Charles Dugan is the owner of American Image Displays, a full-service trade show display supplier celebrating their 30th year of business this year.
Top Tricks for Avoiding Untrustworthy Trade Show Display Suppliers
You've probably noticed, but when you research products online, there are generally a lot of choices. The rise of the Internet as the new global marketplace has resurrected a lot of very old tricks, and added new tricks, used by unscrupulous retailers. It's easier than ever to hide a supply chain with counterfeits, or to claim physical assets that don't actually exist, and lure careless buyers into choices they may later regret.
There are ways of discovering which online sites can be trusted with your money. In fact, it's also easier than ever to uncover these shady practices; it just takes a bit of care and time. To Really research a trade show display vendor - or any other online store - you just have to put on your detective cap and do a little sleuthing.
Today's reality is that we are all buyers and sellers. Our "day job" may be selling one type of product, but in the evening and weekends we're all consumers too, and we're all buying more and more of our needs online.
So today, we present a handy guide to vetting online vendors; these tips will work for any online store, but we hope you will consider them as you look for your next trade show supplier too!
Getting Your Money's Worth from Online Trade Show Display Suppliers
1 - Is their contact info rated Top Secret?
Step 1 is easy. If you're dealing with a vendor that doesn't list an actual address and phone number on their website, that should be a dealbreaker right there.
We're living in an age where you can buy a PO Box "office" in half the countries of the world, and use a virtual secretary service to answer the phone. There's absolutely no reason a legitimate vendor wouldn't have contact info listed, or that they would try to hide that contact information. After all, who would you call for trade show display support?
OK, Amazon can get away with breaking this rule, but they're Amazon.
2 - WhoIs they, anyway?
If you've never used it, WhoIs is a tool for looking up registrations of websites. Virtually every public domain on the Internet is listed. This usually provides a wealth of information about who's behind a business and where their offices actually are.
Just make sure you don't accidentally jot down their webhost's info.
However, there is an exception: If they're listed as "domain by proxy," that means the website owner is using an anonymizing third party to register the domain. This is almost exclusively done to obfuscate ownership of websites.
This is another serious red flag. No legitimate business, including anyone you would consider purchasing trade show supplies or anything else from, has any reason to hide their website's ownership.
3 - Be the eye in the sky.
If you got an address from their website or WhoIs search, punch it into Google Maps. Does your prospective trade show supplies vendor have a real address?
And, if it is a real address, what does it look like? Since Streetview has virtually all of America -and much of the rest of the world- photographed at this point, you should be able to get a good look at the building. If someone is boasting a 10,000-square foot exhibition showroom and apparently wedging it into a strip-mall office or in an empty field, there's another red flag.
(At this point in the investigation, if you want to exclaim "ENHANCE!" as you zoom in on their business to uncover the truth, I don't blame ya. The future should be fun!)
4 - (Don't) Return to sender.
Another big dealbreaker are the words "Do not return any products to our location," or similar sentiments. That's pretty much an open admission that they're sourcing directly from a vendor and dropshipping without any on-site services.
To me, that means they can't provide any real customer support themselves. It's just another bit of smoke and mirrors that a legitimate trade show booth vendor won't do.
5 - Go WayBack to the future.
Another of the Internet's unsung treasures is Archive.org. Among their astoundingly huge (and free) digital library of every public domain media imaginable, they also keep backups of most of the Internet, going back to the mid-90s.
(My apologies to those who hadn't realized their High School Geocities page would be archived forever. It is.)
So, set the controls on the WayBack Machine and look into the history of the vendor's website. How well does it match up with their official history? Have they had a website for at least most of the time they claim to have been in business?
Occasionally you can also spot unmentioned changes-in-ownership, when there's a major overhaul or flurry of press releases that end up forgotten.
Just keep in mind the WayBack Machine is not 100% complete, so it's not proof positive by itself. None the less, if the trade show display website is for a "ten year old" company that seemingly didn't appear online until six months ago, that's at least a tentative red flag.
6 - Every Tweet you make, I'll be watching you ...
As a younger acquaintance once informed me, "Facebook is for stalking." LinkedIn too, for that matter.
Go look the vendor up on a few different social media sites, to see if they have a presence. I wouldn't go so far as to say a lack of a Facebook or LinkedIn page is a true dealbreaker, but it's questionable. A company that won't even try social media in their strategies may be too far behind the times.
Otherwise, check out how many followers they have, and what sort of interactions they're having. If they do seem to have lively discussions going, this isn't just a good sign - it's an opportunity for you to quiz some of their actual customers to see if their comments agree with their website's claims.
It's also not too hard to spot companies who are buying social media "success" through bots or comment farms. Purchased comments usually have atrocious grammar, and there's rarely any actual conversation going on. These sorts of purchased pages often just have loads of me-toos and generic "I like this!" comments that feel like they don't quite fit what was posted.
Sometimes you can even spot the same comment several times from different "users!"
7 - Try the ol' "Surprise Inspection" routine.
If there's a quality trade show supplier near you, there's still something to be said for sourcing locally. It'll be far easier to get support when you need it. Plus, you can check out the showroom for yourself and see if it matches up to their website's claims!
Besides, we happen to think that the best way to experience an impressive showcase of trade show displays is when you're not having to fight attendees to see them! And we think there's a lot to be said for trade show suppliers that take the time to try out different trade show displays themselves - this lets them learn what works and what doesn't, how to fix what breaks, and gives them a demo unit in their showroom to let you check out in person.
Move Slowly When Investigating Trade Show Suppliers
There's a lot riding on your trade show displays, and you should be able to rely on getting what you ordered, when you want it, and have it arrive in proper condition. Few things can make a trade show go south more quickly than mistakes - and most mistakes start with poor planning.
Keep in mind that a website is a 100% virtual facade. You need to look behind the curtain, dig deeper, and maybe even do a bit of zooming and enhancing, to start getting a look at the actual company that lies behind the mask.
Don't take their word for it. Do a little spying and find out if they're really up to snuff!
Plan your trade shows well in advance and select a reliable trade show supplier to work with. Mostly, give yourself time - you never know when another winter storm is going to come up to force manufacturers to close their doors and FedEx and freight companies to postpone deliveries!