It’s taken nearly two years of planning, testing, researching and designing to get to the point of no return: introducing Collingwood Candles to potential buyers. We finally got our samples and the finished packaging in just before Christmas, and were contacted by Top Drawer, one of the UK’s biggest trade shows: we’d been selected for the new business section, Spotted, at the show in the middle of January.
Lists were rapidly scribbled of all the things we’d need: flyers with our pricing details, minimum orders and information; business cards; props and decoration for the stand; plenty of candles and – did we dare hope? – an order pad. Amphora, our brilliant label designers, were hastily briefed on everything that needed printing – and suggested blowing up a picture of our handsome stag logo to go on a giant poster for the stand’s back wall. He was also added to a specially-printed tablecloth to drape over our less-than-beautiful trestle table, for some extra branding.
Arriving at Olympia for the show on set-up day (Saturday) was fairly surreal, as we’d never been to a trade show before. (Top tip: if you want to set up a brand, go and check out trade shows – it’s very useful to find out what everyone else in your prospective field is doing, and to know what to expect!) Rocking up to the front gate, and nervously proferring my show badge, I was asked, ‘Do you have your hi-viz?’ ‘No!’, I squeaked, thinking, ‘no-one told me I needed a HI-VIZ! Oh God, I’m not even through the gate and I’ve managed to screw something up.’ ‘Yeah’, the man replied cheerily, ‘it’s basically a building site!’, handing me my first ever hi-viz jacket. Right, OK, you can do this. You can totally do this.
To a soundtrack of hammering and drills, I made my way to the Collingwood stand, in the middle of what was, absolutely, a building site. Boxes were everywhere; people were adding shelves, hooks, storage boxes and decorations to their stands all around us and unpacking their products. We put up our poster and six shelves – the candles in their dark blue tubes were placed reverently into an ordered display. Cloches and wooden brick moulds showed off the candles on the table – together with flowers arranged in empty candle pots and our price lists. Which all makes it sound easy – Top Tip No. 2: setting up a stand takes AGES. It did, however, give us the opportunity to get to know some of the other people who were in the Spotted area with us, including Chloe, a LOVELY graphic designer who was selling her stunning prints - check her out on Instagram @clocollectionuk and Matt, from @coolsourcecards in Tooting, who makes excellently funny cards.
At the end of the day, a horde of men in hi-viz appeared to put carpet down around all the stands, at lightning speed. We went for a wander round the various halls, checking out the competition – feeling daunted by the established candle brands’ massive stands and wondering if anyone would find us, in a corner on the top floor. (Mind you, we also found a fabulous stand selling incredibly kitsch Christmas decorations. And I spotted Keith Brymer Jones, the fabulous judge on The Great Pottery Throwdown who is regularly reduced to tears by the particular beauty of an egg cup or similar offering from the contestants. Keith’s tears are the ‘Hollywood Handshake’ of the Throwdown. I love him – and own several of his mugs – so I took it as a good omen.)
Sunday was show day. ‘D’you think you’ll get any orders?’ was the cry going round the Spotted stands, full of nervous newbies, ready to do battle at 9.30am. ‘God, no idea’, came the reply from pretty much everyone. It was actually very reassuring to be surrounded by people who were in the same boat as us. I was worried I was going to be like the one on the Apprentice team who sells absolutely nothing and gets dragged through the boardroom, before gathering my things together and clambering dejectedly into the Taxi of Failure.
We stood nervously at our stand; we thought it looked pretty good – but what would potential customers think? It turned out that they loved the candles. We were on the end of an aisle, so caught the eye of plenty of people who were passing by, all of whom said that they’d been attracted by the look of the packaging. We rapidly swept in with details of the various candle scents (‘Have a sniff! If that doesn’t sound too rude’, was an opening gambit that seemed to work), the packaging, the wax (we use a blend of coconut and mineral), and the fact that everything’s been made in the UK and is as eco-friendly as we can get it. Plus that we were a new brand launching at the show. We got used to talking about minimum orders and trade prices. And suddenly, as if by magic, we had our first order, from a buyer for a shop in Cornwall. High-fives and some pretty excitable shrieking ensued. We were off!
Sunday was incredibly busy – it’s when most of the independent retailers seem to visit the show. We talked to people who ran gift shops, gallery shops, outlets at farm shops and a couple of potential wholesalers and platforms which sell a variety of brands. Chatting to them all was brilliant – with loads of unexpected connections. There seemed to be a lot of buyers from around the Somerset area, where we’re based; a woman came from a shop in Whitby (‘We were at school there!’), two different guys we spoke to were originally from Barnsley (‘We grew up there!’), there was a woman who had a shop in Broadstairs in Kent (‘No WAY! Our Mum grew up there!’). She placed an order and said, ‘ah, you can be happy now, your candles are coming home’, which reduced us to a bit of a weepy mess.
Everyone we spoke to was incredibly positive and happy to chat about what was selling for them in terms of brands, price-points and possible new products for us, such as diffusers or votives. We had an amazing talk with Sarah, who runs St Eval candles in Cornwall. She came up to see ‘who was new’ – I only realised later she hadn’t said, ‘to check out the competition’. She rightly said it’s because she knows there’s room for everyone; she was absolutely fascinating and we made plans to stay in touch.
The best thing about a trade show – other than getting orders – is making connections with people and finding out what they do, and how your brand could fit in with that. By the end of the three days, we were absolutely knackered (standing up from 9.30am till 6.00pm and launching yourself at strangers with your sales pitch requires quite a lot of energy – and two of you on the stand, so that one can go on periodic coffee runs to keep you going). But at 5.00pm on the third day, when the show closed, and we had to rapidly take the stand down, we agreed it had been so much better than we’d ever hoped. Hugs were exchanged with our fellow Spotted crew, and lots of shouts of, ‘you smashed it!’
And our candle collection is going to be winging its way round the country: out in the wild at last…