Tricks of the Trade Show

How do independents get the most out of a busy trade show?

Editor’s Note: In talking with retailers about what goes into making important business decisions like selecting inventory, we thought it would be interesting for retailers to hear from colleagues about their experiences attending a large trade show. We sent out our Merchandising Editor, Jay Jacobowitz, to collect this insight. The following report is the result of his efforts.

As an independent natural products retailer looking to improve your store, how do you tackle the world’s largest natural products industry trade show, Natural Products Expo West?

It’s Big
Spread over five main exhibit halls, auditoriums and meeting rooms, the nearly one-million-square-foot event drew a crowd of more than 63,000 attendees, including 2,428 exhibiting companies over the course of four days.

The sheer scale and scope of the show are not your only challenges. If you’re from anywhere “up North” in the United States, you know that early March can still be bitterly cold, or at the very least, a messy “mud season.” So, arriving in sunny Southern California, with its perfect weather, blue skies, dry air, famous beaches and Disneyland literally up the street from the convention center, the distractions are many. Add to this the fact that you may be bringing along your crew of coworkers, coupled with the ample opportunities for show-sponsored evening entertainments, and you’ve potentially got a four-day-and-night feast-and-frolic extravaganza on your hands.

WholeFoods Magazine to the Rescue
It is clear, to ensure your success at Natural Products Expo West (or any other big trade show), you’ll need to do more than just hope you have a good show. Much more. You need a solid strategy for maximizing your productivity. But rather than give you a dry “Do’s and Don’ts” checklist, the editors at WholeFoods Magazine wanted something more, something real…something, well, right from the horse’s mouth: independent retailers who actually attended this year’s show.

But, we asked ourselves, how do we reach them? And then we hit upon it. Our very own Merchandising Editor, Jay Jacobowitz, yours truly, would attend the show right alongside our independent collaborators. So, here you have it, our best effort to give you the “Tricks of the Tradeshow;” your guide to successfully navigating industry tradeshows throughout the year. My sincere thanks to all those who revealed their thoughts and observations to us about this year’s show, and who, for obvious reasons, shall remain anonymous. Thank you!

Tricks of the Tradeshow

Set a Goal
Whether the independent retailers with whom I spoke had one small store or several large ones, the idea of having a main set of tradeshow goals was universal. And the first goal among these retailers was to get a pulse on the industry, to gain a sense of where it’s going.

Not every year has an overarching megatrend, but the 2013 show certainly did. Timed to coincide with this year’s Expo West, Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market announced its intention to require all products containing genetically modified ingredients in its U.S. and Canadian stores to be labeled “GMO” by 2018. With Whole Foods Market putting its hat in the ring on this issue, natural products suppliers are officially on notice that the labeling standard has changed, and that ingredient transparency will continue to dominate our industry’s character, values and mission.

An increasing number of vendors at the show highlighted the fact that their products are non-GMO, with Non-GMO Project signage in the booth and on the product package. Several retailers I spoke with confirmed that their customers are demanding non-GMO foods in greater numbers.

Brands retailers told me are making good non-GMO efforts include: Alvarado St. Bakery, Bakery on Main, Brad’s Raw Chips & Crackers, Ciao Bella Gelato, Eden Foods, Enjoy Life, Kettle Foods, Lundberg Family Farms, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Native Forest, Once Again Nut Butters, Snyder’s of Hanover, Traditional Medicinals and Wildwood, among others.

Although the GMO issue grabbed the spotlight this year, several other trend forces were highly visible.

Gluten free. One such area, gluten-free (GF) foods, is no surprise. “We are going to run out of room,” one of my retailer friends lamented as he tried to imagine where he would merchandise more GF foods in his 15,000-square-foot store. On the show floor, it seemed every food manufacture/marketer that could claim GF—even if the product naturally contains no gluten—did so in bold call-outs on front-of-the-package labeling.

The space issue can be an expensive one, since we’re not just talking about wedging another bag onto gondola shelving. One retailer I spoke with was considering adding four more freezer doors to accommodate the expanded offerings of frozen GF foods. As with low-carb before it, GF foods are a shooting star that appears to have tremendous momentum—for now—but by definition, must at some point fall to earth. My one caution to you: try to resist expensive expansions or dedicating whole stores exclusively to one dietary restriction. Eventually, the mainstream food-store channel will catch up, reaching enough critical mass to begin siphoning off new customers who would previously have had to shop with you to get these hard-to-find specialty items.

Raw foods, vegan foods. Retailers I spoke with see raw foods as “up and coming,” with dedicated shelf space growing in the store, and more raw-foods enthusiasts shopping and driving demand. Raw brands retailers told me were strong players include Brad’s Raw for dehydrated kale chips and crackers, Raw Revolution bars and Sunfood berry powders.

Raw foods tend to be vegetarian, vegan and GF, and so serve shoppers with a number of different dietary preferences. Recipes tend to be on the cutting edge, a hipness factor that attracts Millennials (more on the generational trends affecting the industry later).

Vegan is also increasing, with vegan meat-analog alternatives in abundance throughout the show floor. One retailer told me she merchandises raw and vegan foods on adjacent shelves, taking up one whole side of the store. Vegan brands retailers mentioned include Daiya for dairy analogs, Fillo Factory for tasty meat substitutes, and Soy-Delicious for soy yogurts and coconut ice cream, among others.

Superfoods. The new super greens, like chia seed, are increasing as reported by several retailers, and reflected in many booths. Quinoa and hemp, in particular, are building momentum. The hemp aseptic milks, which used to live only on dry gondola shelving, are double-merchandising in the refrigerated dairy case because more people are seeing it as a nutritious beverage alternative to dairy. Navitas Naturals fruits, nuts and seed powders and Sunfood berry powders were on retailers’ radar.

Squeezables. Following the trend toward single-handed eating, squeezable pouches deliver semi-solid nutrition you can hold in one hand; great for babies, athletes and—don’t tell anyone—drivers. At least half-a-dozen booths and brands showcased a variety of sweet and savory recipes in on-the-go pouches, for a range of ages from youth to adult. Companies making retailers’ shopping lists include GoGo squeeZ, and Natural Nectar, with entrants by mainstream brands Dole and Gerber, as well.

Probiotics/prebiotics. The realization that everyone can have good digestion through healthy gut balance has entered mainstream consciousness, and alternate pro/prebiotics delivery systems were the theme at the show. Dairy, non-dairy, single-serving beverages, cups and other iterations were all on display from at least a dozen vendors. Digestive balance was the overarching market position, with vendors touting the huge segment of mainstream consumers who previously thought they had to live with irregularity driving sales growth for the foreseeable future. Brand entries on retailers’ minds in this category include Amazing Grass green superfood, Garden of Life raw probiotics, and Sunwarrior super greens, among others.

The show floor was replete with marketers featuring a half-dozen mini-trends.

Popcorn. Bacon-, garlic- and jalapeno-flavored, nutriceutical-coated; you name it, someone is spraying it onto popcorn. Dozens of vendors showed their latest attempts to grab these healthy snack dollars. But the retailers I spoke with have little room in-store and less desire to make more space for this high-cube, low dollar, overpopulated category. “Popcorn is way overdone,” one retailer told me.

Barbeque sauces. Barbeque sauces from every region of the country and several international and ethnic varieties were evident throughout the show. This category appears to be an entry point for many specialty/gourmet vendors looking to break into the natural segment. While most recipes looked fairly clean, several retailers told me they still had to read the labels carefully before considering picking them up.

Teas. Medicinal and culinary teas continue to increase their presence at the show, with mainstream/specialty/gourmet vendors, like Harney & Sons, bringing quality, flavor profiles and package design that rival the natural incumbents. Several lines of fairly sophisticated medicinal teas, such as Ayurvedic recipes, were also much improved from years past, according to retailers I spoke with. The packaging is cleaner, information panels clearer and recipes better tasting and more interesting and complete than before. Yogi Tea’s updated formulas impressed several of my retailers friends.

Supplements. No single breakthrough product appeared at the show, but supplements marketers are aggressively bumping up alternative delivery systems, including liquid extracts, easy-swallow gel caps, multi-packs and instant powder mixes, among others. The theme seems to be doing anything to make ingesting and remembering to take supplements easier.

Jay’s pick. I was glad to see only one rice-cake-popper vendor made it onto the show floor this year. These heat-pressure machines make a huge “BANG!” every time the rice explodes into the cake mold, scaring the moths right out of the bulk bins. Who would want one of these things in their store?

My overall personal favorite product from the show was Mi Rancho tortillas—a clean ingredient panel for tortillas, wahoo!

Other Tasks
Supplier meetings.
For several of the larger retailers I spoke with, the show provided an opportunity for pre-set vendor meetings. One independent was escorted by their primary distributor to meet with several vendors specializing in foodservice packs to support their new deli expansion. For any retailer with a special agenda, arranging a meeting at the show ahead of time is a good idea. Several of the vendors also rent space either in meeting rooms upstairs at the convention center, or even at the adjacent hotels. If you’ve got important must-do business, making an appointment ahead of time makes sense.

Upper and lower floors. Because the show is so large, new vendors often exhibit upstairs on the third floor, in a new-products-only showroom, with smaller tabletop displays. “A great idea,” one retailer remarked. Downstairs, in the basement, are another couple of hundred full-size booths, with many “sleeper” products that, according to one retailer, “are either future losers or future winners.” Both the upstairs and downstairs exhibits are less-well advertised, most of my retailer contacts confirmed, and could be more visible in show promotional materials.

Non-retailers, please step aside. One of the features of large shows like Expo West is that they attract all parts of the industry supply chain. A common complaint I heard from my retailer friends was the trouble they had getting face time in their vendors’ booths. Too much of the time, their access was blocked by non-retailer attendees who effectively monopolize the vendor in the booth.

For next year. Several retailers suggested ideas to make the show more productive next year. While most of the retailers I spoke with were not planning on placing orders at the show, they were counting on the live face-to-face meetings with their key vendors to establish and/or maintain a rapport. “Other than some vitamin lines that give us show-only deals, we can get as good or better deals anytime,” one retailer related, continuing, “And, we get updates on the new products anyway, and of course, you have to wait until the new item is in the warehouse before you can actually get it in the store. But we use the show to develop a rapport with our key vendors, so that when we do call for a deal later in the year, it is remembered…the relationship pays off.”

To facilitate better vendor access, one retailer I spoke with suggested there be a half-day, or even one of the three show-floor days where exhibit hall access is restricted to retailers only, with no non-retailers or non-exhibitors allowed. “The show is getting so large that, on Friday, we could hardly get through the crowds and into the booths,” one retailer told me, saying, “It’s almost too big now. If it gets much bigger, you won’t be able to do it in this amount of time.”

Final Thoughts
The Millennials.
Many retailers I spoke with confirmed that the Millennial generation—aged early teens to about 33, and now beginning to form households and families in large numbers—is an increasing influence and presence in their stores. Several months ago, Whole Foods Markets co-CEO, John Mackey, made a revealing remark: the company had never very successfully attracted Generation X, the generation in between the Baby Boomers and Millennials. Gen X was forming its households and families from the mid-90s through the first decade of the 2000s, a time when growth in foot traffic in independent natural products retailers came under some pressure. I believe that Gen X does not embrace the values of natural as passionately as either the Boomers before them, or the Millennials now, and that the natural products industry can look forward to a decade of strong growth as the Millennials reach their peak earnings years and shop more heavily in the natural channel. Expect Expo West to continue to reflect the demands of this newest generation! WF

Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Insights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a comprehensive marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 36 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 1,000 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2013

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Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Insights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a comprehensive consumer marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With over 40 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 1,000 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. Jay can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at