EN pays a visit to Spring Fair, and finds an historic exhibition skilfully embracing the modern.
It’s not every day that EN attends a show that’s sailed past the 50-year mark. It’s also not often that we find ourselves at a show taking up the entirety of the NEC.
But then Spring Fair is no ordinary exhibition.
“Spring Fair was launched in 1950 in Harrogate and had six exhibitors,” Louise Young, MD – Spring Fair, J&W and Autumn Fair at Ascential, tells EN. “It was post-war, and after the dreariness of the war people were buying colour. They wanted to decorate their homes.
“The show grew from those six exhibitors in Harrogate, moved to Blackpool, and from there grew again, and was the first show to open with the NEC in 1976.”
And there the show remained, growing steadily throughout the years until it filled every hall at the venue. Over the years Spring Fair has firmly established itself as the go-to trade event for the gifts and home products sector.
EN is meeting with Young and Ascential brand director Phil Boas to learn more about how a B2B retail event became the largest exhibition at the NEC, and how the show manages to stay fresh and relevant in 2018.
“We re-edit the show every couple of years,” says Young. “Some categories grow, depending on what’s happening in the market. When we do a major re-edit, we’ll move every hall around and it keeps us fresh and allows us to rethink.
“What’s great about the UK as well is that we are very trend-led, and very forward in terms of retail. If you think back to the history of the Spring Fair, it would’ve had a whole hall full of smoking accessories, or a whole hall full of clocks.
“You have to replace sectors that are no longer relevant to what consumers are buying. What we tend to see is that the show holds a mirror up to consumers, and show them what’s coming through in terms of trends.”
Staying up to date with the latest – not to mention future – trends is a large part of what the show offers visitors, in addition to meeting with potential suppliers. Many of the show’s visitors are responsible for making big decisions regarding what their stores will offer shoppers for the following year, something Young is acutely aware of.
“It’s such an intense time for a retailer; they’re buying for next Christmas but they’re also buying for shop order as well,” she explains. “If you get that wrong that has consequences.
“They have to come and be able to see what it is they want to buy, and also what they don’t want to buy. They might see a trend that’s ubiquitous and decide to buy something a little bit different. Unless you have that comparative view, how can you make that decision? You’re not necessarily going to be able to see that online or to feel the quality.”
Sometimes seeing the trends can be as simple as looking down the isles of the show. Young points out that in 2017 unicorns were ubiquitous in the children’s toy section, but that for 2018 there’s barely a mythical horse to be seen (replaced, if you’re wondering, by llamas).
Other methods of identifying current and future trends, says Boas, are slightly more high tech.
“We’ve got two sister companies: WGSN – who are a trend forecasting agency and work with big brands like Nike and John Lewis – and One Click Retail, who we are working with around what is being bought on Amazon right now,” he explains. “We’ve also partnered with Pinterest, and we’re looking at what’s being pinned. Social is an insight into what’s happening in the real world. We take the ‘now’ trends with One Click Retail and Pinterest and create a video of those trends running on big screens within the hall. Then with WGSN, who look a bit further ahead towards 2020, we get creative videos on what’s about to happen and what we should be looking for in the future.”
The most important thing, adds Young, is ensuring that the industry’s big retailers still have an incentive to attend the show in person.
“It about asking, how can we give buyers and retailers access to information that they can only get by physically coming here?” she explains.
Another technology-led element to the show, also concerned with predicting industry trends, is The Atelier, an interactive feature installation which was soft launched at this year’s event. Visitors were able to make their way round the installation, with the help of a headset guide, and see how certain items could be displayed in-store for maximum effect.
“The Atelier is giving our buyers who come access to information they wouldn’t get before, to help them about what they should be buying now and what they should be looking for in the future,” explains Boas. “It’s all about us helping them and making sure they make the right decisions.”
Another relatively new element of the show is how it is being marketed to its target audience, as Boas explains.
“Our marketing mix has evolved a lot over the last 18 months to two years, and digital has become a big part of the way we reach people,” he says. “Instagram is a key channel for us; it’s very visual, and the story behind a product is also becoming more and more important.”
In an age where buyers are overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of products on offer, face-to-face meetings can still make all the difference.
“The heritage of where it’s come from, and how it’s developed; that we’re finding is working really well with engaging old but also new audiences,” concludes Boas. “They’re really interested in the story behind products.
“People connect with a story, and then they connect with a product.”