Debra Stark first ventured to Natural Products Expo East in 1990, about a year after she opened Debra’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, Mass., and was immediately sold on the invaluable resources, lasting connections and fun experiences the trade show provided.
“The group of us that drove to Boston for the show had the time of our lives,” Stark recalls. Twenty-three years later, her enthusiasm hasn’t waned.
The veteran retailer has noted many changes over the years as both Expo East and the industry have evolved, but she continues to tout the show’s value.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: What stands out about your early Expo East experiences?
Debra Stark: The education sessions used to be scheduled before the show floor opened, so you could attend the seminars first and then focus on the floor. In the sessions, we heard from people who really knew their stuff and taught us about nutrition and the current science behind the ingredients we sold in our store. I still have my notes from Dr. Stephen Sinatra’s talk on heart health, and I remember that [natural retail expert] Danny Wells first taught us how to case stack. Also, the shows never shied away from controversial issues, and there was a significant call to action in those early years.
NFM: What is the most important component of Expo today?
DS: Still education, of course, but also networking—not only with fellow retailers but with manufacturers, too. We take the opportunity to thank them and to ask them to keep making their products better. We look for new companies and products that fill new niches or have improved upon an established theme.
NFM: How does attending Expo East benefit your store?
DS: Our staff always comes back from Expo feeling excited, energized and motivated. I love watching staff members who view the show floor for the first time go, “Wow!” They suddenly realize that they’re a part of something bigger than Debra’s Natural Gourmet. They learn that others have the same issues and problems that they do and also understand their challenges and joys.
NFM: Any specific trends or products you’ll be scoping this year?
DS: We’re not overly concerned with trends. We’re more of an “if it’s great, they will come” kind of store. If we get excited about something and it meets all of our criteria, we know we can turn our customers onto it as well. That said, the trend of gluten free is problematic in terms of quality, ingredient standards and taste, so we keep watching for this category to get its act together.
NFM: What are some of the biggest challenges Debra’s faces?
DS: The world is moving fast, and people’s superconnectivity and how they communicate and shop are changing in ways I don’t even try to predict. Even so, I believe there’s enough business out there for us all, and there will always be a place for well-run businesses with heart and soul, stores where everyone knows your name. As long as there are human beings, there will continue to be a hunger for human touch.
NFM: What about independent natural retail in general? Sunny or stormy days ahead?
DS: Independents satisfy the hunger for community that you can’t get online or from a big-box store. As long as we’re smart about how we do business—and we’re warm and inviting and do good work—we’ll be around for at least another 100 years.