A: Let's tackle the second part of the question first. Trade groups offer many advantages, not the least of which are contacts with colleagues and competitors, information on industry news and trends, and exposure to new business methods. Too often, entrepreneurs are like isolated islands, consumed with daily operations and cut off from their larger industry except for attendance at the occasional trade show.
Becoming a member of a trade organization plugs you in to the bigger
picture, opens up the possibility of partnerships, and gives you the
comfort of knowing that other gift shop owners have the same problems and headaches that you do.
TOOLS TO TAP. Most trade and professional groups provide great resources for their members through publications, tips and advice for startups, industry surveys, sales savvy, recommendations for vendors, and government lobbying efforts. If membership entitles you to take advantage of your appropriate trade group's discounted offerings on insurance or cooperative purchasing, you might even offset the cost of membership, which doesn't tend to be prohibitively expensive in the first place.
Don't worry about having to share secrets with your competitors: As a member of a trade association, it's unlikely you'll be asked to tell direct competitors what you're up to! And whatever you do share is likely to be more than compensated by the benefits and the sound information you receive, experts say. Whether you find a potential partner, get a reference for a cheaper, more reliable supplier, or just compare notes on a problem that someone else has solved, you'll benefit from the association.
You may have to do some research if the group that's right for you doesn't spring immediately to mind. Try talking to vendors and suppliers, who should be motivated to help you grow your business, as well as local business owners and your town's chamber of commerce. Find out the groups they belong to and any they may have heard about that would be a fit for your company.
THE CHOICE IS YOURS. You could also get in touch with other gift stores and garden outlets in your region or state -- not your direct competitors, if you prefer not to deal with them -- and ask the owners what trade groups they belong to, and what their experiences have been like. Some may be unwilling to help, but you'll probably find at least a few who are happy to talk to you.
Other resources for entrepreneurs looking to hook up with an industry association: The Encyclopedia of Associations, published by The Gale Group, www.galegroup.com, should be available at the reference desk of your local library. The American Society of Association Executives has a directory on its Web site (http://www.asaenet.org/find). And the Internet Public Library offers a list of retail associations, including craft and hobby groups (http://www.ipl.org/cgi-bin/ref/aon.out.pl?ty=long&id=bus41.72.00)
The National Retail Federation, (www.nrf.com), is an umbrella association for retailers of all kinds. If you contact them, they might point you in the right direction. You could also look for information in their trade publication, Stores, and its Web site, www.stores.org. Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.