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How to spot the winners at Expo West

Cynthia Barstow, Senior Lecturer, Marketing

April 24, 2008

8 Min Read
How to spot the winners at Expo West

Doing Natural Products Expo West comprehensively guarantees sore feet, lower back pain and a post-Expo case of the blues that is undeniably linked to the excitement of the weekend. It is always nice to see people you met the year before or even those who call on you regularly. It can be truly fun as an all-out social event, but there's one little consideration: You're there to buy. You need to pick the winners out of the sea of samples.

Figuring out how to look behind the façade and catch what your customers will want is challenging under any conditions. Add in a few semi-naked sample servers or free autographed books, and clarity becomes even more evasive. How do you know which will be the best sellers, the hot new products, the ones that your pickiest customers will traverse the aisles to find? Arm yourself in Anaheim with these 10 tips, and you may find yourself gliding through the show and out the doors to meet Mickey before you know it.

1. Have a plan
With thousands of products to see in three days, foresight certainly helps, especially if you can do the show with partners. Lisa Malmarowski, director of brand and store development at Outpost Natural Food Cooperative in Milwaukee, says, "We tend to really organize ahead of time … with a plan of attack, dividing up the aisles. We'll meet back at a certain time and determine if we should go look at some things together." Follow-up after the show is part of the plan, Malmarowski says. "We set a meeting upon our return to deal with all the information."

Maybe your plan for Expo is to get what you can't back at home. "Buying is the last thing we do at the show," says Scott Roseman of the six-store New Leaf Community Markets chain in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Meeting the manufacturers behind the brokers—those we don't get to see otherwise#8212;and taking in what is going on in the big scale: These are our priorities."

Jon Fiume, vice president of retail operations and natural products for Ritzman Natural Health Pharmacy in Akron, Ohio, agrees that the show offers a lot of networking opportunities. He hits the New Products Showcase before the show starts, jotting down booth numbers of interesting possibilities. (This year, he'll be able to save his pencil lead and scan bar codes at the showcase, then pick up a printed list of his targets, alphabetically and by booth number.)

2. Bring your customers
Wouldn't it be nice to just bring along one shopper to represent all your customers' needs? It doesn't work that way, of course, but understanding your customers will serve you well in the long run. Thank goodness for the Expo education team, who put together a full day of free seminars on Thursday, March 23, plus more throughout the weekend. If you only have time for one seminar, make it "Hot New Consumer and Retail Trends," held Friday right before the show floor opens, from 8:30 to 10 a.m. in Rooms 204A and B. Steve French and Maryellen Molyneaux of The Natural Marketing Institute and Kevin Coupe of will blast through a year's worth of information in 90 minutes. Take the time to attend these sessions and you will be sure to keep your customers' needs foremost in your mind.

3. Beat what's best
As much as that new version of Product X looks enticing, remember what you already have on your limited shelf space. Walking Expo East with a grocery buyer from Wild Oats, I learned about this crucial question: Does this new product beat your very best? Looking at an exhibit, my friend needed to decide whether the packaging would kick her current favorites off the shelf, whether the product was something her customers wanted more than what she already has, and whether or not the company could alter packaging and product attributes enough to squeeze into her space. Having those conversations with exhibitors may yield mutual benefits.

4. Test the taste
The quick answer to finding the perfect food pick at the show seems to be, almost universally, taste testing. When New York Times columnist Marian Burros sampled 100 or so natural and organic cereals, she approved of the price points and nutrition, but couldn't say the same about taste. Since many competitors are set up near each other, it offers a chance to do a nice taste test. "It gives us an opportunity to compare and contrast. There are a lot of me-too products out there and you can take the time to look at all of them together," Malmarowski says.

5. Love the look
Packaging is an art, and a good buyer knows how to spot the hot products from a visual perspective. Dan Mishkind of Pure Design Co. in Leverett, Mass., suggests asking yourself four questions:

  • Does it take a tired old category and reinvigorate it in a fresh, new and unexpected way?

  • Does it use imagery to make an immediate emotional connection?

  • Do you get an overwhelming feeling that you just have to taste the product or display it on your kitchen or bathroom counter?

  • Does it bring a smile to your face in the first second of viewing?

6. Verify the values
Learning about the people behind the product is essential. Start out with the query: "So, what motivated you to start this business?" while you're actually thinking: "Is there a value set going on here, or is this guy just in it for the money?" Look for certifications such as Fair Trade or the organic seal, connections with nonprofit groups such as Vitamin Angel Alliance or programs that donate a percentage of profits. Whatever it takes, seek out integrity and authenticity—in this industry, it is the only way.

7. Seek out marketing savvy
Watch out for the new generation of savvy marketers on their way up from inside the business world. One new company, Pixie Maté of Boulder, Colo., was started by a couple of youngsters, T.J. McIntyre and Duane Primozich, who launched a well-known spice line with Frontier Natural Products Co-op, followed by a stint of product development projects on the SunSoy and Silk brands at White Wave.

And then there is Palo Hawken, the son of Smith & Hawken founder Paul Hawken, Mr. Green Economy and author of Growing a Business (Simon & Schuster, 1988). Paul is a hero to many of us old-timers. It's no surprise that the Bossa Nova açai drink Palo is working on has made serious inroads in mainstream and naturals stores.

8. Feel the buzz
You can usually tell just by walking past a crowded booth that a product might be hot—if several people are heavily into negotiations, chances of an interesting product are better than if a lone person is sitting quietly reading a book. But walk the small booths, too. According to Fiume, "Sometimes the booths that aren't all set up might have the best things—particularly on the perimeter. New and innovative products might just be in less-traveled areas offered up by smaller newcomers to the show." Some favorites might start out on the edge, but they'll be center-stage before too long.

9. Re-energize
Whether you prefer to socialize at the after-hours events or rent a movie in your hotel room, re-energize for the next day. Being sick and tired at the show is no fun, unless you are a natural medicine category buyer?a lot of really nice people will give you every remedy you would ever want. Everyone has their favorite tool for staying on top of their game. Herbalist Chris Kilham, who has been in the business forever and knows everyone, invariably stays up until the early morning doing the "after-hours show." He says it is exhilarating and he'll sleep later. Bill Whyte, chief executive of W.S. Badger Co., a personal care business based in Gilsum, N.H., told me his staff gets a hotel at the beach just to have volleyball time away from the show.

10. Visit the VIP Content Library
Once you get home, you might realize you missed some educational sessions, and then forgot to pick up the audio CDs. Thanks to the Expo folks, you can check in after the show by logging onto the VIP Content Library site at Register for a free account using your Expo badge number. This will give you access to the educational sessions, including speakers' slides and audio. The post-show site at includes award winners and other news that you might have missed before you hit the airport. Check out the Around the Show photo gallery, and you might find a shot of yourself at the 25th Anniversary Dance Party you forgot to leave early.

Good luck, and see you at Expo.

Cynthia Barstow is an adjunct professor of food and natural products marketing at the University of Massachusetts, president of the consulting firm Seed to Shelf: Marketing for Sustainability, and author of The Eco-Foods Guide (New Society, 2002).

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 38-39

About the Author(s)

Cynthia Barstow

Senior Lecturer, Marketing, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Cynthia Barstow, a breast cancer survivor, is the founder and executive director of Protect Our Breasts, an initiative at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, hosted by the Isenberg School of Management. She also is a senior lecturer in marketing at the Isenberg School.

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