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What’s the Difference between a Shopping Mall and a Trade Show?

February 3rd, 2010 3 COMMENTS
Shopping Mall vs. Trade Show

Shopping Malls vs. Trade Shows

The customer service is often better at the mall.

To be fair that’s not always true. But, what is true is that most retailers devote far more energy to training their employees in customer service and sales skills than most companies devote to training their employees on how to behave in their exhibit. We take for granted that everyone knows how to act like a professional at a trade show. We assume they possess polished sales skills. And, by and large, that “should” be true and here is why.

Recently, I was invited to conduct a “booth etiquette and sales training” seminar for a medical services company. I’ve written about this topic before, and it would have been easy to pull together a PowerPoint from those articles. Instead, I decided to look at the topic from a different angle, one where I suspected everyone had a shared background. At the seminar, I asked the attendees if they had ever worked in retail or in any job where they were expected to approach, assist, and advise someone in a purchase. Of the 52 attendees, all but four raised their hand. I then asked them to think back about the “rules” they learned in retail.

Here’s what they told me in no specific order. Chances are you’ll recognize most of them:

  1. Acknowledge every customer who enters your department, even if you are busy.
  2. Smile.
  3. Don’t bad-mouth your competition.
  4. If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.
  5. Arrive on time. Don’t leave early. Your customers expect the store to be open at the scheduled time and remain open until they have finished shopping.
  6. Listen. Follow the 80/20 rule of sales by listening at least 80 percent of the time.
  7. Ask open-ended questions.
  8. Say “Thank you,” “Please,” and “You’re Welcome.”
  9. Dress appropriately for the job, including basic hygiene. At a minimum, polish your shoes, use an iron, brush your teeth, and comb your hair.
  10. The “Hard Sell” rarely works. The “Consultative Approach” rarely fails.
  11. Don’t chew gum on the sales floor.
  12. Don’t eat on the sales floor.
  13. Don’t consume any beverages on the sales floor.
  14. Wear comfortable shoes.
  15. You can’t be an expert about everything. Be willing to turn a customer over to someone who knows more about a product or service.
  16. Don’t make assumptions based on a customer’s appearance.
  17. Start conversations . . .  not a sales pitch.
  18. The customer is always right (or mostly right).
  19. Things get messy, but they can’t stay that way for long.
  20. You’re not a carnival barker. You are a sales professional.
  21. If you make a commitment to find something, to add them to the mailing list, or to call them when an item goes on sale, honor that commitment.

If you’ve ever worked a trade show, these “rules” should seem very familiar. After all, working on the show floor is not all that different from working in a shoe store, electronics store, or a restaurant. You are there to assist customers. Sometimes your customers know exactly what they want. Other times, they expect you to guide them to most appropriate solution after determining their needs. Sometimes it’s slow. Other times it’s busy, but either way you are onstage and expected to perform flawlessly and to be a professional.

Trade Shows vs. Shopping Malls

Trade Shows vs. Shopping Malls

And yet, we often see behavior in a trade show booth that would be unacceptable in any retail situation:

  • Eating and drinking on the show floor
  • Drifting into the booth 45 minutes after the show starts after partying until 4 am and reeking of alcohol
  • Congregating in packs, ignoring customers, bad mouthing competitors, and acting like working the show floor is a punishment
  • Monopolizing conversations with customers, disregarding basic sales skills, and launching into a laundry list of features and benefits
  • Using literature and the lead retrieval machine as a substitute for asking open-ended questions
  • Failing to acknowledge customers with a smile or a “be there in a minute”
  • Pre-judging a customer based on appearance or after glancing at the color of their badge
  • Not following up on a lead or a promise to a potential customer

Nearly everyone knows how to be successful on the trade show floor. You learned the basics when you worked at Macy’s or LensCrafters or AutoZone or Olive Garden. At a minimum, you learned to be nice, to be polite, and to treat each customer with respect. At a maximum, you learned how to sell and the importance of customer service. The products and services you now represent may be more complicated and the selling price higher, but the skills are basically the same.

So next time you enter your booth, whether you have a table top at the local Chamber of Commerce show or a 30′ x 30′ custom  exhibit at your industry’s premier event, remember what you learned working nights and weekends at the mall. And don’t forget to shine your shoes and iron your shirt or blouse. Appearance counts!

What did you learn while working retail and how does it translate to trade shows? Please share your comments!

–Mel White
Classic Exhibits Network (LinkedIn)

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3 Responses to “What’s the Difference between a Shopping Mall and a Trade Show?”

  1. Traci Browne says:

    Great post Mel, as I was reading it I was wondering how frustrating it would be if I went to the store because I needed a cocktail dress and the sales person launched into a pitch on their latest pair of jeans down to every last detail. Meanwhile sore poor kid what wanted a pair of jeans is left wandering around with no one to help them. Not only are they now irrelevant to me but they’ve wasted my time and I have a bad impression of the store in general.

  2. Michelle says:

    Fantastic article – well written! I own my own craft business, By the Bay Botanicals, and sell at art fairs/craft shows. I have attended trade shows such as gift shows too. The one thing I find most frustrating when it comes to selling to customers is giving them space. It isn’t necessary to pounce on people just because he/she made the decision to enter your shop, booth, whatever. So many feel they have to do this or else they will loose a sale. On the contrary, it is a sure fire way to prevent people coming into your “shop”. I also learned, when I worked at Starbucks, is if you are busy – acknowledgement is key but take it a step further. Introduce yourself by simply saying hi and stating your name, suggestion something you like or point out a best seller and then make yourself scare to allow them to browse. In other words work on a chore letting the customer know if they have any questions “I’ll be right over here, feel free to let me know if you have any questions.” I love this and it is one of the most successful sales “pitches” I have ever used. I am about to check out more of your posts. If you care, I too have a blog – – where I discuss similar topics… -Michelle

  3. Jim Munro says:

    Good stuff Mel…

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