For Jonathan Lawrence, Fresh Thyme Market's senior director of grocery and natural living, the natural products “treasure hunt” is on for Natural Products Expo East. After attending around 30 Natural Products Expos, Lawrence knows a thing or two about what it takes for young brands to get discovered.
While his approach to expo hasn’t changed, Lawrence’s excitement for a return to in-person shows in a new location and with what he knows will be a showcase of innovation has reached new heights. Here, he shares advice for young brands exhibiting this September (hint: keep your mind open and your phone in your pocket) and why he’s ready to get a little lost at expo again.
How has your approach to Natural Products Expo East changed?
Jonathan Lawrence: By not having the last three or so, I think we really figured out what we were missing. It was part of your season, it allowed category buyers and managers to get away from their desks and get away from the day to day of running the business so we can get out with the community, with the industry, to see what’s innovative and bring that back to our shelves. Without that it has been tough, so I think we are going into it with the same model we have in the past.
We have our set meetings and then we give our teams time to just walk the floor, go see what’s new, what you’ve never seen before. Natural Products Expo East is our chance to go for a treasure hunt, and without the live shows we’ve been missing that. So, for us, it’s the pipeline of innovation, which is key to our industry because as brands grow up, you’re going to see them in more conventional stores. That’s part of the chain, but for our kind of stores, we need to keep leading that so for us it’s all about reconnecting with us, seeing them in person and seeing what’s new.
What is your advice for companies that are attending Natural Products Expo East for the first time?
JL: Go into it with an open mind. For everyone it’s going to be a little different, a little harder; it’s not going to be as easy as it used to be. But the retailers, we owe it to the vendors, the vendors owe it to the retailers; we’re going to have to try a little bit harder this year. As far as the new brands, when you’re sitting behind the booth, don’t be on your phone. Be out there, grab people’s attention, have something new and innovative, talk it up, have fun. Be patient, enjoy yourself and know that you are part of a big industry. And if you’re new I think you have a leg up that you don’t realize because we’re looking for you.
The brands we’ve seen before, we connect with them and we look for what they have that’s new, but we are really searching for new brands. Put your best foot forward because you never know who’s going to be walking by. And this year, without [paper] badges, I think it’s going to be great because you’re not going to know who’s a whale of a buyer and who the independents are that are going to be launching your product. Spend the time there, don’t just spend it on the ones that have 50 to 70 stores, because you’re going to grow your brand with those independent stores and then hopefully with my team as well.
What most excites you about heading to Philadelphia?
JL: Outside of just seeing people again, which is going to be fantastic, I think because Natural Products Expo East is in a new location. There were great things about Baltimore, with the restaurants and everything else, but I think it’s going to be fun to just have a new hotel, new convention center and be lost again.
Just figuring out where everyone is going to hang out after, that’s going to be the new fun thing as well. So more than anything I think just getting back to what we love to do which is grow brands and be around people who are in this industry. That’s the great thing: people change positions, they change companies, but everyone stays within the industry and there’s a reason for that because it’s an amazing group to be a part of. So just reconnecting is going to be the biggest thing for our team.