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Fall 2005 On A Spree

They came from all over. More than 1,000 attendees and nearly 100 exhibitors came from New England, New York and points south and west, and from as far away as Dubai, United Arab Emirates. They converged on the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston on June 2-4th for the first annual SPREE—Specialty Retail Entrepreneur Expo and Conference, a mix of information about new business concepts, industry best practices, good old-fashioned networking, and some organized after-hours fun thrown in.

Attendees were cart and kiosk retailers (who made up half of all participants); specialty leasing managers; wholesalers; gift store owners; temporary in-line store retailers, mall managers, and others. Geographically, 50 percent of attendees were from New England states, 16 percent from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the remainder from across the US and Canada.

During the three-day event, attendees and exhibitors mixed and mingled on the trade show floor, in seminar sessions, and at the Thursday evening cocktail party and Friday night Pokerfest. On Friday and Saturday, more than 200 participants sat in on educational seminars, choosing from among the 14 sessions held in nearby conference rooms. Subjects ranged from “Choosing the Right Products and Locations” on the Beginner Retailer Track, to “Inside Secrets of Specialty Retail” on the Advanced Retail Track, to a specialty leasing roundtable on the Specialty Leasing Manager/Wholesaler Track. The two most popular sessions overall were “How to Find New Merchants and Concepts” and “Hiring and Managing Your Sales Team,” perhaps a sign of what’s topmost on the minds of industry insiders.

Most attendees came to SPREE to look for new products, and to network with each other, according to show research. “SPREE is one of the few opportunities retailers and prospective retailers have to meet face-to-face with wholesalers, property managers, developers and service providers all in one place,” says Sally Miller, trade show director for SPREE. And for some participants, significant deals were actually negotiated right there during the event—including one wholesaler who increased his cart representation by 17 locations in one fell swoop through a contact he made at the show.

Post-event surveys indicate that nearly 75 percent of those exhibiting in 2005 are planning on exhibiting in 2006, and 81 percent felt the show was successful—extremely positive results for a trade-show event’s début.

As a result of feedback from this year’s SPREE, plans are underway for not one but two shows in 2006: one will be in Boston in May, and the other will be in Long Beach, California, in July. And in the works is the addition of a third show for the 2007 lineup (location to be determined). “We aim to become a regional show rather than a national expo,” says Miller, “so that different audiences in cities across the US have the chance to attend a show, rather than having to travel so far to one major annual event.”

But for now mark your 2006 calendar for the springtime SPREE on the East Coast, and the summertime SPREE on the West Coast. You’ll want to be there—for fun and profit.

A wide range of terrific merchandise was on display here at SPREE, but there was a handful of items that everyone seemed to be buzzing about—like a line of colorful zipper handbags… a new breed of interactive video game… a set of rocks that sound like a rattlesnake when banged together (yes, it’s a toy), and products featuring licensed characters that repeat the child’s name as part of a song or book. Take a look.

Just zip it.

imageVisitors couldn’t stop talking about the Zip-it bag, which was introduced to the market here at SPREE. Available in four sizes (small, medium and two varieties of large), the Zip-it bag is the ultimate demonstration product. Passers-by tended to gawk as a single zipper is transformed into an attractive handbag or shoulder bag. The bag comes in more than 580 colors, as solids and as two-tones for a striped look. Retail pricing is attractive to shoppers—and with a markup of at least 300 percent, it’s also very attractive to retailers.

Game on.

Specialty retailers selling toys or electronics should take a close look at the next generation of interactive video games, which were on display—and available for hands-on trial. Combining TV-based video software with player participation, interactive video tennis, ping pong and kickboxing, among others, give players a real workout. Source Pro and SDW Games demonstrated their programs, some of which can burn up to 450 calories an hour. They’re a great way to get kids (and parents!) off the couch, without curtailing their access to video games.

They rock!

Yes, it’s a toy. For kids. It makes noise—not just noise, but rattlesnake noise. While it doesn’t have an actual function (but wait, isn’t that the point of a toy?), Overbreak’s Rattle Rox are still highly entertaining for kids of all ages. Show-goers couldn’t keep from banging the two oblong-shaped magnets together—over and over again—to make them emit a rattlesnake rattle. The “rox” can also be flipped, spun and tossed for more fun. They’re noisy and funky enough to be highly desirable, and inexpensive enough to be widely affordable.

Y? Because we like you.

imageAwesome Specialties International’s (ASI) new licensing agreement with Disney entitles them to sell a new generation of personalized children’s products. Featuring much-loved Disney characters like Snow White, Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, these personalized Disney products, now available, include CDs and books that incorporate the child’s name into the story, poem or song; and items such as clocks and growth charts that bear the child’s name.

The all-business atmosphere at SPREE turned into serious fun Friday night at the three-hour Texas Hold’em Pokerfest. Co-produced by Gift Giant and NYS Collection, the game was held in a ballroom at the nearby Sheraton Boston Hotel.

At the start of the evening, 75 players and an initial crowd of about 40 onlookers joined the fun. The players were seated at ten tables, which condensed to fewer and fewer as the evening progressed and players were knocked out of contention.

Sal Babbino, co-owner of NYS Collection, and Michael Brielmann, president and CEO of Gift Giant, called the hands, providing color commentary for the bystanders. Dealers dressed the part, complete with vests and visors, and all of the participants nibbled on gourmet hors d’oeuvre, sponsored by Happy Feet, throughout the evening.

Some of the players were clearly veterans of the game, having previously played in professional poker tournaments. Others were occasional players, and others still were playing the game for the first time in their lives. And why not—it was a friendly game.

Experience didn’t seem to matter much in determining who would emerge as winners or losers. In fact, some of the novices went deep into the tournament, Brielmann says, making the event even more fun to watch. As the poker competition grew more fierce, the size of the audience grew, too. By the time the game drew down to a final table of seven players, onlookers packed the room three and four deep, some standing on chairs for a better view of the action.

And then, near the stroke of midnight, Christine Silva, specialty leasing assistant at Jersey Gardens (a Glimcher property), was declared the Pokerfest champion. She won a hefty prize package that included two roundtrip tickets to Las Vegas, an oversized Gift Giant piggybank, a pair of designer sunglasses from NYS Collection, a one-year subscription to Specialty Retail Report, a “Queen of Carts” hat, and an engraved trophy.

Each of the six other players who made it to the final table (sponsored by General Growth Properties) won one of six prizes: a TiVo digital video recorder, a karaoke machine, an iPod, a personal DVD player, a digital camera and case, and a set of 500 poker chips in a classy aluminum case were all up for grabs.

And, being a very friendly game, there was even a consolation prize for the first player to be knocked out of the tournament. What was it? A copy of Poker for Dummies and My Little Black Book of Poker.

Marcia Layton Turner -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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