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9 tips for new exhibitors from a Natural Products Expo West veteran

Beyond the NEXTY Awards, education sessions and general fun, brands exhibit at Expo West to connect with retailers. Consider these tips to attract buyers.

Daniel Scharff

February 7, 2024

5 Min Read
Daniel Scharff is the founder of Startup CPG and a former CEO of Manchu Pichu energy drink

I love exhibiting at Natural Products Expo West. The feeling is like when I was the starting pitcher in Little League: So much excitement and the chance to do something great, but also the pressure to win for your team, sometimes with your season hanging in the balance. There’s no question that Expo is a big investment—the booth, the travel and your time—but it’s an even bigger opportunity.

After exhibiting at many shows, I’m excited to share my tips intended for first-time exhibitors. It’s my take on how to prep ahead of the show, get out of your comfort zone during the show, then go beyond to make the absolute most of your time in Anaheim.

Before the show

Do everything you can ahead of the show! When you get there, it will be a whirlwind, and you don’t want to be looking at your laptop at all, so make sure you’ve prepped as much as possible.

  • Make a list. Write out your priority accounts and buyers. Contact them before the show via email, LinkedIn or however you can, and share a cool graphic with your booth location and a great piece of data. The morning of the show, email or text them a reminder. If you have a broker, ask them for a list of who is coming, and remind them to bring buyers to your booth. But don’t rely on the broker to tell buyers about your booth. If they do, they’ll likely send a long list of all their clients and not really give your brand special attention.

  • Don’t go it alone. If you’re the rainmaker, find help to serve samples so you can be free to hunt badges. You get plenty of badges with a booth purchase, and there are lots of people interested in helping out. You can find volunteers on our Slack channel.

  • Find the watering holes. Don’t rely just on buyers passing by your booth. Research panels and parties where they are going to be. Attend the panel, sit in front and make eye contact, then think of a great question to ask them afterward.

Related:Machu Picchu Energy: First-time exhibitor chronicles a 'surreal' Expo West experience

During the show

Gametime! I really try never to leave the booth because missing the critical buyer can be devastating. Don’t feel bad about staying focused when people come to say hi, you can politely explain you have to keep looking for buyers. (TMI:  I try to find the balance between needing to hydrate, while limiting what I drink because I’m terrified to run to the bathroom and miss the buyer I’ve been waiting to see.)

  • Badgehunt. Green means go! You can spot green badges way down the aisle. If there’s a cluster of people around them, it’s probably an important buyer. Send someone down to nonchalantly get a look before they approach. Blue badges are important too: Distributors are just as valuable as buyers. Particularly with KeHE and UNFI reps, ask them which account they work with. Some buyers rely on distributors heavily for product recommendations. They may be walking with the buyer and you can ask for an introduction.

  • Shoot your shot. By any means necessary, make sure you talk to the buyer you’re there to meet. If they pass by you, chase them down, or run to the next aisle so you can run into them ‘by chance’ with your product. You paid a lot of money to be here. If they really don’t want to talk to you, you can say “Just wanted to introduce myself! I’ll follow up via email if that’s OK.” I find buyers often don’t have cards, but they almost always let me write down their email address in my phone (Notes App!)

    If you see your dream retailer but it’s the wrong buyer, try “Hi, could I ask, is your XYZ buyer here?” They will almost 100% of the time stop to answer you, and you can ask the name of the correct buyer, while also getting the one you are talking to to try your product, become an advocate and text the right buyer to come over. When you see the right buyer, name drop the other one you met: “I met so-and-so earlier, they loved our product and suggested I chat with you!” If the buyer isn’t there, ask for their email address.

  • The Buyer Pic’n Roll: If your dream buyer is walking down the far side of the aisle and may not turn and see your booth, send one person from your booth to stand across the aisle and take up some room. The buyer will change course and angle toward your booth, where you’ll be ready with a smile and a sample.

Beyond the booth

It’s so tempting to crash after the show. You can find me literally lying on the floor as soon as the hall doors close with my legs elevated on a chair, trying to coax the blood back to the rest of my body. But your job isn’t done. Some of the most impactful opportunities are outside the three walls of your booth.

  • Crush the show. Many people say a brand is winning the show if they see their product everywhere. Consider extra samples to hand out to passersby and nearby booths. If you’re a drink brand, an ice-cold beverage in the afternoon will be very appealing, especially to people working at food booths. It’s great if a buyer walking up to your booth sees your product a few times before getting to you.

  • Go the extra mile. Go to nighttime events. Meeting a buyer at a bar or on a dance floor can be an amazing way to build a relationship. You’ll be tired at the end of the day. I recommend bringing two pairs of shoes (e.g., flat shoes and running shoes) to change into during the show, and when the floor closes, lie with your legs up for 30 minutes to refresh! Many hotels at the show have hot tubs too, which are great for sore legs.

  • Follow up. It’s common sense, but have your list of follow-ups, and wait until midweek at least to hit them all. Buyers do not like getting emails the first few days after Expo; they are drowning. Try to connect with them all on LinkedIn so they see your updates and include a brief message such as “Looking forward to staying connected on here!—Daniel.”

Daniel Scharff is the founder of Startup CPG. Visit its website at startupcpg.com and join its Slack channel with more than 17,000 emerging CPG entrepreneurs.

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About the Author(s)

Daniel Scharff

Founder, Startup CPG

Daniel Scharff founded Startup CPG to help small brands succeed. He is the CEO of a Miami-based beverage company, formerly head of strategy and insights at Eat Just, Mars Chocolate, Deloitte and a Wharton MBA.

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