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Comment: What’s the point of trade shows without the product?

Graeme Moran

As trade shows evolve and change to stay relevant, Drapers’ Graeme Moran asks whether there is a future in trade shows that exhibit no product.

The autumn 18 circuit of international trade shows heralded examples of how fairs could evolve to stay relevant. There were expansions and introductions, such as the experiential exhibitions at London’s Jacket Required and CIFF in Copenhagen, and new additions, as in Pure London’s manufacturing-focused Pure Origin area. All added to the discussion of what trade shows could – or should – become in the future.

An emerging trend I spotted was brands moving away from the classic product-focused trade show format in favour of a new, productless approach – showing less and less, or even no clothes on stands at all. But is this the direction trade shows should go?

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Samsøe & Samsøe had no product at all at Revolver – instead its “social table” displayed digital content

At Revolver in Copenhagen, for example, Danish brand Samsøe & Samsøe exhibited no clothes at all. It did away with its usual rails in favour of a “social table” that featured interactive digital screens on which buyers could watch videos, flick through digital lookbooks and browse line sheets online. Food and drinks were served, creating a busy hub in the centre of the fair where customers could socialise. Head of international sales Vitus Overgaard told Drapers the brand sees trade shows as a “social platform”, admitting that its intention was to focus on “people and relationships nowadays – it’s not about the product for us”. Buyers had to go to the brand’s main showroom, also located in the city, to see the clothes.

[We focus on] people and relationships nowadays – it’s not about the product for us

            Vitus Overgaard, Samsøe & Samsøe

Over at CIFF, the other Copenhagen trade show, Italian label Patrizia Pepe was aiming to re-enter the Scandinavian market with a new look. Its stand was dominated by a large screen which played singer Dua Lipa’s latest music video. As the face of the brand’s latest campaign, the singer was dressed in its designs. Two rails featured a very small selection of the clothes.

Brands such as Marc Cain have followed a similar approach at German trade show Panorama for a number of seasons, doing away with presenting its whole collection in favour of small showcases. For autumn 18, it built an eye-catching stand that allowed visitors to “immerse themselves in [a] ‘dream-like’ fantasy world”, only showing parts of its new 30-piece sleepwear range.

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Marc Cain at German trade show Panorama, autumn 18

While these examples offered new ways for visitors to engage with brands, frankly, I just wanted to see the product. Although excellent marketing tools, giving a sense of the brand’s style and positioning, it is not enough to replace the product itself. I was at the trade show to touch fabrics and inspect fit, check the construction of a garment and judge the quality of the clothes in person, and I know most buyers feel the same.

In a world where everyone, particularly buyers, are time poor, moving away from this focus on product at trade shows seems strange and makes them a bit of a waste of time. Yes, fairs are excellent networking platforms and great marketing opportunities, but should that be their main focus going forward? This approach seems to be working for some, such as Marc Cain, but how can we persuade buyers to take the time to visit various international trade events if they can’t even get access to the clothes they are there to look at?

If more brands removed the emphasis from the products, I worry that more buyers will abandon trade shows altogether

One buyer from London agreed, saying they were “a little confused” by one brand’s productless stand. “I still need to see, touch and try on the product as compositions and fit vary,” they said. “If all brands went this route I may as well just view the videos from my own comfy sofa at home.”

Even though some in the industry argue that fewer and fewer orders are written at trade shows, if more brands remove the emphasis from the products, I worry that more buyers will abandon trade shows altogether.

Updates to the traditional trade show format are certainly needed, and welcomed, to keep both brands and buyers interested. And while new, productless approaches might work for some brands, the core focus of any of these innovations should always be the product, encouraging buyers to see collections at trade shows rather than giving them another reason not to attend.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The lack of product of Trade events is an interesting concept. It may be too surreal for some, but it does highlight a general point - That product was always secondary at Trade Shows. The primary function was and always will be, the people - despite the shows increasingly irrelevance.

    Back in the day before the politics crept in and everyone was more on a equal footing, Trade Shows were events where brands and retailers would blow their expenses budget on what was a corporate Jolly. You would be plied with free beer, free beer and more free beer. You didn't want to place an order because you would be so smashed you couldn't remember what would then be delivered to you door in 6 months time, so you always did the real business in store with a clearer head.

    Those days have largely gone and are not coming back, but with trade shows in permanent decline, anything new concept has be given a go, before we look back in our retirement homes and reminisce about the concept that never moved out of the 20th Century.

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