The baby lay motionless on a green mat. I paused.
“Brand new,” said Andy Berger, owner of Axis International in Des Plaines, hurrying over. “It’s remote control.”
The baby was a doll; the mat, designed to soothe fussy infants to sleep, though when Berger tried to demonstrate how it works, it didn’t.
“Might be out of batteries,” he said. “A heartbeat sound, and it whooshes.”
Graco this was not. The International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place offers everything from huge corporations displaying products known the world over, to plucky entrepreneurs ballyhooing items that might not even be on the market yet.
While I too scope out the latest — KitchenAid’s “Color of the Year” is “Bird of Paradise,” the love child of coral and peach — I prefer to excavate the deeper substrata of commerce.
“I’ve been doing this 35 years,” said Berger, 67. “My biggest hit is that tank-top hanger. Sell ’em by the thousands every week.”
The show, which ended Tuesday, lacked a certain hum.
“The older I get the slower it seems to get,” Berger agreed. “The whole market changed. There’s less and less brick and mortars. It’s all internet. We do so much business with companies like Amazon, Zulu. You don’t even have to talk to them. You put it online; if it sells, it sells. If it doesn’t, they don’t care. I hardly have to travel anymore.”
That isn’t good?
“You lose that interpersonal touch,” he said. “It’s all automated. You try to deal with Amazon, they don’t talk to anybody.”
Talk wasn’t lacking at McCormick this week. The interpersonal touch lives at the Housewares show. A hesitation, a flash of eye contact, and you are set upon.
“Yoga balls, they’ve been around 20 years, they look horrible,” entreated Jimmie Sit, a young man with an impressive pompadour and the perfect name for ballyhooing understated, elegant inflatable ball chairs, sold by Vivora, of Forest Park.
“Your coffee tastes 7 percent better in a square cup,” said Chris Jensen of Precidio Design, when I picked up a Cafe in the Box.
“Based on belief in my ability to persuade you,” he said. “It’s light. It’s comfortable.”
Only a fraction of the show’s vast overwhelming blur can be conveyed here. Mountains of goods, mobs of buyers: men, women, old, young, Amish, Jews.
After nearly seven hours I made eye contract with Amos Barash, vice president of sales at Buffalo Corporation.
“We see people from all over the world,” he said. “We grab ’em, we pull ’em in here. Most of them know English. Enough to get by. People from Turkey, Israel, Russia, Surinam, Honduras — man! — China, Japan. Korea. We don’t manufacture but we have facilities in China. We have 40, 50 people that work for us in China. We’re an importer/distributor. A lot of our business is drop-shipped. Somebody goes on-line and they buy a chair and it’s ours, Home Depot will send us the order and we do fulfillment.”
The Internet change business much?
“It’s radicalized it,” he said. “Changed the game completely. Ten years ago, 2 percent of our business was online. Now its 75 percent. Every customer you talk to says, ‘Do you drop ship?’ Five years ago they didn’t know what that meant. There’s more business, so many entrepreneurs. These guys who have found their little niche in the marketplace. I’ve been doing this 30 years. … What Amazon does is they will take an item and destroy the market. Sell below cost. It hurts, it hurts the retailers.
“We used to be called Buffalo Tools. We actually had a warehouse in Chicago, years ago. We had hammers, pliers, screwdrivers. Then we realized there are a million companies bringing in hammers, pliers, screwdrivers. We went to our existing customers and asked, ‘Is there something we can bring in you’re looking for?’ We carry 500 different items. From scaffolding to ice cream makers, from generators to bar stools and everything in between.”
Like Berger, Barash is 67, but has a different view of the market today.
“It’s more exciting now than it ever was,” he said. “Because there’s so many more products, so many opportunities out there now. Now you can sell worldwide. Some little guy working in his grandmother’s basement can sell product all over the world. We drop ship it for them. It’s awesome.”