Wear sturdy shoes, everyone told me. And make sure to carry a water bottle. Oh, and eat a substantial breakfast.
I was confused. Was I going to Expo or trekking through the Rockies?
Navigating the almost 240,000 square feet of the Natural Products Expo West show floor can take the planning, resources and stamina associated with a mountain hike. But the rewards are great. With more than 1,500 manufacturers, brokers, suppliers and publishers scheduled to show at Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., March 4-7, the savvy retailer can make contacts that last for years, capitalize on special deals, check out new products and stock up on enough samples to last until next year?s show.
The key to effectively shopping the show is planning. You need to make sure you have enough time during the four days to attend the seminars you?re interested in and still be able to visit exhibitors that will be helpful to your store.
The best way to start is to peruse the show program and its floor map at the Web site expowest.com before you arrive in Anaheim, and find the exhibitors and booth numbers you?re interested in. Trade-show coach Susan Friedmann, the Lake Placid, N.Y.-based author of Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies (For Dummies, 2003), recommends organizing your list into ?must see? and ?want to see? companies. Beverly Allewelt, a broker with Blondie?s Naturals in Englewood, Colo., suggests making a shopping list of your store?s top 5 categories, and then identifying five to seven manufacturers within those categories. These are the booths you should visit on the first day of the show, to make sure you have time to fit them all in.
Once you?ve identified the exhibitors you want to visit, Friedmann recommends developing a list of questions. ?Be prepared to push for answers to questions exhibitors are not prepared to answer,? she says. She also advises carrying a pen and notepad or a tape recorder to take notes.
Jo Ellen Parent, buyer for bulk and perishables at Healthy Foods Market co-op in Lexington, Va., devotes her question list to asking for product support—either samples for store demos, free products, coupons or literature. ?I try to get information and samples for the staff that couldn?t go to the show,? she says. Kathleen Taggersall, spokeswoman for Tom?s of Maine, says Expo is an excellent place to get product questions answered, because ?we try to send out knowledgeable people.?
Parent also recommends looking for show-only specials—the later the better. ?At the end of the show, you can get better deals. People may not want to take all their stuff away, so they might give you a whole bottle of something rather than a sample size.?
But beware—few manufacturers bring samples of all their products. Instead, they may display all products but sample only new items or SKUs they want to highlight. If you want something that?s not being sampled, ask. There?s a chance there will be a supply stored somewhere in the booth. Parent also meets with brokers on the show floor and places orders with them. This is a win-win situation; you save time and the broker looks good to his or her vendors. Allewelt says another time-saver is to contact brokers before the show and make appointments to meet at Expo, rather than relying on tracking them down at the show.
Once you?ve hit your must-see booths, Taggersall recommends visiting the New Product Showcase in the convention center lobby to identify intriguing items. Then, take time to stroll the floor to sample new products and make new contacts. Friedmann advises carrying plenty of business cards with you, not only for networking, but also to avoid filling out forms.
Many in the natural foods business look askance at networking, but Friedmann insists it?s a vital part of shopping the show. It helps if you redefine the term. Think of networking as simply meeting new people. Opportunities can be as low-key as visiting an exhibitor?s hospitality suite or reception, or introducing yourself to your neighbor at a seminar.
Friedmann also recommends minimizing wear and tear on your body by asking exhibitors to mail literature and samples to you, rather than toting them around the show floor. And make sure to wear comfy shoes and fill your water bottle. In fact, make a beverage station your first stop, so you don?t have to bring your own hydration.
You?ll be barraged by various foods on toothpicks. This is where the big breakfast matters. Walk the show floor starving and you might end up dining on chocolate, olives and spinach pizza, washed down with soymilk.
To ensure you don?t spend too much time at a booth, in a meeting or chowing down on low-carb cheese puffs, be ruthless. ?Tell exhibitors you are on a tight time schedule to avoid casual chatter and get straight down to business,? Friedmann says. Allewelt recommends carrying a timer in your pocket set for 15 minutes. Move on when it rings. ?It may be rude, but it?s effective,? she says.
Finally, end your day by creating a do-it-yourself happy hour at an organic wine or beer booth. Pull up a chair, sit back, cover your eyes with a pair of lavender sachets from your sample bag, and reward yourself for a show well shopped.
Vicky Uhland is a freelance writer and editor based in Denver. Reach her at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 2/p. 22, 26