What NSS is Like for Makers

Trade shows are often a big "next level" for makers. They are a bit more involved than a craft fair (booth fees tend to be more, set up is more elaborate, travel often comes with it, and you need to have your wholesale game pretty down) and so most makers wait until they are a little more established before diving in.

The king of trade shows for stationers is NSS. We are excited to have not one, but TWO #ahasmembers share with us about their first time showing at NSS. Before I hand it over to them, I want to first share a PSA: If you are a stationer and are thinking about NSS at all, I HIGHLY recommend you sign up for Tradeshow Bootcamp's Paper Camp. It's run by #ahasmember Katie Hunt and it's essentially the preeminent workshop for NSS. Paper Camp is almost full for this round, but make sure you get on the newsletter to receive the details on the next one.

Have you ever done a trade show? What was it like? Let us know in the comments!

Q: Introduce yourself and your shop!
Robin: My name is Robin Soltis, the co-founder and creative half of the company, Scotch & Cream. We are a mid-century modern-inspired paper and design company based in Los Angeles, CA.

Tiffany: Hello, I'm Tiffany Kuo and I design & screen print paper goods and gifts for Shifting Status Kuo. The growing collection of light-hearted designs continues to be inspired by everyday objects, playful humor and Chinese folktales. 

Q: What is NSS and who is there?
Robin: NSS is the National Stationery Show– a yearly trade show in New York at the Jacob K. Javits center where stationery/gift designers and manufacturers exhibit to display their product to retail stores for wholesale. It takes place every year in the Spring (earlier this year it was May 17-20).

Aside from stationery and gift companies/manufacturers, the show attracts buyers from local shops to around the world to larger corporations like Anthropologie and Paper Source. Also press or media company reps who might be seeking material to publish for their media outlets.

There are also other businesses who either exhibit or walk the show looking for business opportunities or customers/clients to work with. Examples of these businesses could include manufacturers including but not limited to printers, material suppliers, equipment makers, licensing companies, overseas sources, etc.

Tiffany: It's a trade show mainly for wholesale buyers to order stationery, greeting cards, and other lifestyle gifts. NSS takes place in May at New York's Javits center and lasts 3.5 days.

It is not open to the public and those attending to walk the show need to apply and provide industry related credentials. Attendees include press, distributors, reps, and of course buyers. Buyers from small boutique stores to large big box stores walk the show. Exhibitors can range from letterpress card printers (Kiss and Punch Designs), wedding invitation lines (William Arthur), to lifestyle brands (Knot & Bow).

Q: Why is it important for stationers?
Robin: It’s sort of the flagship show for the stationery industry, and exhibiting is not cheap, so to participate means you’ve made a serious investment to grow and market your business beyond direct-to-consumer. There are many opportunities for sales, networking relationships, licensing, and press outlets.

Tiffany: Unlike other gift trade shows, people who walk NSS are generally very well versed with everything greeting card related (from letterpress printing to hand-lettering trends). NSS attendees are seeking out stationery and cards so it decreases chances of you pitching to buyers who are seeking unrelated products like shoes or purses.

Q: Why did you decide to do it?
Robin: My partner and I wanted to grow our company and expand our reach in wholesaling to shops, rather than directly selling to consumers. We were serious and ready to make that investment.

Tiffany: I first walked NSS back in 2011 and knew that I wanted to exhibit there someday. It felt like a necessary step to really push the wholesale aspect of my business. I knew that committing to exhibit at NSS would push me to finally have a catalog, updated order form, and refine my branding. 

Q: How did you prepare for it?
Robin: So many things: Had a marketing plan – As buyers walk the show, they often already have a mapped out guide of who they’d like to visit planned ahead of time, so sending out a mailer to our prospective customers to inform them of our attendance was one of the more important things we wanted to do.

We also updated all of our social media profiles ahead of time to include our booth number and made announcements to get the message out. Whenever we would post, we used the official NSS hashtag during the show to get visibility and connect with others.

Another thing that exhibitors often plan is a show special. That could be anything from free shipping to percentage discounts to package-add ins or physical freebies to encourage purchasing at the show. We offered free shipping and a complimentary set of our coasters for each purchase made.

Samples – We created about 2-3 sample versions of each of our products to display at NSS. The first set is what we actually displayed on the walls in our booth, and we made a deck with the other set. A deck is basically a rolodex of all your samples put together. It can be assembled onto a key ring; I’ve also seen it in a neat file box. For the most part it’s not used too often, but we did have a few customers go through it so if anything it was helpful to have on hand.

Catalogs – We designed and printed a wholesale catalog that included all of our products. Catalogs are very important, as retailers generally walk the show, pick up catalogs for later review, and set up an order either later during the show or even after the show is over. Also don’t forget the carbon copy order forms!

Booth - The booth preparation could include building walls, displays, flooring, shelving, furniture, lighting, signage, etc. NSS is an arena where branding plays a much greater role than many other industries, so booth presentation is very important. There are various organizations and companies affiliated with the NSS event and the Javits Center who provide services so that your walls, carpet, and lighting would be done by the time or just after you arrive. The services are convenient, but with a price. Since we were traveling from across the country, we had colored walls and carpeted flooring put in ahead of time to offset the amount of prep we had to do. However, once we got there, we still had to arrange our products and signage within our booth. We put up our shelves for the cards, hung up our framed art prints, placed our company sign, all of which we had to acquire or plan ahead for back at home.

As for furniture, we rented our furniture instead of purchasing it.

Travel arrangements – Since we flew in from California, we obviously had to get ourselves out to New York and have a place to stay. We opted for a hotel that was within a convenient walkable distance.

Packing - This seems like a silly one to mention, but the fact is we had so much more to pack than if we were to go on a trip for vacation. Making sure that we had all of our products in tow, all of the marketing materials we intended on handing out, anything we planned to set up in the booth, etc.

Urbanic featured Scotch & Cream on their Instagram during NSS.

Tiffany: Attending TSBC Paper Camp played a huge role in convincing myself to take the plunge and sign up to exhibit at NSS. There are also helpful blog posts from fellow stationers on NSS prep work. My favorite is this series by Queenie's Cards

I almost didn't get my catalog done in time because I was caught up in the fun details of booth design. During the crazy prep work, I finally forced myself to make a list of things that I MUST do and everything else was put on a "wish list" if time allowed for it. This helped me to keep priorities in line. (ie. Must List: finalize & print order forms / Wish List: Find cute yellow stools). 

Q: What was it like actually being there?
Robin: Overall, it was a lot of fun for us! We enjoyed being in the company of like-minded entrepreneurs, and there was a lot of time in the evenings to socialize and enjoy the city. However, we had our fair share of stressful moments in the beginning during booth set up. We had to do a lot of problem solving for issues we didn’t anticipate or figure out ahead of time, but once everything started coming together, I felt a lot better. The show itself is very overwhelming and exciting when you walk around; there’s so much activity in every direction. The venue is enormous, but when you’re in your own booth it really isn’t so tough. By day two, we felt comfortable enough to sit down whenever it was quiet.

Tiffany: Setting up for the show was tiring but so rewarding to see everyone's booth being built from ground up. Being a TSBC alum there was definitely a sense of community and camaraderie during the set up madness. When the show began, there was such an adrenaline rush! Remember that you're ON the job anytime you're inside your booth so always be approachable and ready to present your product. 

Q: So, for all of the money you dropped on this, what did you actually get out of it?

  • Lots of exposure– we got a chance to showcase our products to many people
  • A few press opportunities. Some are still in the pipeline!
  • Our first several wholesale orders both in the U.S. and internationally
  • An increase in followers on our social media accounts
  • New friends and contacts
  • Experience you could not gain in any other way
  • A fun and unique experience visiting New York!

Tiffany: Yes, exhibiting at NSS is definitely an investment in money and time (and sleep)! 

Personally, it felt like a milestone for my business to be exhibiting at a trade show amongst brands I've long admired (ie. Emily McDowellThe Social Type, and Belle & Union)

By being at NSS, Shifting Status Kuo got more exposure and started conversations with certain buyers that normally wouldn't come across my products. I think an NSS debut shows the industry that I'm serious and prepared for wholesale instead of JUST doing craft shows and selling online. I also gained more confidence in my work by being a LOUIE Award Finalist and Trendys Finalist. 

Mailers prepped by Shifting Status Kuo to send to NSS buyers.

Mailers prepped by Shifting Status Kuo to send to NSS buyers.

Q: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the process?
Robin: My biggest takeaway was that there was no amount of preparation, attending workshops, seminar, classes, etc. that could prepare me any better than actually doing it. Even though going to Paper Camp of TSBC was essential for me, doing the show basically threw me in the deep end and I now have a better understanding of the hows and whys. I’m the type of person who learns better by immersing myself and that’s what worked for me. For everyone else, it may be a completely different experience.

Tiffany: Play up your strengths! You will see so many gorgeous/clever mailers, designs, booth sneak peeks on social media leading up to NSS. It can feel extremely overwhelming especially when you compare yourself to others. I know that my penmanship is far from pretty so I felt inadequate when I saw gorgeous calligraphy on other people's mailers. Instead of focusing on my weakness, I decided to play up my strengths with screen printing to create a unique and tactile potpourri tea bag as my mailer. 

Q: Anything else?
Robin: For anyone who plans to exhibit, just remember not to sweat the small details. While we had a lot to do, we did everything the best we could (with the time we had to prepare) and were very lucky that everything that we had planned for the show was ready in time. A specific incident where this lesson was valuable happened during the show—the day before we left for New York, a sample product had arrived to us completely wrong and since there wasn’t time to re-print, so we couldn’t take it with us to NSS. A relatively well-known buyer came into our booth, looked through our catalog pointed it out asking to see it. When I confidently we told her we had a small issue with the printing, she still placed an order for it. I felt surprised and relieved that even though I didn’t physically have those two products at the show with me, we didn’t miss the opportunity to sell it.

Finally, it isn’t all 100% about the actual show. A lot of the work comes after the show, like filling the orders, following up with prospects, organizing your new prospects, contacts and relationships, etc. In the few weeks leading up to NSS, they put on a series of helpful webinars hosted by some industry experts. For any first time attendee, I recommend participating in all of them as it’s a rare opportunity to ask questions. Also they were very helpful and free. 

Tiffany: As a first time exhibitor, definitely send mailers out to introduce your brand to buyers and press. Think of it as an invitation to your booth and have fun with it. 

Be open to talking to other people even if they are other vendors or designers. Think of it this way... even if they aren't buyers, people are usually more drawn to a booth with people than a quiet and empty booth. 

If you're thinking of walking the show before exhibiting, be respectful of other exhibitors by asking for permission before taking any pictures and be mindful when asking proprietary questions. 

Q: Where can people find your stuff?
Our website: www.scotchandcream.com
Etsy: scotchandcream.etsy.com 
Instagram: instagram.com/scotchandcream
Twitter: twitter.com/scotchandcream
Pinterest: pinterest.com/scotchandcream
Facebook facebook.com/scotchandcream 

Tiffany: www.ShiftingStatusKuo.com & follow along on instagram @ShiftingStatusKuo . Our growing list of retailers that carry our screen print goodies can be found here