Friday, August 28, 2009

Back from the New York Gift Show

The New York Gift Show, the biggest retail trade show of the year, took place last week. It's essentially a giant show-and-tell; thousands of producers and wholesalers, fair traders among them, set up booths to display their wares and pitch them to retail stores.

It's also a place to take the industry pulse. At this show, the calculus shifted. The pain we felt last fall at the retail level hit the suppliers this year; they received many fewer orders from stores and catalogues. They lacked funds to develop new products. These, combined with internet growth and the huge, high-risk expense of trade show space, led many vendors to sit this one out. The waiting list for show space used to be around 7 years. This time, many new vendors got in easily. The convention center wasn't filled.

Some of the changes I spotted were these:

Most South African vendors were gone. Whereas I might have had 12 sources in the past, I only found three who met my criteria. I suspect that government subsidies have decreased. Most Russian vendors were gone, too. I talked to a Russian supplier about what was going on there. He reported that the artisans had become unwilling to produce work for the lower end of the market. Getting goods out of Russia had become a huge problem. He had no new products.

My dilemma: carry the same merchandise as in the past, or find other vendors with new products?

Often, a country's trade commission or US AID will sponsor vendors to showcase their wares and jump-start their orders. This only works if it's done right. I saw wonderful wares from Kenyan and Afghan cooperatives at this show, but there was a giant missing link in the artist-to-shopper chain. The retailer (that would be me) had to arrange shipping from the country of origin and shepherd the merchandise through US customs. Most retailers aren't set up for this; it's expensive and time-consuming, and the risk of running afoul of customs regulations is high.

Changes in recycled wares were striking. Much more was available; it's becoming mainstream. But inevitably, as larger companies take it on, the small groups that spent years developing the products ad markets are getting pushed out. That is always sad to witness.

When Bulgaria joined the EU, the price for pottery testing (all our Bulgarian pottery is food-safe) went up. When the euro rose against the dollar, the price of raw materials went up for artisan groups in the Middle East, and the wholesale prices quickly followed suit. On the other hand, when Poland joined the Economic Union, finding the provenance of the jewelry became easier. Gratifyingly, the Fair Trade Federation has been working on behalf of its members to negotiate prices and increase member visibility. At this show, the fair-trade presence was evident. Retailers were introduced to the concept of fair trade, and vendors learned that fair trade matters to retailers.

There were far fewer Christmas ornaments to choose from. There was far more jewelry. I'm not sure of the takeaway; are ornaments non-essential in a slumping economy, whereas jewelry is a necessity?As always, lots of food for thought. I'm always amazed at how many issues converge in this industry.