Carol L Schroeder

Change IS in the Wind

June 18, 2014

Chicago Merchandise MartThe saying “as Chicago goes, so goes the nation” has its roots in politics. But only time will tell whether the changes that are happening in the trade show arena in the Windy City are signs of things to come in other regional markets. I hope not.

If it seems that I am taking the upheaval in the Chicago market personally, it’s true -- I’ve never missed a Chicago Gift Show in almost 40 years, and have given countless seminars there, in addition to participating in panel discussions and helping lead retail trolley tours. Back in the day I was a retail advisor to GLM for the show which they ran at McCormick Place -- reportedly the first gift trade show in the country.

The permanent showrooms at the Chicago Merchandise Mart coexisted with the George Little Management show (which was bought by GLM from the exhibitor association that owned it in 1997 ) for decades before the Mart opened up space for temps and aggressively sought out exhibitors. In 2000 the Mart became the only gift show in town (acquiring GLM’s Chicago assets), and maintained that status until January of this year when Urban Exposition’s Windy City Gift Show opened in Rosemont (near O’Hare Airport), making a similar move that cut into the ability of the Chicago Gift Market at the Mart to attract temps.

At least in January the two shows were run simultaneously, so buyers could attend both. But when the dates were announced for this July, the Merchandise Mart and Windy City shows landed a week apart. Then in April the Merchandise Mart announced that there would be no temps on the 8th floor, although vacant showrooms on the only floor of permanent showrooms left (13th) will be rented to temporary exhibitors, including some "Beckman's Handcrafted Show" vendors.

As a result, the Windy City Gift Show is now calling itself “Chicago’s Newest, Largest and Only Gift Show.” (One could ask how it can be both the “largest” and “ only” show, but that would be quibbling.) According to Patti White of Patti White & Co., Urban Exhibitions is expecting many more exhibitors at the July show. That will undoubtedly include some that have recently closed their showrooms at the Mart.

The separate dates and the declining number of exhibitors at the Mart has put buyers in a quandary. Few people -- myself included -- want to go to Chicago twice in a seven-day period. According to Patti White, “Several (but not all) of the showrooms and temporary exhibitors on the 13th floor at the Merchandise Mart will be open anticipating cross-over traffic from the Windy City Show.” I plan to take advantage of this opportunity to go on the Friday or Monday of the Windy City Show, even though these dates are not officially part of the Mart’s Chicago Gift Market. I hope that many showrooms will decide to join in those who are staying open these two days for the convenience of their customers. As retailers, we recognize that serving the customer is the key to success, and I appreciate the fact that some rep agencies and vendors are recognizing that fact and pledging to be open July 25 & 28.

What does the future hold for Chicago? It is hard to say, especially because the Merchandise Mart has recently undergone many changes that include renting several floors to Google. There is a new building of permanent showrooms being proposed by Sierra US , theoretically in time for the January 2015 show. Called the ‘New Midwest Wholesale Marketplace’, the venue will be located near O’Hare and Rosemont, and will “house permanent wholesale showrooms featuring: Giftware, home décor, apparel, accessories, handcrafted goods, garden, stationery, gourmet and more.”

I will go wherever I need to in order to support the rep agencies, vendors and sales reps that are locally based, because I feel that is essential to my business. But a new building in the ‘burbs will never be the same as the grand old Merchandise Mart. At the time that it was built by Marshall Field & Co. the Mart was touted as “a wholesale city under one roof” representing “Chicago, the Great Central Market.” I hope that even now, when the Chicago shows are decidedly regional instead of national, we will not see the day when the Midwest no longer has a thriving wholesale market of its own.