Trade Show Handbook for South African Exporters to the USA


Depending on whether you are a manufacturer or a wholesaler dependent on a manufacturer, the number of shows that you can do are limited to the amount of product that can be realistically produced per year.

If you are depending on the Department of Trade to finance your shows, you will only be able to do 4 per year, and that is only while they have the money allocated for trade shows.

If you do 4 shows per year, and are being funded by the DTI, you will have to return to South Africa after every show, and all goods and monies have to emanate from South Africa. They will not consider any claims that are paid for with foreign money, i.e. by agents on your behalf.


It is imperative that you take as little equipment with you, because when the show is done, you will either have to dispose of all your furniture/stuff, or place it in storage in the USA if you want to use it again.

The DTI gives you an allowance to get your samples and equipment to the USA, but they won’t pay for you to take it back home again, unless you are participating in a Pavilion show, where they will pay all your expenses. It is essential that you decide what you will do with the entire booth once the first show is finished.

The DTI will also not pay the costs of warehousing in the USA and the transport of the booth to the second show from that warehouse. If you do want to go that route, you will have to pay for that yourself.

A typical charge to get goods to a show is approx. $400, obviously depending on the weight and size of the shipment.

It’s a good idea to set up the booth beforehand and plan exactly how you want everything to look. Pare it down to the minimum. After all, you are selling goods, not decorations. Use your imagination to exhibit the samples in the most cost effective way.

Make sure that you have all the risers and decorations that you envisage. Pack all office needs, i.e. invoices, brochures (very important), staplers and spare staples, pens, etc. etc. Although there are of course many shops around, sometimes the shows are in out of the way places, and it is not easy to get photocopies done and buy forgotten essentials.


“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”

Allow plenty of time for your samples to arrive at the warehouse so that it doesn’t cost you anything extra by way of drayage.

Also, although your shipping agents will give you an idea of how long your goods will take to get there, always allow an extra two weeks, because there can be delays with Customs Clearance and delivery.

Make sure that you have clear and precise invoices accompanying the samples, with prices, tariff headings, and clearly marked as Trade Show samples which are duty free.

If you are sending any seeds, pods, grasses, make sure that you have fumigation certificates. Leather and animal goods have to have a Wildlife Permit.

Try and contain your booth equipment into as small a size as possible. It is easier to move compact equipment around than large, oversize pallets, which cost more because of the volumetric size.


Plan on getting to your destination at least one day before set-up day. If you have not been to the site before hand, go down to the show site and check that your samples have arrived in your booth.

Check your directory entry to see that everything is correct, and familiarize yourself with the lay-out of the hall. Make sure of the time that you can start setting up, and be there promptly. If you have to go out to buy anything that you may have forgotten, now is the time to do it.

Prepare your “office” so that everything you may need to write orders, give out brochures and price lists is neatly available.

Make sure that all your samples are clearly marked with the prices. Once you get busy and have more than one person in the booth, you don’t want to lose a sale because the samples aren’t marked. Customers are happy to browse if you are busy, and will wait patiently if they can see everything clearly.

You may also want to bring some see-through netting or other covering with you to tie across the booth at the end of the day.

Always be on time in your booth. You will lose valuable sales if you are late coming in, or early going out.


Always give a clear indication when you plan to ship your orders. USA customers usually work with budgets, and may ask you for shipment on a specific date. They also don’t want to have to worry with importing their goods, and won’t deal with Customs, or pay customs duties. They will all ask for shipment from a USA city.

The reason for this is that it makes no difference if you are shipping one carton, or one hundred cartons. The clearing charges are the same, and the customer will not happily pay those costs, which can run to $300 per shipment.

This is where a logistics company can help you. You can ship your entire trade show orders to one place, and there will be only one Customs Clearance charge for the consolidated shipment. Your logistics company will then strip down the shipment, and send the individual boxes onward to the customers. You will then be charged the cost of the local shipments by common carriers, i.e. UPS or FedEx. However, you can charge your customer the cost of the shipping, which is common practice and they are used to paying the UPS charges.

Another problem you will encounter is accepting payment for your orders. The greater percent of your customers pay on their credit cards. Unless you have a USA company, or you have a Dollar Account in South Africa, you will not be able to process cheques or credit card deposits into your South African bank account in US$. You will need a USA based company to process your credit card payments.

A similar problem is acceptance of cheques, which carry high bank charges if deposited into a South African bank account. You are also at risk that the cheque may not be good. Once again, your logistics company can arrange the collection of money on your behalf.

An ideal situation would be if

You are a manufacturer:

o Look for a reputable logistics company, and keep a stock holding in their warehouse. In this way, you will be able to service your customers on an ongoing basis when they wish to re-order. USA customers do not like to wait for months for an order to be fulfilled.

o Try and find a rep who will sell your goods. It is preferable to have someone in place all the time, rather than trying to sell from afar.

o Your logistics company can arrange the picking, packing and shipping of the order. If you want to take their responsibilities further, they can do your invoicing and collecting of money on your behalf.

o As soon as you have an amount of money in your trust account, the logistics company can transfer one bulk sum. This way you can save on bank charges and wire transfer charges. Each wire transfer fee costs approx. $20, with another corresponding fee in South Africa which can run at R200 or more.

If you are a wholesaler/representative:

o Try and arrange with the manufacturer to let you have consignment stock, which you can hold in a USA warehouse.

o You could follow the above scenario as far as logistics are concerned.

o Your manufacturer may possibly help you with brochure and advertising costs.


Once your first trade show is complete, you will have to decide what to do with your booth contents.

As advised before, the DTI will not pay for the shipping costs to return your samples. They give you the option of selling the samples and re-couping the money.

You could store the samples in a rental warehouse, but you would then have to go to that warehouse at a future date to move the goods.

You could warehouse the samples with a logistics company. When you next need them, you can arrange with the logistics company to forward the samples to the next trade show. You will not, however, be reimbursed by the DTI for that cost.

You could abandon the samples and booth equipment. That would be costly, because you would have to replace those samples for future shows.


When you supply goods into the USA market, you need to have good packaging. Each item needs to be in its own box and clearly labeled. Packaging is a very important part of merchandising.

If you are going to use a logistics company, again, each item needs to be in its own box (unless you sell, say, a dozen items per box), and they need to have clear codes and labels. You will also have to let the logistics company know the price of each item so that packing lists can be generated for the orders.

If your goods are fragile, packaging is vitally important. They should be securely packed in bubble wrap, and wedged into their boxes so that there is no movement when the boxes are shipped locally.

All common carriers here recommend that your goods pass “the drop test” : If a box is dropped from a height, no damage will be done to the contents. They are notorious for throwing the boxes around.

The same applies to airfreight consignments. You should make sure that your boxes are packed securely onto pallets and then shrink wrapped so that they don’t move. That will also ensure that your consignments are not split up en route, causing delays in deliveries.

Always allow two extra weeks for delays in Customs Clearance, air delays, etc. Your goods will never arrive at its destination when your agents tell you they will.


It is important that you plan your travel to the USA very carefully. The weather plays an important part in planning your trip, as it is not uncommon for flights to be delayed or cancelled altogether due to inclement weather, either snow or rain or wind, etc. This can play havoc if you haven’t left yourself enough time to arrive at your destination in order to set up your booth. It is preferable to allow an extra day earlier than the show set up day, so that you don’t have to panic if there is a delay.


Once your trade show is over, take an extra day or two to visit the city. You won’t have much time when the show is on, and you may as well take a breather before the hard work starts to supply the goods.