The real action at the National Hardware Show in Chicago took place in the basement.
There, on the ground floor of North Hall of McCormick Place, hundreds of exhibitors from China, Taiwan, South Korea and India banded together in what officially was called the International Pavilions. Unofficially, it was a mini-United Nations of manufacturing.
By unofficial count, there were at least 200 booths of Chinese manufacturers alone, many of them speaking fractured-to-minimal English and attending their first show.
Meanwhile, on the top floor of the show, held Aug. 11-13, the domestic exhibitors were raising a ruckus. There were grumblings about offshore competition and how all the big mass merchandisers — beginning with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — now are sourcing most products from overseas.
The hardware show had grown softer, they complained. McCormick's third pavilion, East Hall, was unused for the first time in several years, as was the bottom floor of South Hall. And the Asian companies now commandeered that huge expanse in the basement of North Hall.
And a lively group it was. While some of the U.S. exhibitors sat in the backs of booths drinking lukewarm coffee, the Chinese contingent seemed to be having a better time.
In virtually every aisle, fliers and pamphlets were thrust at unsuspecting attendees, product samples and tchotchkes doled out. When the show was not busy, those in the narrow booths passed the time kicking soft rubber balls down the slim aisles or giving each other back massages. There were inspiring signs on the booths with semi-propagandistic messages such as “development, innovations, sincerity, satisfaction” or “serious and reliable.”
And there were some head-turning inferences that the global economy is in full bloom. One Chinese dot-com, Alibaba.com Inc., helps U.S. companies find Chinese suppliers to source products. It claims to have a database of more than 1,000 hardware companies and more than 1 million total members on its site.
And to dash any fears, all of Alibaba's Pacific Rim companies are ISO-certified and have undergone credit checks by Dun & Bradstreet Inc., said Alibaba buyer service director Annie Jie Xu. The company already has garnered a cover story in Fortune magazine and has opened an office in Newark, Calif.
Since the World Trade Organization agreement, “all the barriers to exporting have gone away,” Jie Xu said.
In fact, there are about 20,000 hardware manufacturers in China, according to the China National Hardware Association, and that number is growing, added deputy director Xuelu Li.
One of them, Qingdao Huatian Hand Truck Co. Ltd. of Qingdao, China, is tapping a new pipeline to North America for its plastic wheelbarrows and wheel assemblies.
Yes, the international pavilion was in a ghettoized sector of the hardware section, far from the larger booths upstairs.
But the fear in some supplier quarters was that, someday, those Asian suppliers could become the large, glamorous exhibitors.
Joseph Pryweller is an Akron-based senior reporter for Plastics News.