Last year, Portland, Maine–based Emery-Waterhouse added a little technical functionality to its annual summer road-show book and catalog sales blitz: The New England hardlines distributor took to cyberspace, launching a virtual trade show to complement traditional catalog-based sales and offer pro dealers some innovation when it came to large-scale, annual purchasing events. The result was a 32 percent jump in sales over using catalogs alone, and a waiting list of vendors and customers alike who were eager to get in on the action in 2006.
“Last year was really a bare-bones version to see what kind of reception we would get,” says Emery senior vice president Don Dickson. “We literally just put our road-show book online. Concept-wise we wanted to know if people would get on the site. Our primary goal was participation.”
Mission accomplished, according to Emery project manager Stephanie Cochrane, who says vendor participation jumped from 122 last year to 175 at this year's Emery OnlineXpo 2006, which was held July 26–27 and was powered by software from Bannockburn, Ill.–based virtual trade show host and producer InXpo. In addition to sellers, registered purchasing locations exploded, too, with a 20 percent increase in registrations over 2005.
With industry commitments from trade shows to conferences continuing to take up precious executive calendar space, interest in online trade shows for pro dealers is definitely beginning to build. In August, New Windsor, N.Y.–based LBM co-op ENAP launched its first annual virtual show, the ENAP Online Marketplace, to complement the co-op's main spring stockholder meeting and trade show. “Many segments of the industry still host two to three physical trade shows per year, so competitive situations necessitate additional buying opportunities, and the Internet was the next best step and the foundation for future [ENAP] events,” says ENAP director of marketing Kate Weissmann.
While both ENAP and Emery-Waterhouse stress that virtual shows will never take the place of annual face-to-face gatherings, both virtual players have been impressed thus far with the technological savvy and participation from dealers, who log on and navigate a virtual showroom floor, interacting with display ad copy and images of supplier specials or, in the case of the Emery OnlineXpo, in real time with vendors via e-mail or instant messenger. Over the course of August, for example, ENAP logged 4,500 hits on its trade show floor, and estimations are that more than 50 percent of the co-op's membership shopped via the online marketplace, according to Weissmann.
To enhance both the dealer and vendor experience, Emery-Waterhouse made some sweet upgrades to this year's virtual trade show. In order to accommodate the increase in vendor participation, the trade show was split into two virtual “halls,” allowing hall vendors to be visible on one screen. While users explored the hall, the online interface played background noise and muted conversation to simulate the buzz of an actual trade show floor. When a buyer entered a virtual vendor booth, the background noise was muted, allowing vendors to show product demo videos to and interact with their dealer visitors.
According to Dickson, Emery-Waterhouse is out to differentiate, not “out-Ace Ace or out-Orgill.” Still, he thinks it is important for dealers to take note of the strides their channel partners—especially the smaller ones—are making in technology. “We're not up here operating out of a lean-to,” he says. Just like their independent dealer customers, “the fact is that we have to do innovative things like this and keep coming up with new innovations over the same old, same old that the industry tends to get stuck in.”