opinion

Overcoming 'The Badge Glance,' Cliques and Politics at Trade Shows

Overcoming 'The Badge Glance,' Cliques and Politics at Trade Shows

Leading up to Altitude, many industry folks were likely wondering what might have changed since the last live trade show that we attended together. Aside from visible “new norms” such as social distancing guidelines and face mask etiquette, I was especially curious about the dynamic between buyers and vendors — distributors and manufacturers.

Traditionally, it has often seemed like vendors only give potential buyers the time of day if and when they decide a buyer is worthwhile. Sadly, not all buyers are judged “worthwhile,” often for reasons that are completely subjective and decided without much more than a downward glance at the buyer’s badge. Vendors often make snap judgments based on minimal information, asking only what the buyer’s business is or whom they order from. Home parties, new-ish indie retailers, and new-ish ecommerce stores are pretty much bottom of the totem pole and are often met with blatant skepticism. Since 2006, as an employee for various distributors and manufacturers, I have watched this dynamic unfold repeatedly on trade show floors and behind office doors, as I learned to navigate the nuances of “qualifying” buyers.

Maybe some of the small ecommerce or home parties businesses that came and went too quickly would have given it a harder try if they felt fully supported in this community.

In 2016, I started my online ecommerce store and adult subscription box as a side hustle, continuing to work behind the scenes in marketing and sales for said distributors and manufacturers. In 2022, I decided to attend Altitude as a buyer for my business. To say that I was anxious would be an understatement. Thinking about the number of times I would have to justify my business and my orders was exhausting, and the show hadn’t even started yet. However, I remained hopeful because … New Year times two! Fresh start! Our industry, or the majority thereof, had just survived a pandemic. Perhaps vendors would be extra grateful to be back with in-person shows? Selling their product with added gusto given the grit it took to make it this far? A new approach to building relationships with fresh-faced, hopeful buyers, regardless of their business size?

Unfortunately, that was not 100% the case. Below is just one example of an interaction that happened on the first day of Altitude, when I walked into a booth, drooling over some items I hadn't seen before.

Me: “Wow, I love everything here. How long have you been in the industry? I'm sad I may have missed this at shows before.”

Them: “A long time.”

Me: “Love to hear that! I'd like to start buying your products — do you work with distributors?”

Them: “No.”

Me: “OK, what's your order minimum?”

Them: “$300.”

Me: “Do you have a card?”

Them: “I didn't bring any cards.”

Ah! The old “I didn't bring any cards” line. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a higherup say this to a small buyer over the years, I would be retired already. This was followed by silence, as I waited for them to offer me any sales contact information, which did not happen.

Me: “Is there a sales contact I can have, please?”

Them: “Get it from our main website. It should be at the bottom.”

Me: “OK, thanks. Which of these are your bestsellers right now?”

This was in a booth of easily over 200 products. Wall-to-wall products. Wall. To. Wall. And I knew the conversation was over at this point, yet I was still determined for them to acknowledge my presence.

Them: “I brought all the bestsellers.”

Meanwhile, they kept walking outside of the booth, waiting for people to walk by as if I was not there at all. There was no one else in or around the booth during the time I was there. They did not make eye contact with me during this interaction.

After doing some research, it turns out that this individual went out of their way to do something very nice for an industry member several months back. So maybe it was just me. Maybe I gave off the wrong vibes. Maybe I smelled like poop. All entirely possible. After all, if you haven't partied so hard you smelled like poop the next day at a show, are you even networking hard enough?

Because of the type of trending specialty items they were selling, I felt the need to do business with this person much more than they seemed to feel the need to do business with me. Unfortunately, that is pretty representative of the vendor/entrepreneur dynamic around the industry: buyers are constantly pressured to prove themselves, but not the other way around. And hey, I understand the mentality. Sales reps have seen way too many “businesses” come and go because industry turnover is high. Hopeful entrepreneurs hit the road as soon as they realize that success in the sexual wellness industry is not an overnight process. So why invest your time as a busy account manager into a potential client who might be gone next month or next week?

Because people matter. Their stories matter. Especially given the intimate nature of our business. And you, my dear account rep, could either make or break their spirit, much like the interaction I mentioned above. Had I not seen this type of exchange firsthand many times prior to that day at Altitude, my spirit might have been broken.

Hierarchies of “importance” will likely always exist in any industry. Nature of the business, whatever. However, treating small buyers in the adult industry like Julia Roberts shopping on Rodeo Drive in “Pretty Woman” is unnecessary and can be quite intimidating for the people who are working extremely hard to make their businesses a reality without the help of investors, just like most everyone else did at some point. Maybe some of the small ecommerce or home parties businesses of yesteryear that failed, or came and went too quickly, would have given it a harder try if they felt fully supported in this community.

This is not a rare situation, but an elephant in the room. And I'm hoping that by addressing it, we can step up as a community to operate a little differently. It would be wonderful to see a clear shift from this “size 'em up” mentality to approaching newbies and small businesses from a place of service and support as the baseline expectation. And yes, there are many lovely vendors who are always kind and inclusive no matter whom they are speaking to. There are also many lovely vendors who believe “an order is an order” no matter the size of the business it came from. Those are my people.

Anyone still standing after the last two years — starting a business, running a business, making products, just doing the damn thing one way or another — should be celebrated. Appreciated. Supported. So please: less cliques. Less politics. More of this.

Casey Murphy is the founder of Bold Type Marketing and a sexual wellness industry vet.

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