FEATURE: The rise of online showrooms

Trade fairs are the best place for brands and retailers to communicate and buy and sell product, but what happens when everyone has packed up and gone home? Can online show rooms fill the void?

The Internet has transformed the consumer world, giving the public a platform to shop away from the high street, come rain or shine. But where is the B2B online space for retailers to purchase merchandise in between trade shows? Some clever entrepreneurs have found the answer.

A number of “virtual showrooms” are being set up to provide buyers a place to write their orders and communicate with current and future stockists 24/7, 365 days a year.

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Of course, there will always be a need for trade shows – face to face meetings, with opportunities to touch and feel the product are vital. However, conventional fairs pop up but twice a year, can be expensive to attend, and tend to showcase just a handful of the brands present in the market, that is, of course, if the brands can afford to exhibit at the show in the first place.

George Hardy, president and founder of IntimatesMarket247, works
primarily with small start-up manufacturers who don’t necessarily have the financial muscle to attend a trade show like Curve.

Based in New York, the former Maindenform executive set up his
online service in July this year.

“I’ve sent about 200 emails to all the vendors who attended the Curve show and I basically said to them, ‘now that the Curve show is over, how will you communicate with the stores for the next six months? Here’s the way to do it – on the Internet. You send us your images, you send us your bio, we upload the information and an email blasts out to the retailers who I currently have on my site’,” says Hardy.

“Now here’s the obvious question: why don’t the trade shows do the same thing as I’m doing? They have the contacts! The answer is that it will cannibalise their current businesses, where they can charge up to $7000 for a booth. You’re talking about a couple of hundred dollars to get on my website.”

Hardy has also added an order function on Intimates so retailers can purchase their stock directly from the site, saving them on the travel expenses they would have made if they visited a trade show.

“I’m sure within a 200 mile proximity people would travel, but to ask people to travel for days and days is archaic! It’s like the stone ages!” insists Hardy.

So what can online show rooms like IntimatesMarket247 offer that brands’ own websites can not?

“Buyers could search for full-figured designer bras on the Internet and they’ll pull up hundreds of leads. If they have the time to do all that, God bless them, but they don’t. So what they’ll do is they’ll hunt and hope that companies like mine will come along.”

Louisa Valvano, director and co-founder of yourbrandspace.com agrees. “Buyers are inundated by emails from brands with bulky lookbooks and showroom invitations – they want everything to be in one place, so that they can control the volume of
information they receive,” she says.

“Nowadays, most brands want a B2B online space, but this is very costly and time consuming; the beauty of yourbrandspace is that we have already invested in the technology, so each brand doesn’t have to do it themselves, which makes it more cost-efficient and they will get exposure outside of their current client base.”

UK-based yourbrandspace was set up by Valvano, the former global marketing director of WGSN, and Samantha Bleasby, who previously worked as the event director of Pure London, in
December 2011.

They wanted to save the retailer time and money by providing a free online service where they can find the brands they want, whenever they want. They also wanted to save the brand money in investing in a wholesale platform.

Yourbrandspace allows fashion wholesale buyers from all over the world the chance to find new labels and products for their stores.
There are no travel expenses, no hotel costs and no set time-frame in which to buy.

“Retailers can browse new ranges all year round at a click of a button, helping them with cash flow and providing them with the ability to adapt to rapid changes in trends and the unpredictable weather,” says Valvano.

“We offer all members free weekly newsletters so they can keep up to date with all the new collections added to the site, and from time to time brand members also offer discounts on new orders and stock.”

Since the beginning of 2013, yourbrandspace has had 25,534 visits to the site and received more than 700 wholesale enquiries and pre-orders. “We have retailers from all over the world that have visited and written orders. One great example is a British lingerie brand that has just received an order from a lingerie store in Christchurch, New Zealand.”

The problem with conventional trade shows is they only represent a small group of brands. With online showrooms, there is no limit to the labels who can sign up, according to Hardy. “Curve only had 280 vendors, give or take a few, this season. That’s a small piece of the overall business.”

But IntimatesMarket247 and yourbrandspace don’t see themselves as a replacement to the conventional trade show, rather an extension to these events, much like POP-Market, who’s patented tool allows buyers to prepare for a show before they get there.

Founded in 2012 by Global Apparel Network, POP-Market is used by around 400 brands, with more than 75,000 products available for 60,000 buyers to view at any time. Its iPad app enables brands to invite retailers to their trade show booth and offer a preview of their collections.

At the fair, vendors can use the app to allow buyers to place an order there and then, or look at the garments they have viewed and touched at the stand once they get home.

“Some labels are very efficient in this and have fully embedded the
technology into their business,” says Oliver Frielingsdorf, managing
director of Global Apparel Network in the EMEA region.

“The whole transaction is handled by the brand. We make the connection and offer the platform.”

POP-Market allows brands to upload their collections, customise delivery dates and availability, create custom line sheets and digital lookbooks. Retailers, meanwhile, are able to access these brands, follow their favourites and receive real-time alerts on available stock and best sellers.

In the consumer world, the convenience of shopping on the move and at home has led to a rise in online sales, and with more B2B wholesale platforms going live, both retail professionals and vendors are set to reap the same benefits.

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