Bigfork artist John Rose’s handcrafted copper Christmas ornaments, wall hangings and jewelry are big sellers in gift shops, galleries and museum stores throughout the West. But rather than hitting the road to sell to individual stores or paying sales reps to call on retailers, Rose rents a booth at the Billings Market Association.
During a recent four-day event at MetraPark’s Expo Center, Rose and his wife, Kim, booked orders with retailers who were stocking up for the 2014 tourism season.
“We’re a small business and don’t have road reps to sell our products, so this gives us a chance to meet with our customers,” Rose said, mentioning that this was his ninth year visiting the Billings market. “We have established a lot of good relationships with our customers.”
Gary Hamilton of the Hamilton Group, a Whitefish company that distributes gifts and tourism-oriented merchandise to 2,000 retail stores from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Santa Fe, N.M., described the Billings Market Association as a hidden jewel.
“We normally write more business at this show than we do at the Denver show, and that one is about four times larger,” Hamilton said.
The Billings Market Association, now in its 72nd year, is touted as the nation’s largest general market, where sales representatives for wholesalers meet with retailers seeking to fill their shelves. The Billings show is classified as a general market because of the wide variety of products featured. Clothing, gifts, western apparel, footwear, sporting goods, some food items and a number of Made in Montana products are all featured.
“That’s what makes this show a success, because we have so many categories,” said Verba Valentine, show coordinator.
By helping sales reps and retailers get together, the Billings Market Association plays a key role in the process of moving manufactured goods to the final consumer. People familiar with the association also recognize its contribution to the local economy. Each year it brings thousands of people to Billings, Montana’s largest trade center. It’s an important source of revenue for the county-owned MetraPark.
This industry, built on face-to-face encounters of professional buyers and sellers, also escapes most people’s attention because it’s closed to the general public.
“Nobody knows about us because we can’t advertise,” Valentine said.
During a stroll through the aisles of the ExpoCenter, sales representatives were busy talking on their phones or talking in person, pitching the latest styles and products to buyers and store owners.
Some wholesalers have opted to advertise their goods on the Internet as a cost-saving strategy, but that doesn’t work for everybody.
“Our buyers want to see and feel the goods,” Valentine said. “You can see them sitting here and studying them.”
Sales reps and retailers tend to build trust as they get to know one another over the years.
“It’s all about building relationships,” she said.
The Billings Market Association started out during World War II when gasoline rationing limited travel for salesmen who called on retailers throughout the region. Sales reps made a deal with store owners to limit travel by meeting up in Billings.
“There were 12 reps to begin with and it just grew from there,” Valentine said. “During the ‘70s and ‘80s there were more than 400 members. But now, because of the recession we’re down to around 200.”
Billings markets take place three times per year. The winter gathering, which coincided with Super Bowl weekend, is the biggest. Many retailers were buying for their summer lineup.
“It’s interesting,” Valentine said. “You have summer clothes here. But at the same token, they’re selling next year’s down coats. That’s what makes us unique.”
After business is booked, manufacturers get busy filling orders. For Rose, the Bigfork artist, late winter and early spring is a time to gear up and produce products to deliver to retailers before Memorial Day.
The Montana Department of Commerce sponsors a Made in Montana booth to help new Montana companies get a start.
One of this year’s vendors was Native Ideals Seed Co. from Arlee. Bryce Christiaens and Rebecca Shoemaker have been raising native plants and collecting their seed since 2008.
“We try to focus on drought-tolerant species so people can xeriscape their yards or go with water-wise conservation,” Christiaens said. “I don’t have anything against lilacs, but they’re everywhere.”
Nurseries, landscaping centers and retailers that cater to tourists account for most of the company’s seed sales. “People want to take a souvenir home with them,” Chirstiaens said.
The show also carries a number of food items. Queen Bee Gardens, of Lovell, Wyo., produces honey-sweetened candy as an extension of its beekeeping business. For the most part, the Billings market has provided steady sales, said owner Von Zeller.
In the early days, the Billings Market Association met at the Northern Hotel. Valentine still remembers wrestling merchandise in and out of the hotel’s elevator. As the show grew, it moved to the Ramada Inn and then the Holiday Inn. After outgrowing those venues, the show moved to MetraPark in 1999.
“It’s been the best move we’ve ever made,” Valentine said. “They have a very professional staff.”
Verba’s daughter, Shawna, started working at the show when she was 6 years old, helping out in the registration desk and she returned after college. Mother and daughter agree that they make a good team.
Bill Dutcher, MetraPark’s general manager, said the Billings Market Association has been a good, reliable customer.
He described Valentine as an upfront customer who isn’t afraid to share her concerns when something goes wrong.
“What we don’t like is when somebody is having a show and we don’t find out about their dissatisfaction until afterward,” Dutcher said. “Verba has always been good at that. I love our daily visits. If there’s an issue, nothing festers. She gets right to the point of the matter and you don’t have to wonder. It’s a good two-way street. If something’s not right, it gets taken care of.”
Through the years, the Valentines have shown flexibility, Dutcher said. When the American Bowling Congress occupied the ExpoCenter in 2002, the Billings Market Association moved to the smaller Montana Pavilion and even agreed to hold part of the show in a tent. When a cold snap hit, MetraPark employees stacked straw bales around the tent to cut down on the draft.
The changing nature of merchandising presents its challenges. Farm and ranch supply stores continue to be an important participant for the market. On the other hand, many small towns are losing their local stores, Valentine said.
“A lot of our small retailers have gone out of business, and there are a lot of major companies that have gone out of business too,” she said.
Valentine first became involved with the market when she and her husband ran a western store and attended as buyers. One day, one of the sales reps approached her and mentioned that the show’s secretary had resigned, so she took the job.
Forty years later, she’s not ready to retire.
“I have made up my mind that I’m better off keeping active, and when it gets to a point where I can’t do it, I’ll quit,” she said.
“Shawna and I work well together. We’re a good team.”