Elaborate booths and scrumptious samples get the most attention at Expo West. But connection with buyers is most important. See what they’re looking for.

Douglas Brown, Senior Retail Reporter

February 28, 2024

9 Min Read
What buyers want from exhibiting brands at Natural Products Expo West

Tens of thousands of people from around the world now are prepping their brands for Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim in March. They’re finalizing booth design. Ramping up manufacturing for samples. Working on messaging for on-stage presentations. Setting up meetings.

And then there’s the buyers, the women and men working for retailers who fan out across Expo in search of new products to shepherd into their stores. Much of the intense Expo prep work by brands revolves around appealing to the buyers. In many ways, it’s the judgment of the buyers that either makes or breaks brand success.

The buyers don’t dwell in extravagant booths during the show. And they don’t come bearing samples. But in many ways, they are the Expo stars.

We recently engaged with nine buyers from a diversity of retailers, asking them to answer two key questions during this runway to Expo. For one, what trends and product categories will they be on the lookout for during Expo this year? We also asked them for tips about how brands can best engage with buyers during the annual spectacle of products, parties, education, awards and much more.

They offered a wealth of insights. Read on for inspiration about how best to charm buyers during this year’s Expo.

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Alyssa Vescio, senior vice president of center store for Whole Foods Market

What are you looking for at Expo West?

I’m looking for breakthrough innovation—not just a flavor extension. But products also must be good for the planet. So, I’m looking for things like regenerative, nutrient density, social responsibility and supply chain.

I’m also looking for authenticity. There’s no room for green washing or telling a story that isn’t rooted in truth. So, if you make a claim on anything, make sure it’s authentic because our customers expect that, and more and more of our customers do the work to research.

I’m excited right now about women’s health, which has been an under-represented category. I’m also excited about what we are seeing with brands emphasizing how they are using less water to manufacture their products, and how they are finding ways to use less plastic, like paper cartons for shampoo, and shampoo and soap bars. Global flavors is also thrilling.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

I appreciate when brands have a bit of empathy for what it’s like to be in our shoes. We are purpose-driven. We have quality standards that are non-negotiable. The best brands spend time on our website, know our standards and ingredients, what we don’t allow in products, and our ethics.

The show can be incredibly inspirational but also overwhelming and exhausting. So again, have some empathy—we work hard to do that from the brand perspective. People put their heart, soul and financial resources into their brands.

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Brody Burk, forager manager, Sprouts

What are you looking for at Expo West?

Pure innovation that people will be excited to see and try. We have an apoptogenic focus right now at Sprouts. So, I’ll be looking for those products. Also, better-for-you snacks that not only taste good but help with things like mind, gut health, inflammation.

We like partnering with brands that can offer first to market or exclusivity. We also want to be known as being nimble and able to get items in very quickly. Instead of waiting two years, we can get you in in a matter of months.

We are looking for the next big non-alcoholic item. We’re seeing tremendous success with some of these brands, like Parch. Because of the success we have seen we created whole new category in beer and wine that is non-alcoholic drinks.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

Don’t be pushy. That is a good way for us to ignore you. If you are trying to make a deal at Expo, it’s never going to happen. I’ll try your product, give you feedback, but then submit it and go through the normal process. Also, packaging matters. If you’re a chicken strip made of garbanzo beans, communicate that. Otherwise, I’ve seen a million chicken strips made from pea protein or whatever.

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Jonathan Lawrence, vice president of enter store, Fresh Thyme Market

What are you looking for at Expo West?

Frozen entrees. Also, non-alcoholic beverages is an area we want to win at. There’s a lot of growth there. Functional beverages, too. I’m also interested in international flavors—How are we taking flavor profiles that are normal elsewhere and bringing them to customers? Active nutrition has been big, and we’ll be exploring that.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

Have high energy. But don’t ever go out and grab a buyer. Just say, “Hey, can I tell you about my product? “That tactic might bring me to products that I might have walked past.

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Jason Bidart, vice president of merchandising for food at Thrive Market

What are you looking for at Expo West?

It will be interesting to see brands making steps into the regenerative space. Another trend we are excited to see is nostalgia. Going back to flavors and items you may have eaten as a kid. Brands today are making better-for-you versions of those products. Functional beverages is a fun place today–lots of innovation. I use Expo West as a discovery. I try to take a day where I have nothing planned and I just walk the floor and do as much discovery as possible. We call this our Super Bowl.

What are some tips for brands attending the show, in terms of how they engage with buyers?

Be clear with your story, how you were founded, what your purpose is, what void you are trying to fill in the natural products space. Be respectful. Walking through Expo is overwhelming. These buyers already have overwhelming jobs, managing thousands of products. So doing things like pulling on a backpack, jumping in front of a buyer, can make you stand out for the wrong reason.

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Ashley Rabii, category manager for wellness, baby, and natural HABA, IGA, Foodland and Thrifty Foods

What are you looking for at Expo West?

Gut health products, clean labels and sustainable packaging, stress and sleep related supplements, hormone balancing products, coffee alternatives and hydration to name a few. I’m a huge advocate for knowing and understanding what’s in everyday products and swapping out for better alternatives.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

There’s a lot of ground for us to cover so be brief but informative. Make sure to highlight your key product attributes and what differentiates you against the market.

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E.N. May, center store category manager, Healthy Living Market

What are you looking for at Expo West?

Functional beverages and better-for-you sodas continue to be a key category so I will be on the lookout for what's new there. Mushrooms are making further inroads into CPG, so I'm excited to see where they pop up this year. Salty snacks, seaweed CPG innovations, old made new again ideas, and unique (but still familiar) flavor combinations across all categories are also on my list. I'll be looking out for direct-to-consumer brands making their retailer debut.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

It all starts with the packaging. If it can catch my eye in a crowded convention hall, then there’s a good chance it will catch the guests’ eyes on the shelf. On the business end, make sure the staff at your booths knows how the product can be purchased by the stores. If I can't get an answer, then it's less likely that I will be able to bring the product into the stores. 

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Bart Yablonsky, owner, Dawson’s Market

What are you looking for at Expo West?

I'm always pleasantly surprised to find new trends. We are on the East Coast, so we typically run about 6 months behind the West Coast. Expo gives me an advanced perspective on what is about to come down the road. I feel this is a great advantage because I can see things first and begin to build relationships before the product gets to market in the East.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

I can't tell you how many times I ask a vendor "How is your product distributed?" and I get "We sell in Whole Foods and Target." Buyers attending Expo are looking to buy wholesale and need to know which distributors have their products. Make sure whoever is greeting potential retail customers at your booth knows the answers or can get the sales team involved.

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Steven Jamieson, health and bodycare merchandiser, PCC Markets

What are you looking for at Expo West this March in Anaheim?

One big one is cosmetics. There haven’t been many offerings on the body care side since Covid, and I’m curious to see if there are any new players in the. Others are categories like soap and bath, digestion and shelf-stable probiotics. I know probiotics is a standard category for wellness, but I think it’s in the cusp of them being hot again.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

One thing I really appreciate is when I go to a booth and the founder or one of the higher ups in the company is at the booth to chat with. Sometimes I’ll go to the booth, ask a question, and they’ll have somebody who is just a warm body, and that can be challenging when I’m trying to ask more detailed questions.

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Noah Smith, grocery merchandiser, PCC Markets

What are you looking for at Expo West?

Expo West is a great place to survey the landscape of the industry. You see all these brands in the same place. You get your finger on the pulse of what is going on and what new trends are coming on. We are always looking for beverage—always a lot of fun and interesting stuff happening in that category. The sober-curious movement is really driving some sales for us, too. We want to have the absolute best products on the shelves in this category.

Regenerative is top of mind. It goes hand in hand with organic to rebuild our planet and get back to a healthier way of producing food.

What are some tips for brands attending the show?

There are more than 1,000 booths that we are looking to visit and so it’s a lot for us to take in and we’ve got to budget our time as well as stomach. So, know our time is short but we are paying attention.

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Natural Products Expo West, the leading trade show in the natural, organic and healthy products industry, begins March 12 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. Click through for the agenda, registration, travel information and more.

About the Author(s)

Douglas Brown

Senior Retail Reporter, New Hope Network

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