If the first home furnishings trade show of the year is any indication, 2021 could be a surprisingly good year for the industry.
Retailers went to last week’s Dallas Total Home & Gift Market coming off good Christmas seasons and in need of new products. Attendance and market activity were closer to pre-pandemic levels, though they still trailed usual numbers. (The Dallas Market Center, which focuses on gifts, home decor and accessories, reported attendance at 70 to 75 percent of its usual January event, and by appearances in the 5-million-square-foot facility, that seemed about right.)
Here’s what we know so far about the home and gift trade show business, based on in-person interviews and observations from Dallas.
Attendance patterns continue to be altered compared to historic trends. Dallas said that about a quarter of attendees were first-time visitors, including some from outside its traditional drawing area. With the Las Vegas and High Point markets pushed back to April and June, respectively, buyers are likely to go to shows wherever they are when they need new products. Attendance at this week’s Atlanta Market should provide more insight into this.
A promising start
Holiday 2020 was a relatively strong season for most stores in the home space, and numbers from public companies indicate that they did close to their prior year business. Another round of physical store closings—considered unlikely in the U.S. at this point, even as some nations like the U.K. are implementing a new round of lockdowns—would change the business dynamic for the first half of 2021.
While home office products (including technology, lighting, desks and chairs) drove retail business during the first half of last year, other categories emerged as winners as consumers settled in for the long haul in their homes. Several exhibitors in Dallas said anything to do with home entertaining—serveware, tabletop, dinnerware and food—were strong players, while products like outdoor furniture and home environment also did well. And lastly, the candle business—well, there’s no other way to put it then to say it continues to be on fire.
Virtual marketplaces remain a work in progress. Big trade show operators like International Market Centers, Dallas Market Center, Emerald Expositions and Shoppe Object, as well as independents like Faire and Brandwise, are in the process of launching platforms for retailers to shop and buy products online. But so far, no clear winner has emerged, and buyers may be more likely to use these platforms for reordering than as replacements for live in-person trade shows. It’s way too early to tell how this aspect of the business will play out.
Both exhibitors and buyers are taking health and safety measurements seriously. In Dallas, the market center had protocols to take temperatures and give daily tagging for show-goers, and there were copious numbers of hand sanitizer stations throughout the market. Virtually every attendee was wearing a mask—often in stylish animal prints, colorful fabrics, or even studded with rhinestones—only removing them when they ate or gathered in small settings. This duplicated what was seen at the events held in the back half of 2020, and is likely to be the case this week in Atlanta and shows later in the year. Mask wearing may have devolved into a political statement in some parts of the country, but in the home and gift trade show world, it is standard equipment.
This week’s show in Atlanta should continue the pattern as the industry tries to return to some semblance of normality even as COVID continues to wreak havoc on many aspects of the economy and society. The industry is by no means back to normal, but at least so far in 2021, it’s a little bit less abnormal.
Homepage photo: Market-goers at the Dallas Total Home & Gift Market this month | Courtesy of Dallas Market Center
Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.