Early this week the organizers of High Point Premarket announced what seemed like fairly minor changes in policy and a new communications push. They wanted to remind everyone of the event’s limitations, to protect the health of the official High Point Market, and, hopefully, to tweak the future behavior of Premarket goers in the process. That includes the behavior of retailers who, during the pandemic, were choosing Premarket over regular Market to do all their shopping. (These are my words put in the sponsors’ mouths, and I’m going to be doing quite a bit of that throughout this piece.)
The changes may appear small — shorten Premarket by a day, put a limit on the free hotel rooms, prioritize those who come back for regular Market with future invitations — but they were enough to garner a response from Kevin Castellani, director of corporate communications at Manwah USA and chairman of the First Tuesday Committee. You can read his full text to the First Tuesday Committee here, but the gist is this: Why would anyone want to do anything to impede progress and the natural evolution of something that developed so nicely out of necessity during the pandemic? Why would you want to hamper a successful Premarket? And who gives you the right to dictate to retailers when and how they shop?
We’ll get to that last point later because it’s more than a stretch that deserves calling out, but for starters, let’s dig into both sides (and spoiler: For now, I’m more persuaded by the Premarket sponsor group’s argument than the counter, so take that into account if you read on. Also, I welcome all comments — both for and against — that could possibly sway me in another direction.)
Doug Bassett, president of Vaughan-Bassett, and Tom Conley, president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority, conducted press interviews Monday to discuss the changes coming. The No. 1 “challenge” on their talking points list was this: “Both HPMA and the Premarket sponsors share the same goal — to make sure that Premarket complements ‘the goose that laid the Golden Egg (Market)’ and in no way detracts from it.”
The two groups are working together to tweak policies this fall to ensure that’s the case, they said. They noted how Premarket used to attract about 100 dealers and how a good 97% to 98% of them would return for the official Market. But the pandemic, they said, changed that and altered some dealer behavior and for good reason: retailers wanted to avoid crowds and it was easier to social distance, for instance, so they came to Premarket, sometimes only Premarket, by the hundreds.
But by this coming fall, most of their pandemic-related concerns will be in the rearview mirror, they added, so, “We hope that dealer behavior will revert to the way dealers shopped prior to the pandemic.”
Then they talked about the “tweaks” to policy. They’re shortening Premarket dates back to just a Monday and Tuesday and are only providing rooms for invited guests on Sunday and Monday; they’re limiting any one company to no more than four rooms nights paid by the sponsors (basically two nights each for two in a party); and they’re letting dealers know that the sponsors are tracking their High Point Market attendance and will prioritize future Premarket invitations for dealers who attend both.
That last one may sound a little creepy, but this is one of the things markets do. They track you. I just got an email from HPMA telling me where I went in June with contact information in case I needed it.
In this case, the tracking is partly designed to encourage retailers who are getting a free room and other goodies at Premarket to come back for the big show and see more of the 1,000-plus showrooms that weren’t open during their Premarket visit. Can anyone argue that’s an offbase request or a bad idea for the vast majority of High Point Market exhibitors?
Manwah’s Castellani doesn’t really address those other Market showrooms that aren’t taking advantage of the Premarket traffic, but what he does say is the sponsor group is basically taking the positive changes that evolved out of the pandemic and turning them into a negative. The event has become a roaring success. “The success of the Premarket, the introduction of First Tuesday, or the realization that maybe traditional markets could be improved is not negative,” he said.
Castellani goes on to list eight reasons why Manwah and others created First Tuesday — a buying opportunity held roughly for two days around the first Tuesday of nearly every month, a perpetual Premarket of sorts. Among them: to give retailers and suppliers the opportunity to meet safely in market-ready showrooms and see new introductions year-round, not just when a major market rolls around. The pandemic and the canceled and delayed markets that followed in some ways removed the handcuffs from dealers and their suppliers. Now some suppliers are making it easier than ever for retailers, typically big retailers, to shop and visit whenever the heck they want.
But the argument starts falling apart for me with the very second paragraph in Castellani’s note: “More importantly, the idea that a Premarket Committee could create restrictions or dictate how retailers behave is unacceptable. Retailers are in charge of how they buy, when they buy and who they buy from as this should not be controlled or dictated by a few on a Premarket Committee.”
That’s all pretty easy to agree with. The problem is that’s not what the Premarket sponsors said they were doing at all!
There are 18 to 19 company sponsors of Premarket. They each pony up thousands of dollars twice a year to host the event from which hundreds more exhibitors now benefit. The sponsors provide hotel rooms at the Grandover. They give invited guests a voucher for breakfast at the hotel. They all promise to provide a simple lunch in their showroom for dealers, and they host a Monday night dinner. They’ll also provide a rental car voucher if needed.
Typically, the sponsors will invite 200 to 250 dealers to a Premarket, and typically 100 to 120 take them up on the offer. In April, more than 500 dealers — a record — showed up here. But again, only about 120 or so took the free rooms. So right off the bat, if you want to argue the sponsor group is dictating to anyone, it’s only dictating to about one-fifth of the attendees.
But you’d be wrong to think they’re even dictating to that select group. What they’re doing is asking them for the courtesy of a showroom visit and a return visit to the “goose,” but they’re not demanding they stay only two days. They can’t dictate that. Retailers can stay as long as they want. And they can shop whomever they want.
What they are saying is: We’re not paying for your extended stay. Two days should do you for what Premarket is: a “stripped-down, no-frills preview of Market with a limited number of open showrooms.” (That’s from the talking points again.) And if you don’t want to visit the sponsor showrooms, so be it. You’re still welcome, just don’t expect the freebies next time.
You could argue that two days does not give a retailer enough time to visit the hundreds of other showrooms that now open their doors for Premarket, and I’d have to agree with you. But are the sponsors demanding that those exhibitors lock their doors and turn off their lights? Are they impeding commerce in any way by saying, “The first two nights are on us?”
What’s more, I’m not so sure dealers would choose to skip out that early, anyway. After all, most of them aren’t even taking advantage of the free room. And even if they are, I know of a lot of retailers who would gladly take a free hotel room if it’s offered. I know of none who would skip an event they deem important just because they’d have to pay their own way.
Here’s yet another way to look at this debate from two market exhibitors. First, A.R.T. Furniture’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jason Foy, confirmed his company was a long-time Premarket sponsor but opted out after the September 2020 event. He wouldn’t go into the reasons for ending the sponsorship, but he shrugged off the policy changes as “a non-factor” in its approach to customers.
“The bottom line for A.R.T. is that our doors are ALWAYS open to any customer who wants to come see us whenever they want,” Foy said.
“Our showroom remains virtually intact year-round, with the exception of a few weeks before we start receiving and prepping for Premarket. Even when that is going on (generally new products are on floor one) the second and third floors have little disruption.”
And then there’s Kurt Behm, sales director of national accounts for new exhibitor China-based upholstery producer Lakeshore Furniture. The company took a small space in Plaza Suites, but its samples didn’t arrive in time for Premarket. Market traffic was light, Behm said, and he feels the strong Premarket probably had something to do with that. Reining it in a bit? Maybe not such a bad idea.
The thing is, there are a handful of companies like Manwah and A.R.T., with management or other leaders in town and on hand to take care of retailers year-round. They’re taking full advantage of their beautiful spaces as they should, not just during Market, not just during Premarket, not just on the first Tuesday of every month. But on any day a retailer wants to visit. That’s an incredibly wise move, a brilliant way to build relationships and forge new ones. And why not? They’re paying for that space year year-round and they have a customer base that wants this access.
But there are more than a thousand other Market exhibitors that can’t do this, or if they could be here regularly, they wouldn’t be able to put on the show they really want to put on, the show they pull out all the stops for twice a year and maybe twice more in Las Vegas.
And we’re not even wading into the whole debate about whether or not a Market or Premarket should have a hard start and stop — so reps aren’t spending weeks here greeting early birds and waiting on stragglers, and so, as one exhibitor told me, that energy and buzz returns to the event. (You can guess where I come down on that, too.)
I don’t disagree with Manwah’s Castellani that the pandemic and technology have opened doors for retailers and vendors to ways of doing business that most of us weren’t thinking about five years ago and should welcome. I’m not sure there’s any going back … or if we should … or if the Premarket changes and efforts to re-educate retailers about what Premarket is and what it isn’t will have any impact on the future of High Point markets and how retailers shop.
But there is a lot at stake, and it’s not as simple as saying one approach is negative and one is positive. They’re both positive. One wants to make it easy for retailers and suppliers to get together whenever they want, whenever they should. The other says the rise in popularity of Premarket served an important purpose during the pandemic. But now it’s time to do whatever’s possible to ensure High Point sees more retailers and more vendors return for the bigger event, when the venue is truly up to accommodating them fully — with shuttle service, for instance, from the airport and to the hundreds of showrooms and showroom buildings they might otherwise miss.
When we finally move past this pandemic, which is it going to be? Or can we have both?