POPLAR BLUFF - In this the 30th year of Merchant Showcase, businesses have been lining up to be included in the community event, which will be held April 17-18 at Three Rivers Community College.
But when the first Merchant Showcase was held in 1979, organizers had to beg businesses to participate.
"We really had to do some talking to convince merchants to rent booths," said Joe DePriest, one of the Three Rivers instructors who began Merchant Showcase as a way to give his business management students hands-on experience and give area businesses a chance to show off their wares.
For Merchant Showcase, modeled after an annual event DePriest had attended in Sedalia, students organize an event at which businesses set up booths to display the goods and services they offer. The public comes to see the goods and services offered by the merchants.
"It didn’t take long for businesses to realize the benefits of being able to meet one-on-one with their customers," said Wayne Wilkerson, who helped organize the first event. "Within three years we had businesses calling us wanting to exhibit. Merchant Showcase soon grew into an event that is looked forward to by the businesses who have booths, the people who come to see what they offer and the students who put on the event."
That first year about 1,000 people turned out to visit about 20 exhibitors. This year about 5,000 people are expected to visit the more than 90 exhibitors who will be set up from 2 to 8 p.m. April 17 and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 18 in the Bess Activity Center on the Three Rivers campus.
The goal of Merchant Showcase is the same now as it was when it began 30 years ago.
"Merchant Showcase is sponsored by the Three Rivers Marketing Management Association to give our business management students an opportunity to practice what they are learning in the classroom, including communication and management skills, event coordination, sales, advertising and budgeting," said Dr. Martha Kirkman, instructor of business management at Three Rivers.
"The idea was to give our students hands-on experience at organizing an event," Wilkerson said. "The students from the advertising class handle the advertising. The students from the sales class sell booths."
"It turned out to be a great way for students to see how they could take the theory we were teaching them in class and apply it to real life," said Vida Stanard, who helped with Merchant Showcase in the early years when she taught fashion merchandising.
"As an added benefit, we use the money raised from Merchant Showcase for scholarships and sending students to leadership and career development conferences," Kirkman said.
Merchant Showcase was held at Poplar Bluff High School gym until 1982 when the college’s Bess Activity Center was opened. Hosting the event on campus not only gives the Marketing Management students more control, it also brings many people to see what is offered at the Three Rivers campus.
The 5,000 people expected to attend this year's Merchant Showcase can visit booths, register for door prizes, see entertainment and visit with friends.
DePriest said even after retiring, he and the other original organizers (Wilkerson, Stanard and Dick Bean) have come back to Merchant Showcase to see former students and the merchants who make the Showcase what it is.
"It’s enjoyable to see merchants who are still seeing benefits from Merchant Showcase after years of participating," DePriest said, noting that Wal-Mart has had a booth at Merchant Showcase every year since the event started. "It’s also great to see the new businesses. And, of course I love to see former students who tell me how much they learned through putting on Merchant Showcase."
Booth space is still available for businesses that want to participate in Merchant Showcase, which will be held April 17-18 at the TRCC Bess Activity Center. Booths inside the Bess Center cost $160 for a 5-by-8-foot space or $210 a 10-by10-foot space. Outdoor booths are 18-by-18 feet and cost $135 each. For more information, contact MMA Advisor Dr. Martha Kirkman at (573) 840-9636.