”

The point about which retailers disagree most when it comes to show specials: attendance.

Sam Ellsworth of Sacandaga Dog Supply in Northville, NY, explains that, “Many times, the show is during our work week, and we can’t shut the store down to attend.” He asks that brands and distributors, “Offer show deals without actually having to go to the show in person.” Doug Staley of Pet Palace of New City in New City, NY, agrees: “Since trade shows are getting harder to physically attend due to staff shortages, get show deals out electronically faster and offer those discounts regardless of whether you attend or not.”

While some retailers said that those who do not attend shows should not be eligible for the specials, Pattie Zeller of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, VA, offers a compromise: “Give show attendees a bigger show special than the discount offered to those who don’t go to the show. We spend our time, dollars and travel to go to the shows to buy products and honor our suppliers with our support. We deserve a bigger discount than retailers who wait to see what’s going to be online and shop from home.”

DISTRIBUTOR THAT DOES THIS: Missy Limbeck, marketing manager of Pet Palette Distribution, says, “We are familiar with the challenges retailers face in leaving their stores to attend shows. For that reason, we always make our show deals available to everyone, whether they attend the show or not.”

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While most brands featured here say they will work with retailers when it comes to specials, these offer specific insight and advice on negotiating.
+ LOOK FOR BRANDS WILLING TO BE FLEXIBLE — Schmitt says, “To me that’s a clear indicator if that brand is going to be an independent retailer partner or not. Always ask for what you need. The brand should know their margins and what one-off deals they can make. With Momentum, or any brand Packer Mellem represents, we never want a store to bring in more than they should just to get a deal and would much rather edit down deal quantities than end up with short-dated product to discount further later. We want things to turn on the shelf quickly, too!”
+ JUST ASK — Green Juju founder Kelley Marian says, “We structure our deals for these shows with the most aggressive offering we have, so that’s typically the highest we can offer. If a retailer needs something smaller to accommodate a smaller store, it never hurts to ask. We were all small at one point.”
+ BRING SOMETHING TO THE BARGAINING TABLE — “As a small and growing business, we’re very commercial. Therefore we will always work to get to ‘Yes,’” BAYDOG’S Barton says. “That said, our trade show specials are pretty liberal, so we don’t often do many deals above and beyond. The advice I would give to retailers looking to cut a deal is to remember that every deal is two-sided — if you’re going to get a better deal, you have to be able to offer something in return, like a large initial order size, multiple locations and guaranteed re-orders.
+ GET IT IN WRITING — This helpful advice comes from the Pet Industry Distributors Association: Any “special” specials that involve distributors “should always be a discussion between the store, the distributor sales rep and the manufacturer rep. These discussions should be documented in writing and followed up upon quickly. Very often, what is stated as the agreement after the show varies from what the participants ‘heard’ on the show floor, which can cause hard feelings and confusion.”

IMPROVE CLARITY

Retailers say certain elements of trade and distributor shows leave them searching for answers or explanations. They offer recommendations on how to provide information and clarity throughout the buying process, from shopping in the booth to receiving orders at their stores.

Jennie Dudley of Hairy Winston in Mount Pleasant, SC, has a simple request: “It would be extremely helpful to prominently post show deals. I truly believe more people would stop at booths they normally wouldn’t if they saw the deals offered.” Shari Wilkins of Lake Dog and Their People in Eufaula, OK, agrees and also would like to see a sales sheet at each booth that lists: “Minimum quantity or other order requirements, shipping and any additional fees, whether products are in stock and approximate shipping time, plus a contact name, email and phone number.”

When discussing deals at the booth, Jeffrey Jensen of Four Muddy Paws in St. Louis, MO, would like more clarity on how brands and distributors give discounts: “They should issue our discount off of our cost with the vendor and not the list price. Too often, the deals aren’t even deals because the percentage off is off of list and our cost is lower than their discount in some cases. It’s very confusing to understand if we’re actually getting a deal or not.” In addition, Erin Paitrick of Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming in Summerville, SC, says, “I’d like to see the invoice show the details of the SKUs and pricing instead of just one lump price for the whole thing. It takes quite a bit of time to try to piece all the info together and determine our retail pricing that way.”

Annabell Bivens of The Dog Store in Alexandria, VA, would like clearer instructions on submitting orders: “Some want orders in early, some have perforated sheets and I don’t know what side they want to be turned in, and sometimes they prefer online. I just need to know.”

And many retailers say they want to leave the booth with proof of their order. Karen Komisar of Sea Dog Pet Boutique in Annapolis, MD, wants exhibitors to, “Be able to provide a copy of the order sheet. So many vendors do not provide a copy or email of order for tracking purposes.”

Many retailers also stress the importance of clarity on whether products are in stock and/or when they are expected for delivery. McKenna Burzimati of Roxie’s Barkery in North Adams, MA, attended her first distributor show earlier this year:“I was under the impression that what I was placing orders for at the show would be in stock. Many items have been backordered.” Gloria Von Zech of The Principled Pet in Collingswood, NJ, seconds this request and adds, “Don’t over promise! Give accurate new product release dates.”

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EXTEND THE ORDERING PERIOD

Speaking of ordering, a top request from retailers: Allow more time after the show to place orders and take advantage of specials.

Chris Welling of Woof Gang Bakery and Grooming in Estero, FL, points out, “Many owners attend the show and like to discuss with store managers the items they come back with.” She would like to “have until one week after the show ends to get orders in.” And in reverse, some store managers must meet with higher-ups before placing orders. “Sometimes there is an approval process, and we cannot place an order on the spot,” Stephanie Salvago of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society in Birmingham, AL, says.

Elaina Stanley of Three Happy Hounds in Fernley, NV, says a tight deadline actually can discourage her from placing an order: “With so much going on at the show, especially afterwards, there’s no way I can stay up writing orders to turn in before leaving. If I can’t take orders home to review and place later, I most likely won’t place the order.” Jennifer Larsen of Firehouse Pet Shop in Wenatchee, WA, says having a later deadline allows for vacationing around trade shows: “We really appreciate brands that allow time after the event to get orders submitted. We don’t go right back to work, and having the extra days allows us to write better orders.”

BRAND & DISTRIBUTOR THAT DO THIS: Earthbath remains open to extensions, Western Territory Sales Manager Carla Ng-Garrett says, “If retailers find they’ve run out of time trying to turn in their purchase orders, they can always check with the sales team (brand or distributor rep, whomever they are purchasing from) for extensions. They will do their best to work with the retailer to get orders turned in!” Pet Palette sets later deadlines in general. “We extend our deals well beyond the end of the tradeshow so that our customers can get back to their stores, look through the discounts on our website, and place a well-thought-out order rather than rushing to make decisions,” Limbeck says.

FOLLOW UP

Finally, several retailers would like to see brands and distributors strengthen their after-show customer service.

Samantha Youngblood of Youngblood’s Natural Animal Care Center and Massage in Wilkinson, IN, pleads, “If I leave my information for you to reach out after the show, please reach out!” Pam Campbell of Bonediggity Barkery & Gifts in Gatlinburg, TN, especially wants to hear from brands and distributors she starts or continues a business relationship with: “Follow up with customers, especially if they place an order!” And Lisa Kirschner of Sit, Stay, ‘N Play in Stroudsburg, PA, would like them to, “Follow up with us after the sale to see how the product is doing and if we need any support selling it or education.”

ADD THESE ITEMS TO YOUR TO-DO LIST
The definition of a realistic timeframe for follow-up varies by brand, but those here all stressed the importance of working together.
+ GET A DIRECT CONTACT — “At Pet Parents, we generally follow up that next week back from a show,” Mikaela Stanley, product manager, says. “That being said, it never hurts to take a brands’ direct email information/card to ensure that neither side is forgetting nor potentially losing any information. Brands typically want more retailers just as retailers want top brands. It’s a partnership and should be treated as such.” If you misplace contact info, David Deorenzo of North Coast Seafoods points out, “Physical and e-cards and contacts through the show website are great ways to access exhibitors post-show.”
+ ADJUST EXPECTATIONS — Schmitt of Packer Mellem and Momentum Carnivore Nutrition, says, “Sometimes brands are showing things that won’t launch for several months, so keep that in mind if you’re not hearing back quickly.”
+ TAKE THE INITIATIVE — “The week following a show is very hectic for brands. We are catching up from a week away from the office as well as trying to follow up as much as possible from show to-do’s. One to two weeks post-show is a realistic timeframe for follow-up, and if you don’t hear from us, we definitely encourage you to follow up with us,” Barone of Tall Tails says.

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