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home | Feature Articles | Trunk Shows & PAs: How They Actually . . .

Trunk Shows & PA's: How They Actually Work
Frank Stankus


Trunk shows Sometimes retail jewelry stores make an arrangement with a supplier to come and sell directly to their customers. If you bring a "trunk" full of your merchandise, it is called a trunk show. Usually the extra jewelry is available just for the duration of the trunk show -- most commonly just one or two days -- and all sales go through the store. You don't sell anything to the public directly through your own business. The store benefits from the cost-free added goods to sell. You benefit by the contact you make with the sales staff and the public. Often your enthusiasm is contagious and things work out well, especially if the store spent money on advertising the event and then created an atmosphere conducive to selling.

Personal appearances This is like a trunk show except that you leave the trunk at home -- that is, you go to an advertised event without bringing additional goods to sell. This approach has the advantage of you not having to lug "trunks" to the store while at the same time it still, like a trunk show, treats you like a celebrity, and it creates excitement and passion for your work. It gives the store something to promote, and once you've got a following, it gives consumers a chance to meet you and (hopefully) that gives them an incentive to collect more of your work.

Full article:

How Trunk Shows Actually Work

The following was written by the Jeweler's Resource Bureau's Frank Stankus and appeared in the now-defunct Lustre magazine. Several designers commented on how useful it was for them when discussing the possibility of a trunk show with store managers who had little experience with the subject. One even said she Xeroxed the article and sent it to all her major clients. It's written as a guide for retailers. Used with permission.

It was not the way I expected to see Robert Lee Morris. The celebrated jewelry designer, clad in jeans, casual shirt and leather vest, was sitting in the window of a suburban Connecticut jewelry store, busily hammering thick silver wire into the shapes of letters. Using a tree stump as his work bench, he pounded and tapped until each piece was done to his satisfaction, engraved his name into it and then gave it away to a delighted member of an ever-changing audience that drifted in and out of the New Canaan shop.

Some had come to the store, Brinsmaids, specifically to see the designer. Others had wandered in, intrigued by the jewelry-making demonstration just inside the front door. Both types were the target of the afternoon's activity, one of the more original approaches to that staple of jewelry selling, the trunk show.

It was only later in the day when he changed into more formal attire that Robert Lee Morris appeared somewhat more in line with what I had expected at a trunk show, chatting with rather prosperous-looking prospective buyers who sipped champagne and gushed over his work. The whole affair, with its extremes of casualness and formality, coarseness and refinement, served as a good example of the variety of styles that characterize a trunk show.

The basics

At its most basic, a trunk show is a personal appearance by a designer -- or an associate -- who brings along a larger selection of merchandise than is displayed in the store. The extra jewelry has traditionally been carried in a secure container, hence the term "trunk." Some make a distinction between a trunk show and a personal appearance, with the presence or absence of the designer being the difference. Marlene Richey, partner and business manager of William Richey Designs of Camden, Maine, put it succinctly: "When I go, it's a trunk show. When Bill goes, it's a personal appearance." In most situations, however, the two terms are used interchangeably.

The Thursday event at Brinsmaids was uncommon for reasons beyond the fact of its locale and some generous give-aways like the sterling silver letters. The entire affair can be seen as an example of a pull-out-all-the-stops type of show. Owner Scott Cusson sent formal printed invitations to prospective buyers, placed ads in the local newspaper and posted signs in the store announcing the event. The store remained open several extra hours for a cocktail reception with hors d'oeuvres, champagne and wine. And finally, he earmarked a portion of all trunk show sales for the local chapter of the American Red Cross. It was quite clear that Cusson takes his trunk shows, and his designers, seriously. A rarity among jewelry stores, Brinsmaids focuses almost exclusively on designers.

More typical was a recent showing of JFA Designs in Nordstrom's in Short Hills, New Jersey. Ron Hoffman, the national sales representative for JFA Designs, had flown in from California with a nearly complete line and was in attendance the entire day at the store's attractive fine jewelry alcove. The store, for its part, had mailed out notices of the event to hundreds of customers, given extra display space for JFA merchandise, added extra staff to make sure no prospective buyers would be kept waiting and even extended a special payment plan not usually offered to jewelry purchases. When I stopped by in the afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed as customers drifted in and out, asking to see various items. No one was kept waiting, and the staff all appeared knowledgeable about the virtues of the JFA merchandise. The ambiance, the array of goods and the presence of a designer's rep on site were very typical of a trunk show.

Somewhat more unusual was a show held a few weeks later at the White Plains, New York, Nordstrom where four designers not carried by the store were invited to show at a one-day event to introduce them to the store's established jewelry clientele. This avant garde event was the brainchild of Patrick Raccioppi, the manager of the fine jewelry department. He came up with the idea to feature four "craft-oriented" designers -- William Richey, Judith Kaufman, Whitney Abrams and Michelle Mercaldo -- after seeing them at a craft show in the area.

The designers' work was dissimilar enough so they didn't overlap each other in style but similar enough to loosely fit into a category. Potential buyers were mailed a finely drafted letter describing the four collections and those who came to the store were treated to an enticing array of styles to choose from. While there were some slow periods in the late afternoon, the designers were delighted to be appearing in that store.

Dead trunk shows

While many trunk shows have slow periods, it is the ones that are entirely slow that are the worst, said participants in all three of these shows, as well as veterans of others. Judging from their comments, few things are considered worse time-wasters than dead trunk shows. Fortunately, I didn't encounter this situation in my visitations.

Everyone agreed on the best way to avoid this: do your homework. Every retail outlet planning a trunk show simply has to do something to advertise the event beforehand. "I have found it works best when it is advertised," observes Mark Cohen of J.J. Marco. Like everyone else interviewed for this article, he has made appearances at events that were dead in the water. Both Cohen and the Richeys have been doing trunk shows for a half dozen years or so. Henry Dunay of Henry Dunay Design has been doing them for decades, and he agreed that preshow publicity is crucial. "You have to do it if the store doesn't do it for you.," he said. "Ideally," he continued, "the sales staff is on the phone the day before and the morning of the show, making appointments and reminding customers."

While few stores are willing or even able to do extensive telephone canvassing, it is slightly less critical how the event is publicized. Some of the more common and obvious approaches are with an ad in the local newspaper, with a postcard sent to potential customers or by mailing a flyer or even an engraved invitation to prospective buyers. Different approaches are more or less effective in different locales at different times. The important thing, everyone agreed, is that something is done to bring in customers.

Several designers mentioned another ingredient that, when possible, helps contribute to the success of a trunk show. In some stores, particularly the smaller ones, it is possible to assemble the sales staff for a presentation by the designer. This is particularly beneficial in those department stores where a salesperson from a non-jewelry department can earn a commission on a purchase by a customer steered to the trunk show.

Beyond these basics, there are a number of other factors that ought to be considered. Too many trunk shows in a given season can water down overall sales. It can be difficult, the reasoning goes, to bring in the same customer week after week to look at more and more jewelry. This effect is magnified when a store does trunk shows for a variety of products in addition to jewelry. However, this may not hold true for designers with a cult following.

When choosing which designers to schedule for a special event, consider who you would like to sell more as well as who sells the best. Often a new designer, or one who is new to your store, is more eager to visit and schmooze. A well established vendor may have certain requirements or minimums to meet before they will come for an event. For instance, there are some designers who won't come without a guaranteed number of appointments and others who won't come unless you regularly stock a certain dollar volume of their work.

What else you need to consider

Those who have had their fair share of hits and misses suggest you also pay attention to the timing. Choose the right time of the year, and further, the right time of the week to attract the specific kind of customer who will buy the specific kind of jewelry you will be featuring. Dunay, for example, says that he does not do trunk shows on Saturdays because a Saturday jewelry shopper "is not my kind of customer."

Good timing refers to the length of the event, too. Certain designers as well as certain themes work better when planned for just the evening hours while others work better when planned to last a full day.

Make sure the designer brings along jewelry other than what is being featured at the store. This can be profitable when a customer decides to add to a collection that is not on display or one that has been discontinued. If that person is able to see pieces that match previous purchases, it increases the chances for moving goods that might otherwise be taking up space in your or the designer's vault. "I take my dogs with me," quips Mark Cohen, referring to those styles that are not selling well, are older or perhaps less popular in that region. "Quite often, when I put things out, people ask to see more. What may look outdated to me or the store managers," he explains, "may be new for the customer."

It may also spark a sale of something that has not done well in a particular market. Designers and buyers naturally become used to specific demographics and selling patterns, but beware of too jaded a viewpoint. Just because "big usually sells best in Texas," for example, doesn't mean there isn't a taker or two elsewhere.

Each owner or manager has to decide what will work best. There is no set formula, as everyone involved in these things will attest. "I just did two shows back to back, for Neiman's in San Francisco and Los Angeles," says Cohen. "I wrote twice as much in one as I did the other. Go figure." Henry Dunay, with all his experience, is just as philosophical. "If I could figure it out," he says with a chuckle, "I'd be a multimillionaire."

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