Editorial: Thoughts From Expo East - Where Are All the Retailers?

By Len Monheit
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It will be at least several days before the dust settles from Expo East (Washington, DC, September 4th- 7th, 2003) and weeks and months before the business impact will be completely assessed. Overall, an extensive program of updates and trend analysis were well attended, and audiences left better prepared to face both challenges and opportunities in the coming months. A general sense of a corner being turned and optimism were expressed by representatives in personal care, organic products, natural foods, and yes, even supplements and botanicals.

No one can doubt these are times of transition for the nutritional and natural products industry. This was evident right from the first hot topics session at the show to the backroom meetings and to the showfloor itself. Strong growth present and predicted in natural and organic foods correlated with by far the best floor traffic over the three day period, and predictions of ‘low-carb’ as the product area to watch were quite evident as one navigated the hall.

The cry ‘Where are all the retailers?’ echoed through the new Washington Convention Center, especially in the middle section of the show hall where supplement and vitamin companies tried to reassure themselves that they made up in quantity what they lacked in quality. Numerous theories were proposed for this lack, including show timing (labor day week, conflicting with back to school and the end of summer), economic issues (stress and challenge reducing those willing to travel to Washington), and industry uncertainty.

With the House and Senate set to reconvene, and the first stage of industry’s GMP comments back to FDA, (AHPA- American Herbal Products Association has asked for and received an extension to submit economic data), many within the industry are adopting a wait and see attitude to see how the industry will be treated this fall, before fully committing strategic and operational plans – including budgets. Intense scrutiny by consumers, media and government agencies will be further ratcheted, predicted by industry leaders and by FDA and FTC in their presentations.

The floor itself, which in that past has had areas, booths and products which have been perhaps on the ‘edge’ or’ fringe’ of the industry, marketing products with questionable legitimacy and scientific support, could be described as more professional and without an abundance of outrageous claim hawking companies capitalizing solely on the latest fads. This was probably a good thing since the show floor was visited by one senator and at least seven individuals from the FDA and others fromFTC. This is certainly a step in the right direction with others expected in the near future, including an increasing sense of supplier-client reliance.

It is increasingly evident that it takes different types of contact points in order to reach, motivate and inform an audience. And when the stage is changing, as it is for the entire natural and nutritional products sector,the approach needs to be creative, reasoned and robust. All the players in this industry need to ramp up their communication and client support efforts, telling value chain partners what they’re doing to assist them in navigating regulations and economic issues. This value chain co-dependence, and the willingness and capability of suppliers to go an extra mile along the entire value chain will ultimately lead to financial benefit, and can include innovation, service, science, education, quality systems, testing capabilities, formulation expertise and others. Those that can’t add value at this level will find it difficult, if not impossible to survive.

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