We’ll Meet Again

So EDexpo is gone, at least as a standalone spring trade show, leaving the future of school supply conventions up in the air. Before it lands, we are going to need to answer some existential questions about who we are and what we want from each other.

I know this will be old hat for some of you grizzled veterans, and may seem irrelevant to young people, but I think it might be worth looking backward for a moment before we try to look forward. When this company took over Educational Dealer magazine in the spring of 1984, there was only one national trade event in this industry.

The National School Supply & Equipment Association (NSSEA) held its annual convention in November, featuring exhibits that included just about everything that was purchased by teachers and schools, with the exception of textbooks. The meeting traced its roots back to 1916, although for most of that history companies had met privately in hotel suites in St. Louis and Chicago.

Things were about to change. For a number of years, the rapidly growing membership of teacher-store owners had been pushing NSSEA for a spring show, which would coincide with their back-to-school ordering season. NSSEA made the mistake of looking at the problem as a binary choice and opted to remain in the fall.

So a couple of prominent California retailers, Al Warren and Forrest Goff, decided to produce their own show. That event took place in the City of Industry, California, in the spring of 1985, and became the school supply industry equivalent of Woodstock. Everyone showed up, and it changed everything.

The following several years made up the most interesting period I have experienced in this business, as two rival associations struggled to divine the trade show that would reunite the fractured industry. Although it would be fun to rehash the whole “Game of Thrones” history, for the purposes of this discussion I’ll just summarize the way it finally shook out.

NSSEA created a spring show of its own, which eventually won out over the privately owned, California-based association known as the Educational Dealer and Supplier Association (EDSA). The success of that show, which became EDexpo, also caused the gradual decline of the fall convention, finally killing it off in the late ’90s.

To understand why all that happened, and what would happen later, we need to back up further and consider the whole teacher-store phenomenon. There have been teacher stores almost as long as there have been school supplies, but prior to the 1970s they were just a minor part of the business. The real numbers were rung up by salesmen calling on schools.

Then, about 40 years ago, it seemed as though teacher stores sprang up everywhere. Some were chains like Learning World and Little Red Schoolhouse, while others were outlets owned by major distributors, and many were one-off “mom and pops.” The movement was strongest on the West Coast, but it got so big that every medium-sized town in America had at least one store.

Publishers tailored their lines for these new retailers by producing things that teachers would buy with their own money, like classroom décor, incentive awards and supplemental workbooks. Before long they realized that parents were buying the stuff as well, and began to design products accordingly.

There were those among NSSEA’s membership who argued that the tail was wagging the dog. Sure, there were more people on the teacher-store side of the industry, both as dealers and suppliers, but there was still more money in furniture, equipment and other non-instructional products.

After the fall convention expired, NSSEA created the “School Equipment Show” to satisfy the needs of those members. The fortunes of that show have risen and fallen over the years, including a three-year stint in which it was co-located with EDexpo, but recently it has been growing and thriving.

I think EDmarket (formerly NSSEA) management deserves a lot of credit for bringing in architects, designers, educators and others who are involved with the planning of school facilities. Now called EDspaces, it seems to have settled upon a late-October to early-November time slot, which might ring a bell with us old-timers.

While all this was going on with EDSA, NSSEA and EDmarket, other events, produced by other organizations, have come and gone. Or, in the case of ECRM, come and stayed.

ECRM is an appointment-based meeting which is intended to line up all the major distributors in the industry for any supplier that is willing to pay the freight. It’s like making a day of sales calls with no travel in between them, which I found to be efficient, if exhausting. ECRM is very good at what it does, but what it does is not a tradeshow.

I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that there will be at least one tradeshow for the instructional material side of the business going forward, although the details may take a year or longer to fall into place. At the moment, a private company is preparing to launch an event in the fall, and EDmarket is trying to work out some sort of successor to EDexpo.

If I were advising EDmarket, which I’m not, I would suggest that it avoid the temptation to co-produce a show with another association, whether it be from the toy industry or anywhere else. It’s hard enough to make the right decisions on show venues and timing when you don’t have to get agreement from an entirely separate organization with its own set of problems.

I would also recommend to anyone who is planning a school supply industry tradeshow that they take an intensive look at the current breakdown of what we call “dealers.” The number of teacher stores has dropped from the thousands back into the hundreds, but there are a lot of other retailers who sell teaching aids.

There are bookstores that have teacher sections, office supply stores that offer pop-up, seasonal teacher stores, and toy stores that promote educational books, games and manipulatives. There are also independent reps calling on schools, Internet resellers, big boxes, museum stores, college bookstores, and who knows who (with apologies to Santana).

Like teacher stores, the old-style, full-service school supply distributors have been greatly reduced in number, but many of those that survive seem healthy and happy. Of course they are keen on furnishings, but they are still players in the teaching-aid business as well.

Going back more than 30 years, my company has had a policy that we will attend any trade event in the school supply industry, no matter the time, place or sponsoring body, assuming we are welcome. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a preference.

How about an all-inclusive industry convention in say, November? It would be like old times.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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