The National Stationery Show (NSS), hosted in the Javits Center in New York City annually in May, is the only stationery industry trade show in North America. Showcasing greeting card companies and a selection of gift companies and publishing houses, NSS is only open to registered members of the stationery trade and press. From May 19-22, fourteen rows of vibrantly decorated booths filled the downstairs hall of the Javits, with neon pink carpet in every aisle (with the exception of the #fresh section, dedicated to highlighting businesses under five years old, which was carpeted in yellow).
This year’s show featured around 550 unique vendors, 200 of whom were new to NSS. The front of the hall featured many of the larger stationery companies like Hallmark and Papyrus, with tall, backlit signage and slick displays that mirrored a retail environment. Manufacturing and stationery suppliers were mostly placed in the back, in a section called, “The Supply Side,” and indie designers and smaller companies were peppered throughout the hall. Companies exhibiting at NSS hail from all over the world, including Good News Drawing, a successful South Korean stationery brand that came to NSS to expand their reach in North America.
“Booth placement is huge,” said Kelly Decker, founder of JaxKelly, who offers a range of hand-poured candles and gemstone jewelry. The first time NSS vendor suggested negotiating or paying a premium to be placed in a corner booth, which offers more visibility. Friendly Fire Paper, located in an aisle at NSS, recommended using the side walls of an aisle booth for product display, to increase visibility for buyers as they walk past the booth. Denise Laborde and Mariana Picans, owners of Friendly Fire Paper, opted to paint a feature wall mural on the back of their booth for NSS 2018, and felt that the layout was a major improvement on their 2017 booth design, and attracted more attention from attendees.
Maptotes’ booth showcased their reusable tote bags and expanded range of gift items, which feature illustrated maps of cities around the world. They dedicated a prominent corner of their booth to highlight their ability to offer custom designs, which have proven to be an enticing offer for retail buyers. Other NSS vendors offered special discounts or deals for buyers who place orders at the show, but highlighting opportunities for customization and collaboration also seems to interest buyers.
The Great Lake Goods founder Rose Lazar brought her collection of hand-printed cards and ornaments to NSS for a sixth time this year, with a fresh booth and new products to match. Lazar cites NSS as a good way to grow a business, as preparing for a trade show can focus a small business owner’s efforts, and help clarify their aesthetic and unique offerings to retail buyers. However, Lazar also mentioned that online wholesale platforms are becoming more tempting for businesses like hers. The consensus among veteran NSS vendors was that the show’s future seems unclear at best. Vendors often alluded to a decrease in retail buyer attendance, although NSS cites an attendance of 8,000 industry professionals at the show.
Vendor worries may have been compounded when NSS distributed a poll to vendors shortly before the 2018 event, asking whether vendors would prefer NSS to merge with NY Now, a retail industry trade show that takes place in the Javits Center every January and August, and boasts an attendance of over 20,000 retail buyers and members of the press. Some vendors felt ambivalent about the change, citing potential scheduling conflicts if NSS was merged with a trade show during a different season. Other vendors were already participating in NY Now, and felt the change could be a positive one for stationery makers.
Exhibitors had mixed opinions about the two main stationery industry competitions that take place during NSS. The Louie Awards, hosted by the Greeting Card Association, requires a fee for entry, while the Best New Product awards hosted by NSS were free and open to participation from any vendor. Both awards were cited as a potentially helpful marketing tool by stationery company owners, including Louie Award winner Friendly Fire Paper, who had both her award statue and winner ribbon prominently displayed in her booth.
Indie designers exhibiting at NSS often cited Tradeshow Bootcamp as a resource they’d recommend for stationery makers preparing for NSS. While some vendors prepared for years before signing on for NSS, other companies signed on just a 2-3 months before the show. “Give yourself plenty of time — the show comes quicker than you think,” said Melinda Tracy Boyce, founder of Cactus Club, and first time NSS vendor. She shared that in her experience, booth costs were just the beginning — there are tons of factors that go into making your first NSS a success.
While the future of NSS is unclear, many vendors hoped to return next year. Many of the indie business owners I spoke with agreed that NSS may be a show in transition, but it’s still a great place to connect with retail buyers in new regions, catch up with friends in the industry, and find support from other stationery business owners.
Erin Dollar is an artist, surface pattern designer, and founder of Cotton & Flax, a collection of boldly patterned textile home decor that is designed and manufactured in California. Her work has been sold in 100+ retail shops, from indie boutiques, to large mass-market retailers like West Elm, CB2, and Need Supply. By growing her ecommerce business to accommodate wholesale buyers, she has built a sustainable business that generates income year-round, and built a platform for long-term growth. See her webinar, Wholesale for Craft Business, in our archives.