Billing itself as the “world’s largest home & housewares show,” the 2012 International Home + Housewares Show is indeed big—with more than 2,100 exhibitors, and 60,000 attendees from all over the globe wandering through 765,000 square feet of exhibits in Chicago’s cavernous McCormick Place Convention Center. This trade show is known for debuting dramatic innovation in home products, such as the Black & Decker Dustbuster, the George Forman Grill, and the Swiffer dry/wet mop. A number of HY Connecters, including me, attend this annual show, both on behalf of existing clients and because walking this show can be eye-opening fun.
Although a show of this magnitude cannot be fully captured in a brief blog (the usual caveat), I was struck by 5 observations in my 3 hour walk-through:
1. Show traffic is down—again
Similar to trade shows across the country and over all industries, which are struggling to attract attendees, the Housewares Show traffic seemed slower than last year. The lingering recession is clearly a significant cause as manufacturers target large ticket expenditures such as trade shows for cost-cutting. Yet, perhaps an even greater cause of attendance declines at this and all trade shows is the diminished relevance of the annual live convention in an age of always-on internet and continuous communication via e-mail, Skype and social media. And the answer to dwindling foot traffic is not extending the length of the show, as the Housewares Show decided to do this year—although I am sure that the hotels and restaurateurs of Chicago appreciate this gesture.
2. The “secret booth” strategy grows
In what appears to be completely counter-intuitive, there are a growing number of large manufacturers who are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for exhibit space, and literally building a wall around their booth to discourage non-qualified visitors. These companies, such as Homedics and Conair, are using the McCormick Place floor as a temporary office space to sell invitation-only prospects. It is a strange feeling walking through the usually wide open spaces of a large show, surrounded by solid walls. Some of these closed-door exhibitors have even installed frosted Plexiglas domes over their closed booths to insure that nobody can peek in from above. As strange as it seems, these companies must have evidence that it is worth the tremendous expense just to meet with their hand selected customers. At what point do we stop calling them “exhibits” and begin referring to them as “inhibits?” Is this the future of big trade shows?
3. Innovation and real news still draws a crowd
Exhibitors use countless ploys to attract buyers to their booths. The most popular and timeless is free food or beverages. In fact, given the continued rise of single-serve coffee makers, it was difficult to walk down an aisle without being offered a free cup of coffee—which you conveniently made yourself to sample the ease and great results of these modern age replacements to instant coffee. Although people stop for free food, they only tarry for real news. The greatest example of innovative news at this year’s Show was the SodaStream Fizz Home Soda Maker booth—it was mobbed by crowds even as other nearby exhibitors stood by idly. SodaStream has created an easy-to-make at home soda, saving money and dramatically reducing the environmental issues of throwing away plastic bottles. Other booths that used their product news to attract buyers were the Roomba and Mint robotic vacuums. Both employed dramatic and choreographed demonstrations (envision the “dance of the robotic vacuums”) to highlight their innovations.
SodaStream and the Roomba are the exceptions at the Housewares Show. Most booths are still dominated by products that solve problems you never knew you had, such as the new Garbage Pantz—bright fabric sleeves designed that dress-up your outdoor trash cans. The crowds at this booth were drawn more by bizarre curiosity than the desire to buy.
4. Green Marketing—yes, no, maybe?
Yes—SodaStream, mentioned above truly delivers on its promise of reducing plastic waste.
No—The 20+ and growing single-serve coffee makers that, with a few notable exceptions, force users into throwing away millions of small plastic canisters that cannot be easily recycled due to their complex plastic composition.
Maybe—The Eco Bay cork iPad 2 case. I guess that cork is a renewable and sustainable material and therefore “green,” but one wonders how green you can really be with an iPad case.
Despite the recession, which makes most of us focus on price above all else, marketers and manufacturers continue to talk about green marketing and products. The International Housewares Association even devotes a special exhibitor area to “sustainable” products. But is green really green?
It appears that manufacturers and consumers are still out on this “hot” trend, but based on this Show, the green talk is quieter than last year.
5. English as a second language
Large industry shows such as the Housewares Show may arguably be losing their relevance and impact in the U.S., but their importance to the international community seems greater than ever. For both the exhibitors and the buyers, English is the language of business but not their native tongue. Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese are spoken in the aisles and booths of almost all exhibitors. For the week of the Housewares Show, Chicago becomes an international city.
As always, it is easy to be a critic of the great American trade shows, and few are greater than the International Home + Housewares Show. Yet even with traffic declines, cloistered booths, and predominantly marginal product innovation and news, this show continues to be a great event. As long as we have clients who attend, thereby providing me with a legitimate reason to attend, I will not miss the Chicago Housewares Show.