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Notes from Atlanta Shoe Market: What it’s Like to Be at a Trade Show Again

Photos Courtesy of The Atlanta Shoe Market.

So this is what a trade show looks like, I thought to myself as I walked into the Cobb Galleria Hall. As we all know, it has been over one year since we walked the aisles of a trade show. And like everyone else, I never thought I would miss trade shows. Borrowing from Joni Mitchell, “that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Now we all had concerns about traveling, including travel restrictions and our own personal  comfort level during these COVID times. I decided to drive to Atlanta. I have to say that executive director Laura Conwell-O’Brien and the Southeastern Shoe Travelers (SEST) took every precaution necessary to make sure every attendee at last week’s Atlanta Shoe Market trade show felt comfortable, which was one of the reasons I got in the car. Temperature checks  before you entered the building. Color coded wrist bands to reflect that day. Hand sanitizers all around. Monitors to check for face mask compliance. And that was before you got into the hall. It was done so effortlessly and seamlessly, that you did not give it a second thought. Once inside, well-spaced aisles and plenty of room to maintain social distance made it comfortable to walk the show.

The executives staffing the booths were all happy to be there — and just as important, thankful to be there. All were engaging in their conversations. It’s what was missing in our channel. A place to see footwear trends. A place to see and talk with brand executives. With other retailers. With friends. With new brands. And of course, to see new products. But not only see... to also pick up, hold, turn over, flex and appreciate the designs.

To the retailers who attended, the brands certainly appreciated it. To the brands that exhibited, the retailers took note.

Yes, masks were in full display, but I think we’ve all learned how to read eyes and eyebrows for facial cues. The adaptive selling process is a wonderful thing.

Hearing directly from the retail panel at the NSRA workshop, they shared their challenges, successes and inspirations. Yes business was down in 2020 for most retailers, but the focus was on how they adapted, tried new things and focused a bit more on inventory control. And it was the human side of that retail discussion that resonated with me the most. Words like the “impact” that our stores have on their staff, customers and others in the community. Words like “communication” and “ being humble” with staff, with customers and vendors. But that also included a sincere “we will be looking at vendors who supported us during these times, and rethinking those that didn’t.”

From a business trend point-of-view, these stores are learning to run their business on less inventory. They are rebalancing their inventory, buying narrower and deeper, and looking at new categories and specialized items. It’s what keeps the independent channel special. It’s also an opportunity.

The message was reinforced by a closing comment from store owner Brenda Felger: “It’s your business. You will be as successful as you want to be.” So true Brenda, so true.

Footwear Insight will be sharing new products and trends in our upcoming Mar/Apr issue (hint: it’s all about comfort) and there were plenty of examples in Atlanta. While comfort is the trend in footwear, it was also comfortable being at the show.

Thank you again Laura. See you in August.