Tips for Japanese Firms Looking to Get Attention at Trade Shows

I recently spent a day at the Tokyo International Gift Show, a giant trade show featuring thousands of Japanese vendors offering everything from toys to ceramics to apparel. I saw many intriguing and beautiful products on display, but I was struck by how Japanese vendors differed from those in the US.

In the US, vendors go to a trade show with one primary goal – to drive sales leads. The company typically uses assertive tactics to identify potential customers, size them up and start (or even better, conclude) a sales conversation on the spot.

Companies arrange meetings in advance and invite target customers to special events. They also work the show aggressively, trying to snag attendees as they walk by and draw them into a conversation at the booth. Their tables are covered with "bait" (free pens with logos, candy, drawings for electronic goods), and they actively chat up passersby.

In Japan, the vendors were much more passive. Knowing the "irasshaimase" culture in Japan (the "Welcome!" that waiters and shop owners call out to customers), I was expecting a bit more energy from exhibitor staff trying to attract people into the sales booth. Instead, I generally had to locate a salesperson and engage him or her in conversation. Sadly, I couldn't even find any tchotchkes to bring home for my kids!

While a number of Japanese vendors told me they were interested in selling overseas, their interest often seemed casual rather than directed. When I asked why they didn't work harder to engage with even Japanese attendees, several explained that it didn't make sense to try to grab people who were likely not interested in their products. Instead, they were hoping to get some marketing benefits and be discovered by people seeking them out.

US vendors typically have a whole scheme for qualifying and following up with people they meet at the show. Well-organized exhibitors collect names and contact information from everybody they can. They follow up with an email, call, and/or visit within a week of the show, especially for the "A- level" contacts.

At the Gift Show I tried to I put myself in the shoes of a foreign buyer, and, based on my US experience, I saw clear distinctions between vendors with international potential and those without.

Those with the strongest appeal have three things in common. First, they offer a good product that fits a perceived market need at the right price. Second, they demonstrate that they have the capacity to service international customers (especially English language capabilities and a commitment to the market). Third, they adopt a more assertive approach to selling. Perhaps because of their US trade show experience, American buyers expect to be pursued – but they also see assertiveness as an indication that the vendor will be a responsive and effective partner.

While offering these things may not guarantee success – especially at a US trade show – they will help a Japanese company better attract foreign buyers. Fortunately, at a Japanese trade show, just a little bit of effort will help the company stand out from the crowd.

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