By Linda Longo

The results of a recent survey the International Market Centers (IMC) conducted with the help of global strategy consulting firm Stax confirms what we in the industry have been experiencing and observing independently.

The survey was sent to 180,000 people who either attended/exhibited at least one Atlanta, High Point, or Las Vegas Market over the past 3 years. The response rate was approximately 2 to 3 percent and included participants across the categories of Apparel, Home Décor, Furniture, and Gift.

In encouraging news, buyers still view in-person markets as “critical” to their purchasing plans versus relying solely on digital tools for the foreseeable future. The ability to touch and feel materials and visually assess the size and scale of products – especially when it comes to lighting fixtures – remains important. That said, the immediate economic and social environment precludes this behavior until the rate of COVID-19 positive test results and hospitalizations are lowered.

One of the goals of the IMC survey was to assess when retailers think their businesses might return to “normal,” with IMC CEO Bob Maricich noting that we’re still in “the abnormal” right now. Assessing when retailers would need inventory replenished seemed tied to the product category they carry. The survey showed 24 percent of respondents were ready for inventory immediately; however, in looking over the breakdown of respondents, I noticed the majority was coming from the Apparel sector, which would understandably have faster-turning seasonal demands. The survey results suggest 100 percent of respondents would need to replenish within 14 to 18 weeks; 80 percent estimated the 9- to 10-week mark would be more appropriate for their stores; 74 percent ranked 7 to 8 weeks as their threshold; and 64 percent listed 5 to 6 weeks.

When it came to comfort level in business travel, 54 percent of those surveyed indicated they’d wait until September, compared to 42 percent in August, and 22 percent in June. October travel was comfortable for roughly 60 percent of respondents.

What these numbers indicated to IMC executives is that major markets such as Las Vegas, Atlanta, and High Point will become more regional than in the past. Maricich stated that while attendees used to consider four hours to be the maximum amount of time they would spend driving to a market, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, respondents have stretched that tolerance to six hours rather than fly to their destination.

Taking into account the vast number of market attendees who travel across the country or from Canada, it can be surmised that market attendance will be quite noticeable reduced ― quite possibly below typical summer show numbers.

Because of the pandemic, the market centers have had to invest in more stringent security and safety measures – more shuttle buses carrying less people, the need for thermal scanners and fever guns, a restriction on the amount of buyers allowed into a showroom, an increase in cleaning crews, plus the elimination of the festive parties and hospitality amenities (i.e. food, entertainment) – which could conceivably impact market centers’ ability to offer incentives to buyers.

With Temporaries running alongside the major markets, there have been substantial changes in how these booth-format shows are presented. Creating wider aisles is the easy part; deciding whether to limit the number of exhibitors due to social distancing between booths and monitoring the traffic flow through entrance doors and the amount of visitors in a booth at one time is more difficult.

Minimizing hand-to-hand contact is another critical issue and IMC will be requiring pre-registering for markets in order to avoid the lines and interaction at the on-site Registration booths. To eliminate gatherings, all educational seminars (which used to be part of the on-site market experience) will now be held online as webinars and available for viewing before and after market. Right now the IMC is running its High Point Virtual Market through May 29 and Maricich noted that its webinars have been attracting 300 to 500 attendees on average, which is a greater number than is normally reached via on-site programming.

The IMC has implemented an extensive safety protocol that is outlined in the designated website www.togethersafely.com. However, it is important to realize that while each market center’s grounds might be sanitized effectively and frequently, attendees and exhibitors will still be worrying about whether the shuttle buses, hotels, and restaurants will be as vigilant.

One of the topics that the survey results raised that interested me included the revelation that buyers were less interested in “new” product when it came to stocking inventory and more inclined to reorder proven sellers and basics.

If this is true for the lighting industry, what might that mean for manufacturers’ 2021 product schedules? Will there be a glut of new products (those that weren’t able to be seen in 2020 plus those coming up for 2021)? To lighting showrooms, I ask, “How interested are your consumer and builder customers in ‘what’s new’ and ‘the latest’ in styles?” Manufacturers, are you pulling back on your 2021 planned intros? And lighting reps, how has your role changed now that in-person visits have been put on hold?

Let’s continue the discussion and keep the lines of communication open under these extraordinary conditions.