15 Oct 2015
Autumn Fair Bows to Changes in UK Fixation Solely on Xmas Purchases
While Christmas remains the key buying period in the UK and throughout many of the developed markets, both buyers and exhibitors are now aware of the impact of year-round online sales and annual discount events, such as Black Friday.
Visitors to this year's Autumn Fair might have been forgiven for wondering exactly what kind of show they were attending. After all, its 1,400 exhibitors were spread across 13 different market categories.
Alongside a number of well-known and successful brands, this year's Autumn Fair featured hundreds of new companies and first-time exhibitors. This was very much in keeping with the style of the event, which is focussed squarely on showcasing products and trends ahead of the all-important Christmas shopping frenzy.
According to Naomi Barton, the Autumn Fair's Portfolio Director, more than 150,000 new products were launched at the show. She said: "The majority of exhibitors have done very good business at the Autumn Fair and we expect as much as £1.2 billion (HK$14.1 billion) of orders to be placed by retailers as a result of their attendance."
Barton added that "almost all of the top multiple retailers in the UK" had sent buyers to the event, including Tesco, Blue Diamond Group, Toys R Us, Laura Ashley, Card Factory, BHS, Beales, Bentalls, Debenhams, Mothercare, John Lewis, Lakeland, Scribbler and The Entertainer. She said: "Thousands of independent retailers and interior designers also attended from all around the UK and 124 other countries worldwide."
Among the major attractions for operators were representatives from the UK Trade & Investment programmes. They offered advice via one-to-one meetings, seminars and case studies in order to assist companies in growing their business overseas.
Apart from providing advice for UK companies seeking to expand abroad, the Autumn Fair also offered opportunities to network with companies from overseas. Taste Taiwan Design, for instance, showcased the latest products and innovations from emerging Taiwanese designers. Meanwhile, Brands of China played host to more than 100 mainland companies, showcasing their array of home and gift products, designs and innovations.
Running alongside the Autumn Fair was The Light Show, the UK's only dedicated home lighting trade event to be endorsed by the Lighting Industry Association. With so much to cover at the fair and such an array of market categories, a snapshot of some of the exhibitors gives clear indication of the scope of the 2015 event.
Based in Bristol, family-run TG-Woodware – commonly referred to as T&G – is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. According to Patrick Gardner, the company's Managing Director, its products "start from a blank sheet of paper", with the business priding itself on the quality and design of its range.
In total, T&G had on offer more than 500 houseware products across its portfolio. These came in a variety of materials, including FSC-certified beech, hevea, acacia, rustic acacia, oak, ceramic, marble, FSC-certified cork and textiles. Its best-loved products include its CrushGrind salt and pepper mills.
Gardener said the company, which appointed a Swedish distributor at the Autumn Fair, now exports to 53 countries around the world. In Asia, its products are available in mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
Based in Wales, Baa Stool, is a manufacturer of quirky furniture, all made using real British sheepskin. Michelle Bartlett-Greavey, an upholsterer by trade, started Baa Stool in 2014, with the company's product line-up now including footstools, cushions, kitchen stools and chairs.
Bartlett-Greavey said: "The aim with Baa Stool is to make practical, functional pieces of furniture that can fit in anywhere but still have a real wow factor. The result is a range of quality, unique and contemporary sheepskin furniture that complements modern and period interiors equally. The British sheepskin covers are removable. This makes our footstools, stools and chairs practical as well as stylish."
Bartlett-Greavey said she was currently looking to export Baa Stool products, with Asia and the Middle East being the most likely target regions.
With an emphasis more on safety than exports, Andy Loveland, founder of Oxfordshire-based Early Rider, said his company designs and manufactures bikes to get kids from as young as one-year-old balancing on two wheels. Its Lite model, as its name suggests, is super lightweight, weighing in at just 3.2 kilograms, and is easy for small or less physically co-ordinated children to manage. The Spherovelo, meanwhile, "is a unique push-along ride-on for 10-24-month-olds – or even earlier with mum or dad's help."
Loveland said: "The Spherovelo is the world's first ride-on to accelerate the development of young children by helping them to make the connection between their senses – vision, pressure, equilibrium – and their motor skills Some might call it balance, but it's really more about the co-ordination of muscles in response to what we see and feel.
"It manages this by being a ride-on that's unstable on the one hand – the child is required to effect some control, like with a bike – but that is also safe. It's a combination never before achieved."
In the Brands of China exhibition area, Naomi Van, a graduate of University College London, gave a presentation as to how she set up her business, Superpeach – and the challenges she faced along the way. She said it was just five weeks into the launch of her Superpeach Knicker Boutique, and that she had initially started her search for an underwear manufacturer by trawling on Google.
Van said: "The designs are my own, but I found the minimum order quantities too high. In China, manufacturers tend to work to a one-size-fits-all offering, so I needed to work alongside my manufacturer to achieve my aim.
"My range consists of 30 designs and I initially purchased 50 of each design in the three sizes of small, medium and large. That's 4,500 pairs that I now have available to sell."
On her experience of dealing directly with a mainland manufacturer, Van said that she had had to be persistent initially and that the order process had taken eight months.
Back on the show floor, Heaven Sends is a UK-based wholesaler of gifts, home accessories and seasonal decorations – and not just Christmas ones. Jo-Dee Brice, the company's Export Account Manager, said that it currently sells to customers across Europe, Canada and Dubai.
She said: "We are promoting last-minute Christmas lines at the show, as well as Easter and Spring ranges. We are renowned for our witty signs, clocks and shabby chic accessories, as well as our festive decorations."
Over in the housewares market, What More UK was back exhibiting at the Autumn Fair after a 10-year hiatus. Reporting that the appearance had been a success, Andy Riley, What More UK's Sales Director, said: "We currently export to 63 countries around the globe, including China, Indonesia and Japan." He added that the company's packaging features the ‘Made in Britain' insignia, which he said was popular with customers, both at home and abroad.
Also emphasising its UK credentials was Bizzy Bitz, a construction toy launched at the Autumn Fair by a company of the same name and said to boast numerous educational features and benefits. Assessing its prospects, Fiona Hortopp, the company's Business Development Manager, said: "Bizzy Bitz inspires creativity in children of all ages as it gives them the complete freedom to let their imagination go wild as they set about creating all sorts of different shapes and models."
At the Autumn Fair, Hortopp said that the company had been approached by a company in South Korea interested in selling it into the education sector. The company also trades with a distributor in Canada.
The Autumn Fair coincided with the launch of The Seasonal Buying Report: How Seasonal Buying Can Benefit Your Business published by Inside Retail. According to the report: "A retail revolution is sweeping the globe. Customers are behaving differently and believe they are empowered to shop whenever and wherever they want. Driving this change is the digital revolution and mobile, in particular, which is giving consumers the power to control their shopping habits and destinations."
Inside Retail's survey of retailers in the home and gift sectors, from independents through to multiples, department stores and pure play retailers found that, for the majority of retailers, it is now harder than ever to predict customer behaviour and consumer spending patterns.
In the UK, Christmas remains the dominant shopping season, but even this most important and dependable season is changing with the rise of pre-Christmas sales and discounting. In 2014, the arrival – with a big bang – of "Black Friday" had also had a significant impact. With its promotional sales strategy, it succeeded in catching consumers' imaginations and wallets, but at enormous cost to retail margins and demand patterns.
It seems that retail buyers are more and more inclined to buy stock frequently and reactively throughout the year – something that both buyers and sellers at the Autumn Fair seemed keenly aware of.
The Autumn Fair 2015 took place at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham from 6-9 September.
Simon King, Special Correspondent, Birmingham