By Sarah Hoban

Want to know what new products your customers really want? Bring them along to a trade show —virtually, of course.

John and Mica Mahler own and operate Cook, Cork & Fork, a cooking school and gourmet kitchenware store in Palatine, Illinois. Last year, when they attended the International Housewares Association’s Inspired Home Show, they walked through the show using Facebook Live as they checked out vendor products. Their Facebook followers — they have more than 4,000 — could then give them feedback in real time to help them make more informed buying decisions for new merchandise.

John gives Mica credit for the idea. “She’s the social networking guru,” he said. The idea gained more traction, and they started using Instagram live polls to get customer feedback on products they were considering for the store — even down to color preferences.

The Mahlers then provide inventory updates on when the products will arrive and provide background on why they picked the product. “It provides a great opportunity to engage with our customers, and we’re finding that they feel more vested in the products,” said John. The couple is on the home show’s advisory board and intend to repeat their Facebook walkthrough at this March’s show in Chicago.

John and Mica Mahler stand outside their store, Cook, Cork & Fork, in Palatine, Illinois. PHOTO COURTESY OF COOK, CORK & FORK

John admits consistent use of social media can be challenging. “It’s difficult as a small-business owner to find time, and sometimes the longer-term rewards are harder to see,” he said. But John said business owners should just “jump in” and start experimenting. “It costs very little, and it makes me smarter about how I’m doing and what I’m selling. At the end of the day, we small businesses are all in this together,” he said.