Takeaways from Expo West

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Yes, Expo West was big. According to the organizers, more than 85,000 attendees swarmed the Anaheim Convention Center, including the new North Halls, with 3,521 natural products and services companies exhibiting — more than 600 of them first-timers looking for that big break.

While Whole Foods Market Amazon kept its official show floor presence low-key, it managed to dominate the after-show conversation when a Jefferies analyst put out a note speculating on just why that was. It was almost like a tale of two shows — with author and food activist Anna Lappe reminding us there are more farmers’ markets in the U.S. than there are Walmarts, yet deal-making going on all over.

“M&A was never far from the dialogue at Expo West this year,” said industry veteran Jill Staib, now a director at William Hood & Co. “Whether on the trade show floor or in the closed door content sessions, deals were being discussed and introductions made. The Natural Products M&A and Capital Raising markets are as robust as at any point in history. We expect this to continue in 2018 with more scale acquisitions by the large CPG companies, as well as numerous growth equity raises by the younger companies.”

If viewed from the perspective of show visibility, food — particularly convenient and plant-based foods and baby foods — are the rising sector of the industry. Lines of visitors snaked around the basement of the main hall waiting for a freshly-grilled piece of sausage from Beyond Meat. Daiya, which introduced new non-dairy chocolate–covered bars, couldn’t hand them out fast enough. Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association — now numbering more than 100 member companies — was a magnet of attention never left alone.

The pre-show CBD Summit also attracted a standing-room-only crowd interested in learning what was next. (Here’s our CBD coverage from Nancy Trent.)

“I was blown away at how fast the regenerative agriculture movement is taking root,” Robert Craven, CEO of MegaFood, told me. “MegaFood is so proud to be on the standards building team with great companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Annie’s/General Mills and great organizations like Carbon Underground and Green America. Expo West 2018 will be remembered as where this movement really built steam.”

My personal highlight was sitting in on a negotiation between Betsy and Ramona Billingslea of Betsy’s Health Foods and their Trace Minerals rep to witness how these two held their ground and cut a deal that will allow them to remain competitive with online sellers. “I love the product, but I can’t recommend it if my customer can get it online $9 ­cheaper,” Ramona said. Their relationship with this vendor was warm and long-standing, but these Texans were ready to walk away if they didn’t get what they wanted.

Finally, Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals, who received a shout-out from the stage during the State of the Industry session, shot me an email with what excited him. “Host Defense Primordial Chocolates!  Extraordinary dark chocolates with a significant amount of healthy mushrooms.”

Natural products retailers can be encouraged by one piece of research from a consumer survey conducted by NMI for New Hope. It compares how many category shoppers plan to spend more on ecommerce and natural food stores. ­­­It supports what we reported last month and shows there’s still a place for the retailer.

Editor-in-ChiefPhoto by Gi Pamperien
Laurie Petersen

 

Published in WholeFoods Magazine April 2018

Click the arrow to listen to The Natural View, our podcast on Expo West.

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