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Backer’s Back in Big New Way

Posted: Sept. 26, 2013, 12:45 p.m. EDT

By Ken Niedziela

Patty Backer knew the time was right for wholesale changes last year after her company, H.H. Backer Associates, hosted the 46th Annual Pet Industry Christmas Trade Show.

The buyer and exhibitor head count was in decline, and an October date didn’t work well for retailers ready to stock their shelves with holiday merchandise.

So the company president and her staff took on an enormous task: Move the fall show to September and give it a total makeover.

The result, Backer’s Total Pet Expo, was a hit with many of the exhibitors who set up Sept. 20 to 22 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill. Though their numbers were down from the 500 companies in attendance in 2012—final exhibitor and buyer figures were not immediately released—some participants reported glowing sales statistics.

 Backer's Total Pet Expo
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., hosted Backer’s Total Pet Expo.
Photos by Ken Niedziela
"I wrote probably double the amount of business this year than last year,” said Rich Koliner, vice president of sales and marketing at toy maker Multipet International in Moonachie, N.J. "I don’t know why, but the traffic was way up.”

John Plausse, president of apparel and accessories manufacturer Spoiled Rotten Dogz, echoed Koliner. Plausse’s New York City company has displayed its products at Backer shows for several years.

"My first day was one of my best first days ever,” Plausse said. "It’s been very, very steady. Last year was also a good year.”

Patty Backer heard similar reports.

"People have said they’ve written a lot of business, they’ve seen a lot of new products,” she said. "A few people told me they wrote more business on Friday than they did all of SuperZoo or some of the other shows.”

To Backer, it’s not a matter of how many people walk the aisles and man the display booths. What’s important is who shows up.

"It’s quality,” she said. "The quality of what people are doing.”

What people were doing at Total Pet Expo ran the gamut—from placing orders through companies like Absorption Corp. and ZuPreem to grooming poodles to sitting down at expert-led Smart Zone classes on topics such as merchandising and finance.

Merchandising tips also were in abundance at Pet Store on the Floor and at the Idea Wall, two of the new offerings overseen by trade show coordinator Colette Fairchild. The changes were part of a grand plan to transform the Christmas Trade Show into a more engaging and more energy-filled event.

"We did a lot of marketing this year,” Fairchild said. "We spent a significant amount of money in doing a whole rebrand, a whole remake.

"You have to constantly reinvent yourself to be successful, because if it’s the same old, same old, you don’t have a draw,” she added.

Fairchild acknowledged the exhibitor count was down, particularly among manufacturers that she said "take a big presence on the floor.” She pointed to the absence of former attendees Central Garden & Pet, Petmate and Rolf C. Hagen.

"Some of the big guys aren’t here, and I think that’s why we’re a little bit smaller,” Fairchild said. "I think they want to see how the new rebranding and the whole look come about. I’m confident that they’ll be back.”

Moving the show to September meant going head to head with Groom Expo in Hershey, Pa., but Fairchild noted that the Backer show hosted a record number of competitive groomers, though she didn’t have the final count.

"Our groomers are very loyal,” she said.

What attracted the contestants, Fairchild said, were $20,000 in prizes, including a trip to Cancun, Mexico, well-known judges such as award-winning groomer Irina Pinkusevich and sponsors like Electric Cleaner Co. and Andis.

"We have very good prize money,” she said.

Also driving business and attendance were Backer Buyer Awards, which granted a $75 Visa debit card to retailers for every $3,500 spent, and the Preferred Pet Industry Recruiting Network.

The latter was a job placement service.

"Any manufacturers or people that are looking for jobs, we hook them up,” Fairchild said. "That’s exclusive to our show.”

Mary Wyld, owner of Norfolk, Va., bird products company Wyld’s Wingdom, approved of the reconstructed show.

"I like the rebranding and I like the new ideas that they’ve brought,” she said. "We have had good, qualified buyers.”

Ryan Wilcox, owner of Grosse Point Park, Mich., treat maker Beer Bones, was happy with the receipts at his third Backer show.

"The turnout has been great,” he said. "From a retail perspective, it seems like a smaller show, which gives the people at the show more time to spend with us, and that’s a good thing.”

Wilcox suggested consolidating the two floors of exhibitors.

"One of the things that a bunch of the retailers we’ve talked to have said is, ‘Why not put it on one floor and make it seem like it’s a bigger show?’ ” Wilcox noted.

"I plan on talking to the Backer people and find out if they would consider doing it on one floor,” he added.

Fairchild defended the layout, saying, "We can spread out on two floors.”

Just as at the Rosemont show, changes are coming to the Backer’s Total Pet Expo spring show, scheduled for April 9 to 11 in Atlantic City, N.J.

"We’ll be rolling out some new features for that, too,” Fairchild said. "We’ll see what worked here, and maybe we’ll repeat some things.”

After months of work and a 2:30 a.m. exit as a hostess at the Mardi Gras All-Industry Party, Fairchild was ready for a breather.

"It was a lot for us to pull off in one year,” she said. "I hardly slept.”

 Smart Zone class
Backer’s Smart Zone education stations covered a range of topics: technology, marketing and merchandising, animal health and wellness, aquatic and finance.


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Backer’s Back in Big New Way

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Reader Comments
As a buyer of a small boutique I like the two floor plan it is easier to get around and stop and see and talk to the vendors about the products. I do have to say with grooming being a big part of my shop I was disappointed in the lack of grooming supplies available this year compared to past years.
Barbara, Pittsfield, IL
Posted: 9/26/2013 7:30:23 PM
As a new to market manufacturer we had to pick our first tradeshow. Being close to our market Superzoo seemed like the fit. We wanted to do both shows but not in budget. We will be participating in 2014. This decided by feedback from manufacturer friends that did participate this year. Looking forward to it!
Jim, North Bend, WA
Posted: 9/26/2013 7:18:16 PM
We didn't know what to expect going into the show as a new exhibitor. We had constant business all three days. One of the best shows for actual business with "real" buyers that I have seen in many years.
We will be back next year for sure.
Dan, Laguna Niguel, CA
Posted: 9/26/2013 4:13:51 PM
I think the show works well on two floors. One huge floor, like SuperZoo, and you tend to get a bit lost. With the two floors -- even though it might fit on one -- it's harder to navigate.

As a buyer, I appreciate the layout.
Connie, Ridgefield, CT
Posted: 9/26/2013 8:37:41 AM
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