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Greatest Hits: Trade Show In A Box (posted 10/18/2010)

car blogIn the September/October issue of Plastic Distributor & Fabricator magazine, there was an announcement from acrylic sheet maker Evonik Cyro (formerly Cyro Industries).

The firm is offering the 'Inspiring Case', a collection of product samples of Acrylite and other plastics. It is being pitched to designers, including those involved with point-of-purchase and store displays.

This is an excellent way to reach out to prospective customers and educate them about your products.

There is nothing new under the sun but - for me - there is a certain irony to the Inspiring Case offering. In early 1980, my small plastics company was appointed as an authorized distributor for Acrylite acrylic sheet. It was a pretty big deal at the time; we were the first new Cyro distributor appointed in Oregon in 20+ years.

Our company also manufactured clear acrylic trade show displays and store fixturing, as well as point-of-purchase displays. We realized that we needed a novel way to promote our offerings to designers and display wholesalers.

Part of the art of small business is getting things done cheaply and creatively. It's a necessary art since small businesses are always strapped for cash.

When my plastics manufacturing business was small and cash-poor, we made lots of errors and missteps but we did one thing which really worked well for us. It was inexpensive, creative, and it brought us lots more money. We called it our Trade Show in a Box.

Our firm manufactured a stock line of display products (made from Acrylite, by the way) and were trying to set up a network of distributors. We'd telephone prospects and follow up with literature and more phone calls. Some of the people we contacted bought from us right away. Others demurred saying, "Why don't you come see us? Or maybe we can visit at the next trade show and see your products and chat."

Unfortunately, we couldn't go see them; we had just enough gas money to travel 50 miles or so, but not enough cash for a cross-country jaunt on an airplane.

We certainly didn't have the tens of thousands of dollars required to exhibit at a major national trade show. Yet we knew we somehow needed to get our prospects' attention and have an opportunity to strut our stuff. If we didn't, we'd probably never get them to buy from us.

When we first became an Acrylite distributor, we were operating from this small building. Unlike some other plastic material suppliers, Cyro didn't have a signage program for its distributors, so we made our own red plastic 'Authorized Acrylite Distributor' sign.

Here's what we did: In 1983, we ordered a bunch of white cardboard boxes. On each face, we screenprinted a cartoon drawing of two characters dressed in tuxedos standing in front of a trade show booth with their arms extended in welcome. A cartoon banner said "Welcome To Our Booth" and had our company name underneath. We printed everything in bright red so it would be noticed.

Inside the box we placed samples of our products and a letter which began: "Hi! Welcome to our trade show booth in a box. We would have had our exhibit at a regular trade show but we couldn't be sure you'd be there. So, we're bringing the trade show to you. If you'll please step inside the box, we'll show you around. Please watch your step there on the cardboard flap. To your left, you'll see one of our most popular items ..."

You get the idea.

When that box arrived on our prospect's desk along with the day's mail, you can be sure we were the people who had his/her attention. Because our Trade Show in a Box was unique and people were amused by it, we got our follow-up phone calls returned. We also got orders. In fact, about 50% of the prospects who received The Box ordered from us within 30 days. A few sent us orders before we had the chance to do follow-up phone calls with them.

The program was amazingly effective. It cost less than $60 per prospect, including product samples, packaging, and shipping. If we were having a good week, we'd send out 12 boxes. If we were strapped for cash, we'd only send out a few.

Our stock display line included transparent acrylic cubes as well as clear display risers. By the time we sold the company in 1989, we had over 525 different display products in stock for immediate shipment.

In a two-year period, we picked up over $700,000 worth of brand new business with this technique. That was a quantum leap for our small company. Those new distributors kept on buying more and more from us each year, becoming loyal customers. Trade Show in a Box was the most successful program we ever did whether we measured its success by percent sales growth, return on promotional investment, or real-world dollars.

How about a clever sales idea you can use to build your business? How can you get the attention of your prospects? Maybe it's some variation on the Trade Show in a Box idea. Or maybe it is the Trade Show in a Box! Please feel free to "borrow" my idea.

Just like Evonik Cyro did.

More of my business advice can be found here.


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The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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