Today we have part one of a two part guest entry from Jessica Hanebutt Snell of Rockin’ B Design, LLC who writes of her experiences at the recent WESA market show. Jess is an F-I member as well as a DE specializing in vintage-inspired ladies western apparel with a keen interest in all aspects of the western lifestyle industry as well as the vintage fashion community.
Even if you’re not interested in the western or equestrian related products, this is a very educational snapshot on niche markets. As I’ve said repeatedly, the western market is much more sophisticated and upscale (very pricey!) than people realize. Lastly, many thanks to Jess for putting this together for us!
I had the pleasure of attending the January 2012 WESA market in Denver, Colorado last month. Held at the beginning of each year (somewhat obviously given the name), the January market is the larger of two annual WESA tradeshow events held at the Denver Merchandise Mart; the other WESA show is held in September in the same location. WESA stands for Western and English Sales Association, which consists of sales reps and manufacturers who specialize in western and equestrian lifestyle products. Anyone wanting to exhibit at a WESA market needs to be a member – this can be done by visiting their website and registering as a new user, then filling out the appropriate application. There are annual membership dues as well as applicable booth and show fees depending on your needs for the show (booth space vs. a permanent showroom, etc.) Exhibition space is allotted based on seniority points, which are earned via event attendance.
I had not attended a WESA market before this one, though I’ve been aware of this particular tradeshow since I started my own western wear line a few years ago. 2012 marks WESA’s 90th! year, which is pretty impressive. The January show is very large and is considered to be the main buying event of the year for western/equestrian buyers from the US and beyond. As I walked around the first day, I ran into a lot of buyers from stores in Germany, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Mexico, Colombia and more. Kathleen has stated in previous tradeshow posts that anything with Southwestern flair does well in places like Germany and Japan – it’s the truth! Western lifestyle is also very big in Australia, with many new brands popping up that are based there.
First and foremost I owe a huge thanks to F-I member D. for putting up with me throughout the weekend, answering questions I had about the market/showrooms, and for introducing me to a lot of people. His company has a permanent showroom at the mart center, and it was great seeing how things work from the inside out. WESA takes up the entire mart complex (pavilion and expo space included) for the duration of each show, but the actual mart building is where all permanent showrooms are located year round. Western lifestyle companies (apparel and interior goods) hold most of the permanent showrooms, though there are a few random manufacturers that cater to a more mass market audience – very few overall. The big players have massive multi-room showrooms, brands like Wrangler, Lucchese, Scully, etc. There are also showrooms run by independent reps who show several lines, but not as many as I expected. However, there are a variety of showroom sizes available, and it was interesting to see a lot of smaller companies and DEs with their own (sometimes teensy) spaces. Speaking with a few people, it seems that the smallest showroom leases are somewhat comparable with temporary booth space during WESA after all expenses and membership fees are added up. This pricing structure is somewhat hidden unless you can get people to tell you about their lease details, or you show up at the Mart ready to sign a showroom contract. This brings me to another point: in the western market, it seems that quite a few owners and designers rep their own brands, it’s a small world and everyone knows everyone. Definitely a lesson that has been covered many times on this blog but was even more apparent at WESA: don’t burn bridges, don’t do dumb things, everyone talks to each other and everyone knows who said/did what. Not much escapes attention!
Temporary booth space is interesting, and is something I have thought about for my own line over the past few years. After walking through the entirety of the temporary exhibition space, it was pointed out to me that the choice spots are awarded based on seniority within WESA. The edges and corners of each room were home to younger brands and designers, many just starting out or only a few years old; very established manufacturers and reps had booths in prominent locations for buyer walk-through. Yes, this is how the world works, but unfortunately in my opinion most of the senior brands/reps had stale product that looked just like the stuff in the next booth. The fun stuff was on the outskirts for the most part, but I wonder how many buyers actually make it that far. The pricing structure for WESA isn’t outrageous, it’s very much on par with other tradeshows that have been discussed on the blog and in the forum, if not lower. The only sticking point for a lot of exhibitors I spoke with is the fact that they are required to purchase a booth for the slow September show if they want to have a booth at the big January show. Most people see this as a complete waste of time and money– a few manufacturers told me they purchase the booth space but don’t even bother showing up due to travel costs and time restraints. A disclaimer on this: WESA states on their website that “A seniority point is earned by being physically present at a Market.” Therefore I’m not sure how some of these exhibitors are getting the benefits out of simply purchasing the space but not being present, as seniority points are awarded to individual members (there are no company memberships).
After a few days of speaking with exhibitors in both showrooms and booths, it seems that this year’s January market was much better in terms of attendance than it has been for many years. Most see this as an encouraging trend, and a lot of manufacturers were citing economic recovery as the reason that more buyers were walking the halls. I did hear from one buyer that this is the first time in several years they’ve had the budget to travel out for this show. Shutting down the store in order to take a buying trip is a major issue for a lot of western retailers, because many of these stores are small, family-owned businesses – which means they simply don’t have enough people to keep the store open when they need to leave town. Yet another reason that road reps are golden in this segment of the market – several retailers commented that road reps are their only way of keeping on top of new product. One gentleman from Tennessee told me that he also appreciates being able to order directly from manufacturers via the web, simply because he doesn’t have to leave his store or wait to see new product from a rep.
A few more key points about this show:
1. The January market features a professionally produced fashion show that exhibitors can pay to be included in – the fees are around a few hundred dollars, depending on how many looks you plan to show. The fashion show is VERY popular, and is (apparently) run several times over the course of the market. This seems like it would be great exposure for brands that have more fashion-oriented apparel, anything that would stand out on a runway. The fashion show is also central to the annual “Opening Night” dinner gala (Friday night), which always sells out.
2. It is a very social tradeshow; again I want to stress that everyone seems to know everyone else. You need to bring your best communication and networking skills with you. The attendees are a mix of major western lifestyle publications, trade professionals, suppliers, buyers, manufacturers and bloggers… a really great opportunity to meet key people in the western segment of the garment industry.
3. Most of the lines shown are fairly high end – everything from $30,000 saddles to $1,000 hats and $7,000 boots. There are a few lines of lower-priced goods in the mix, but this show is a prime example of why walking a tradeshow before exhibiting is important. The few tee shirt lines I saw here were somewhat out of place compared to most of the lines. However, I think there is room for this sort of apparel within the western market, as a lot of smaller retailers cater to 4-H families and livestock exhibitors, most of whom would probably be more willing to buy a cute tee shirt or $150 boots vs. $7000 boots. Merchandise mix is also very dependent on geographic location – the Midwest has more of a 4-H and livestock culture, while most of Texas is known for it’s high end western lifestyle. This was demonstrated handily by which buyers were writing orders in which booths/showrooms.
In part two of my WESA show report, I’ll be focusing on a few of the DEs who were exhibiting at the show.