By John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on the free market, at Chicago’s McCormick Place
I like trade shows and conferences. I’ve attended a lot of them – and I’ve given speeches at a few – and I have always found them to be a wonderful microcosm of both society and the economy.
No matter how troubled a city or state may be, the trade show is a place to be re-invigorated about the potential in our own American economy and even in the world at large.
This week, for example, walking through the Housewares Show at Chicago’s McCormick Place, I was reminded of a number of wonderful issues that slip our minds from day to day, as we live out our busy lives. For instance:
I attended on a Saturday. In almost every aisle at this huge conference center, I passed a booth displaying a sign about being closed for the Sabbath.
Now, that may sound nice but unexciting, but think it through: This isn’t Israel, where being closed on Saturdays is normal, or America’s Bible Belt, where being closed on Sundays is normal. People get used to it, and do their shopping the other six days.
This was a four day trade show, one that exhibitors and attendees alike travel across the world to attend. The exhibitors paid a huge amount of money to rent the space, to fly their staff here, and to ship their displays, samples and brochures to the event. And still, because of their religious commitment that rightly outweighs all other considerations, they didn’t participate in the first day, but posted a sign cheerfully saying they’d be here Sunday through Tuesday.
How many of us have this level of commitment to our faith? Not just in our personal lives, but in our businesses? I started trying to count the exhibits displaying that sign, but lost count after a couple dozen. These are people who truly put their money where their mouth is, and I salute them for their commitment. In a time when religious observance is under especially heavy assault, this was awe-inspiring.
When I first started attending trade shows, decades ago, I remember most booths being dull squares with a table in front, a backdrop in back, and perhaps some samples on a basic display.
Every year, however, these exhibits get more impressive, as marketing skills and new technologies combine to make each exhibit pop. They have flat-screen TVs showing their commercials or displaying their products in action… they have actual working models of coffeemakers and cookware, some of them even serving free samples to show how well they work. I saw displays where they handed out free espresso made on their coffee machines, chicken cooked on their frying pans, even a barber shop display demonstrating curling irons.
Some of the exhibits were miniature (or not-so-miniature!) examples of the stores in which their products are sold, with walls and windows, laminate floors, dining rooms, even a second story office for serious negotiations to keep the lower level feeling like a retail environment. One cookware company designed their display to look like a hunting lodge, another to look like an al fresco café, another to look like a full bar.
The products themselves get better and better looking as the years go by, with brighter colors, fancier patterns, more attractive packaging, all to help the manufacturers’ customers – the retail world – to more effectively sell their products to the consumer.
One can’t help but remember a recent presidential candidate’s ridiculous attack on how many choices of deodorants there are, and see that yes indeed, it’s good that we have so many choices, and idiotic to deride the fact. Every one of these companies has a different niche – some catering to a type of cooking or entertaining, some catering to the necessary price points of different clientele, some catering to different tastes in appearance and design. This variety is what makes capitalism work; all these different choices mean jobs for all their employees, as well as a greater choice for their customers.
It’s the ultimate Win-Win of capitalism.
A Global Economy
Like most such trade shows, the Housewares show hosts products from all over the world. Tons of American manufacturers, of course, proudly displaying a USA marking (hopefully in an FTC-compliant manner) on the products and packaging… but also tons of foreign products, showing our truly global economy.
We see pots and pans made in the USA, France, Italy… fancy kitchen knives made in Germany, Japan, Switzerland… innovative water filtration systems from the USA, Mexico, and China…
We recognize brands that we’ve seen on display at our local Macy’s, Penney’s or Sears… but we also see appealing brands that are new to us, and we remember one of the purposes of the show: to introduce regionally popular products to a new audience. Perhaps this product is made in the Southeast USA and everyone there knows about it, but New England or Midwest or Western store chains don’t know about it.
For the right person to see this display could be the ticket for a regional brand to go national, or for a foreign brand to go international.
The better the display, the more eye-catching the products, the cleverer the marketing… the more successful the show will be for the exhibitor, and the more diverse our world market becomes.
We are so accustomed to strolling through our local malls – Woodfield, Old Orchard, Water Tower Place, etc. – that we take them for granted. The stores have been there for years, regularly restocked, occasionally painted or otherwise updated. They’re dependable.
But a trade show isn’t like that. A trade show takes an empty building – or in the case of McCormick Place, three huge empty buildings – and in just a week or two, they transform them into massive malls, custom-designed differently for every show.
The logistics are overwhelming. Thousands of exhibitors, many of which are from all over the country, but the majority of which are usually foreign, must ship that display into the port of Chicago and get it delivered on time for the McCormick place setup staff to route and assemble it in time for the show’s opening. They have only one or two weeks to work this magic, because after the show closes, they get to work on the next show using the space.
Some conference centers double as music or sports venues, and are transformed in two weeks’ time from a rock concert theater into a political convention, or from a basketball arena into a trade show like this one. It’s quite a logistical challenge.
Manufacturers hire freight forwarders and Customs brokers to help pack and ship the displays across country or across the world – that’s the easy part – and then to clear them all through destination Customs, using complex regulatory processes like carnets, temporary import bonds, and tool-of-the-trade exceptions, to get these shipments cleared quickly, because if they don’t clear Customs on time, your salesmen will be standing in an empty booth for four days.
Deliveries are on a tight schedule, with these conference centers typically handing out trucking appointments in fifteen or thirty minute slots, because such precision is the only way to get thousands of separate deliveries handled in a short weeks’ time. Add to that the challenges of hundreds of trucks in the traffic congestion of convention hubs like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and it looks impossible… but somehow they manage it, and when they open the doors on Saturday morning, every display is in place, and every sales rep is proudly ready to greet customers, old and new.
Think of how much commercial activity such a show creates – the convention center staff… the logistics providers… the airlines and travel agencies transporting exhibitors and attendees… the hotels where they stay and the restaurants where they eat… the theaters and other entertainment venues where the participants spend their evenings while in town. We take it for granted, but this too is a part of the capitalist economy. Every economic decision has consequences far beyond the obvious, as every transaction provides a ripple effect.
The trade show is also a place to marvel at new inventions, new processes – both in the use of new discoveries and the application of old methods to cleverly meet new needs.
I remember when Teflon was the only non-stick coating on cookware; today there are dozens of different approaches, applied in different ways. There’s no longer any need to fear burning your dinner, if you know which product to buy and you use it right.
What kind of dinnerware do you want? There’s ceramic, glass, plastic, bone china… What kind of cookware? There’s steel, cast iron, aluminum, and more… Your cutting board might be glass, plastic, or teak… your cheese tray for guests might be wood, bamboo, china, or marble.
They find ways to redesign once-boring products for visual appeal to stand out; every manufacturer has a different shape for their wine glasses… there are countless thousands of patterns for your silverware… I’ve never seen such colorful ceramic serving sets. Even pots and pans are colorful, beautiful works of art today.
Again, we are reminded of the politicians who deride choice in shopping. “Who needs all those choices?” asks the lifelong politician who took his bride to Soviet Moscow for their honeymoon. But it’s the choices that make life worth living; it’s the choices that make your own lifestyle distinct from everyone else’s. And it’s the choices that create jobs.
The assembly line – particularly as perfected in the auto industry a century ago – has its good points. For expensive products like cars and trucks, the assembly line reduces manufacturing costs and duplication, bringing down the cost of such high-dollar items. But it also reduces the number of jobs available for skilled people; most of the jobs are on the assembly line itself.
The wide variety of choices in other manufacturing worlds, such as the ones we encounter at shows like this, provides career opportunities galore.
A single manufacturer of cookware, furniture, or small appliances only needs so many mechanical engineers, only so many chemical engineers, only so many accountants, lawyers, salesmen, and managers. No matter how many assembly line people they need to make more of the same product, those office roles that form the basis of the middle class are limited, in a single business.
By contrast, if there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of competing manufacturers, they will all need these other professional roles. Every manufacturer needs its own cadre of innovators, scientists, inventors, and other operations gurus to function, and to keep delivering the punch that we see on display in every aisle of such a show.
This is why we must resist the temptation to let companies keep buying each other out. This is why unlimited mergers and acquisitions – however good they look on paper to their investors– eventually run afoul of antitrust law, and much more quickly, become a problem for the economy at large.
We need all these different companies – with different styles, different company cultures, different outlooks, regional needs and tastes – to keep our economy growing and to keep our marketplace exciting.
It’s important for the individual employee to have all these choices – it makes his career a jobseeker’s market rather than an employer’s – and it’s important to the economy as a whole, because the economy is, after all, made up of individual employees.
At a time when capitalism is under attack – with press and politicians preaching the “democratic socialism” that has worked such wonders in Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela – it’s truly invigorating to attend a modern trade show, and be reminded of the wonders that the free market has wrought.
For at least those few hours – even in a troubled city in a trouble state like Chicago, Illinois – we are reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, the world is a wonderful, exciting place, full of color, and invention, variety and innovation.
Copyright 2019 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer, writer and actor. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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