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Editorial: A Week in Review – Focus on CHFA Expo West

I’ve just returned from Vancouver, site of the Canadian Health Food Association’s Expo West, 2009. Apart from the opportunity to visit one of North America’s finest cities, the event gave me time to reconnect with Canadian industry colleagues, evaluate industry performance in these challenging times, determine whether the momentum evident at Expo West in Anaheim had transferred north, and of course, validate some of my own perception on behavior and opportunity in the health and nutrition space.

My own participation began with an educational session entitled ‘Perspectives on Natural Health Products in Sports’. As many of you know, this is a subject of personal interest and one that I’ve been active in and following closely for over 7 years. As Vancouver prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, this subject is topical, and as I began preparing for the session, I was forced to evaluate steps, progress and relationship evolution over the past 6 plus years. While in some respects ‘we’ve come a long way, baby’, the reaction to my presentation confirmed some of my worst suspicions, ‘we’ve got a long way to go’ in understanding and more importantly, addressing the real concerns of the elite sports community we are trying to engage to take and ideally promote our products.

By the time I finished my presentation, a large part of my audience was looking back at me with a mixture of disbelief and exasperation. I had just explained three core issues to understanding the dynamics of the relationship between our industry and the sports community: 1) Low level (ppb) contamination of supplements and NHPs can cause a positive doping response, 2) Inevitably, in the event of an incident where the athlete has consumed just about any one of our products, there will be some attempt to associate the product with the positive test result. (a la J.C. Romero and numerous others), 3) Further, some of these may be legitimate.

My observations and the feedback I received indicate that while programs now exist that help reduce the risk of a doping positive, and while companies are now beginning to participate in these programs as a bridge to the elite sports world, there is still a lack of sensitivity in our industry to the sports reality, and in the sports community, WADA, the IOC and numerous other groups still lack fundamental understanding of our industry. Having said this though, there are significant signs of progress and I remain optimistic that recent developments may in fact result in appropriate use of supplements and NHPs by athletes competing at the Vancouver games. And perhaps, if all goes well, really well, their success as measured by their ability to train better, may in part be attributed to the products from our world that they consume. Incidentally, earlier in the week, Platinum Naturals launched the Clean Sport Initiative in Toronto as the company’s multi-vitamin was certified for sport™ by NSF International, offerers of one program directly intended to reduce risk to athletes. And in fact, while on the podium getting ready to speak, a colleague came up to me bearing his product sample, recently embossed with the seal of Informed Choice, another program example.

Other presentations in the educational arena included ‘Retailing in a Recession’, and a discussion of organic regulation harmonization (Canada has newly published organic regulations).

The balance of the extended weekend in Vancouver included meeting to discuss state of the industry and a walk along the show floor.

The show floor itself was pretty much at maximum exhibitor capacity, similar to last year. The density of attendees seemed a bit less, although blazing Saturday afternoon sunshine may have had something to do with this. Exhibitors I spoke with, large and small, almost unanimously expressed satisfaction with turnout, especially in uncertain economic times so attendee quality and especially motivation were good. It appears, similar to Anaheim, that attendees are more committed and focused as they navigate the floor (and their business in general), determined to get maximum value with every interaction.

Product innovation appeared however to be a trifle weak with few new radical entries, mostly brand extensions and even new companies for the most part stayed with tried and true rather than truly innovative. A clear personal favorite however was a new great-tasting tea-based beverage (oolong or green tea), extremely low calorie and sugar, being brought to market by a lower mainland company.

More on this in an upcoming product review…..

The Canadian market, according to my sources, seems relatively strong with ‘flat being the new up’. The opinion ‘could be worse’ was expressed several times. One observation repeated a few times was that inventory management is taking on new significance. From a manufacturer perspective, retailers appear to be delaying reorders, conserving cash, meaning that oscillations in activity reflect longer times between orders although when the reorder occurs, most often its to the original inventory level and with heightened urgency so that manufacturers are seeing quite a spike, but at a later period.

And completing the week in review, I’m most intrigued by the spotlight that may emerge on the subject of economic adulteration.

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