Expert Insights: Takeaways from Expo East

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Baltimore, MD—Expo East isn’t just where trends are found; it’s where expert advice and insights are gathered. Here’s what WholeFoods learned:

CBD is everywhere. Everywhere. Brian Wommack, SVP communications at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), told us that the change between this year and last year is remarkable: “Last Expo East, we didn’t know where our members would fall in terms of CBD; I was almost nervous about being seen by a CBD booth. This year, we’ve got new members solely in CBD, and some of our legacy members are headed that way too.”

Warner Siebert, co-founder of Good Day, talked to WholeFoods about the struggles of making CBD products—particularly in the grocery category—given the current legal climate. “We work with a law firm. With a couple law firms, actually.” A pared-down version of the advice he got: “CBD is a highway. There’s no speed limit right now, but that doesn’t mean there never will be—so we’re trying to work at 55mph right now. We don’t want to get caught going 100mph.” What does that look like? Siebert says: “We’re sticking with full-spectrum CBD, we’re not making any egregious health claims—we’re using common sense.” Jonathan Miller, attorney at Frost, Brown & Todd, and general counsel to the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, offered similar advice in an educational session titled The Importance of CBD Consumer and Retail Experience Through Product Quality Education. “Hire an FDA lawyer to scour your labels and websites. You can use words like comfort and balance; you can talk about general health and wellness. You can’t make claims about even pain relief, and user testimonials need to be scrubbed, too.”

In terms of what retailers should look for in a brand, Siebert says transparency is vital. “We’re ready and willing to give Certificates of Analysis (CoA) if asked. It protects both us and the retailers.” He notes that Expo had a particularly stringent approval process for CBD companies looking to snag a booth—and that he distrusts anyone who does less: “There’s going to be a CBD show in town in a couple weeks, and I called them to find out what they’d need in order to approve us to show there. They said they weren’t doing any tests. Well, then how do you know the THC content of the products people are taking at your show? What if it’s .5%? You could have people committing a federal crime without even knowing it.”

As a retailer, you probably don’t have the time or money to test for THC content. Fortunately, the U.S. Hemp Authority Certification Program is there to help: Stringent self-regulatory standards and a yearly third-party audit must be passed before a product can use the Certified Seal. A list of certified companies can be found on their website. You can also do your own research, though: Marielle Weintraub, president of the program, a member of the Hemp Roundtable, and VP regulatory and government affairs at Eureka93, told WholeFoods that you should ask to see CoAs, and then maybe call the lab. “That way, you can double check that the certificates haven’t been altered, and make sure that the lab is accredited—although they’ll usually have their certifications stamped all over their paperwork.” Besides that, she says, “Check the U.S. Hemp Authority’s website—we have guidelines for the allowable metals and pesticides that you can check the CoA against.” If you can, though, she recommends randomly testing the products you sell—just for greater peace of mind. And: “Pick good partners.”

And, in the meantime: Call your legislators. “The big battleground is California,” Miller told WholeFoods. “A bill passed the House without a single no vote, and then died in the Senate. Iowa, South Dakota, and Mississippi don’t even have laws. You can go to www.hempsupporter.com and click on your state, and we’ll help you send an email to your legislator.” Retailers could be a big help in this fight: “Business owners, who can say this is part of my business, this is part of the economy, are a big help—but the more people who send emails, the better. I know it often feels like politicians don’t care, but as a recovering politician myself, we do. When a politician walks into the office and finds hundreds of emails on a topic, they take notice.”

Stay tuned for more: WholeFoods will take a deeper dive into CBD insights gained at Expo East, including the latest from CV Sciences, Barlean’s, Bluebird Botanicals, Green Roads, Balanced Health Botanicals and CBDistillery.

Real food stands out. We spoke to Lavva, makers of plant-based yogurt. “Customers want no fillers, real ingredients, and delicious taste and texture,” said Elizabeth Fisher, founder. “Other brands have water as the driving ingredient, and they use fillers and stabilizers.” It’s easier to make yogurt that way, she added, but the delicious end result speaks for itself; real-food ingredients just taste better.

Cali’flour, too, went the real-food path. Their products use the whole cauliflower head, egg whites, and cheese to keep carbs and calories down while maintaining protein count and taste. They were passing out charts, showing off Cali’flour’s nutrition facts in comparison to those of other cauliflower pizza brands—education, said the booth employees, is vital to making sure people get the low-calorie, low-carb, healthy food they’re really looking for.

Lilly’s hummus advertises organic chickpeas and hand-roasted vegetables; Beetnik advertises simple ingredients without artificial anything or high-fructose corn syrup; Thinsters puts directly on their packaging that their cookie crisps are made with real butter and sugar—“There’s an integrity to using real ingredients that I would use in my own kitchen,” said an employee, “as opposed to the Splendas of the world.”

Hillary Graves, founder of Little Dish, told WholeFoods that “millennial moms are the group retailers need to pay attention to—and they’re looking for fresh, homemade foods, with the convenience of a package.” Little Dish’s (delicious) toddler food is found in the refrigerator section—which Graves thinks is key. “Fresh/refrigerated is a segment retailers should be leaning into,” she says. “It’s hard to get it off Amazon, meaning moms need to come into the store for it, which gets you loyal in-store customers.” And her brand slots right into a big need for those millennial moms: Once their children age out of fresh baby food purees like products from Once Upon a Farm, they’ll be looking for a similarly easy, healthy, real food solution—and if Little Dish is right there, then that’s another few years of customers coming into the store.

Eugene Kang, CEO of Country Archer Beef Jerky, agrees. “It’s about the grass-fed beef, the food itself.” For this reason, he says, plant-based jerky isn’t competing with beef, turkey, or pork jerky: “Plant-based appeals to the vegan consumer, a market we’re not in anyway. We appeal more to flexitarians—no one’s eating jerky every day. Twice a week, probably. It’s a snack people can enjoy, and with better ingredients and a company that has control over the process—we’re vertically integrated—it’s a snack they can feel good about.” And, he says, it stands out as natural: “People have been making jerky for thousands of years. Jerky is as natural as it gets.”

Keeping your customers happy could be easy. Shawn Achor, author of Big Potential and the Happiness Advantage, gave the keynote speech on Friday. He told attendees that feelings are contagious; the brain sees other people smile, or fidget, or frown, or yawn, and mirrors those feelings. If you stand in a group of people and check your watch repeatedly, the rest of that group of people will begin checking their watches, too. He also noted that not being alone makes a difference: When people, by themselves, were asked to estimate the length of a hallway or the height of a hill they were to climb, they saw the hallway as longer and the hill as higher and steeper than they did when there was someone at their side. When people don’t have to do things alone, we perceive those things as being easier.

How does this apply to your business? Achor said that, for one study, he and a team of researchers tried to increase the quality of a hospital’s service and care. They went to the Ritz-Carlton hotel, and asked about employee training, and discovered the 10-5 rule. When a customer comes within 10 feet of an employee, the employees are trained to make eye contact and smile; within five feet, and the employees are trained to say hello. That’s what makes Ritz-Carlton service so exceptional—and it improved the quality of care at that hospital, too. It takes advantage of both of Achor’s points: By smiling, the employee makes the customer’s brain mirror the smile, which makes the customer feel happy. By saying hello, the employee makes the customer feel less alone. In your store, there are likely customers who feel nervous about asking for help finding an item; employees opening up that dialogue could change an annoying experience into a positive one. Associating the in-store experience with smiles and community, too, would likely boost loyalty in your customers.

Digestive health isn’t peaking any time soon. Dayton Miller, managing partner at Boulder Food Group, says that we’re “still in the early stages of digestive understanding. People know, now, what the microbiome is, and this category is probably going to grow.” In an educational session titled The State of Natural & Organic: Leading Perspectives on a Growing Industry, it was noted that probiotic growth might be slowing–but prebiotics and synbiotics are jumping, and probiotics are only slowing in the U.S.; elsewhere, they’re jumping.  

There is room for growth in the Industry. Dr. Nick Bitz, chief scientific officer at Youtheory, notes that while certain things are quickly becoming staples—“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have recommended turmeric, curcumin, at all. Today, I think that it’s become an important tool for daily health. It’s not going anywhere”—there is room for movement in that category and beyond. “We’re looking into extending our curcumin and collagen lines. They’re critical to supporting health, and we’re known for our curcumin and collagen products. Beyond that, there’s room for growth in adaptogens. Ashwagandha, obviously, is big, but maca root is an adaptogen, and there are others supported by evidence and tradition. Stress is epidemic. This category is going to grow.”

The current trend of M&A isn’t just your imagination—but it does show how well the Industry is doing. During the Suppdate educational session, William Hood of William Hood & Co. told attendees that M&A is at a historic high. “Big companies look for scale—$50 million, $75 million, $100 million in revenue. Investor funds and venture capital can help small companies get there.”

…but family-owned is digging its heels in. Dr. Bitz told WholeFoods that “Youtheory is a family-owned company—for real. We’re not just trying to flip a company; we’re looking to create a sustainable, fun place to work. We’re going to make our imprint, and we’re going to do it while being family owned.” (He’s not wrong—Hood’s presentation listed a variety of companies that have been snapped up by big names including General Mills and Nestle, and then went on to list companies that are growing, along with all the venture capital backing them. He put Youtheory up on the screen: “Self-funded. They don’t need backing. They’re smashing it.”)

Enzymedica, too, is family-owned as a point of pride. “We’re not beholden to anyone,” said Ryan Sensenbrenner, Enzymedica’s director of marketing. He told WholeFoods that that’s the key to innovation. “I haven’t seen much on the floor that’s new—once everyone’s owned by the same couple companies, that’s going to happen.” He proved that family-owned is the source of innovation, though, pulling out product after product. Showing me a heartburn product, he said: “Most heartburn pills are proton pump inhibitors—they make stomach acid. The problem is that they exist all over the body, including in the brain. In Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a buildup of beta-amyloid protein—which would otherwise be washed out by the proton pumps.” He notes that there are certainly people who need heartburn medications, but that many who take them do so because they’re eating too many spicy or fatty foods. (For more on the trouble with proton pump inhibitors, check out this article from NPR.) “Our heartburn supplements contain an algae—it actually foams up when it hits stomach acid, and creates sort of a raft. We looked for ways to make that raft stronger. Now, we have this supplement that works in 60 seconds, and lasts for four hours, without shutting off proton pumps.” He pulled out a prebiotic—“We have so many strains of bacteria in our gut that one type of fiber isn’t enough to feed them all. Our prebiotic contains 50 superfoods. It’s created by this family in Japan that has been passing down the secret fermentation process from father to son for 300 years. They get most of the ingredients from Japan, a few from Italy, and ferment them down into this unbelievable liquid, which we buy and make into a powder.” He spoke more, too, about omegas and a type of omega fatty acid that’s in no other supplement—but for that, you’ll have to wait until November’s omega feature, so keep an eye out for it!

Brands are looking to connect. Hood noted that Olly grew as big as it did as fast as it did with “benefit-focused, attractive packaging; an engaging shopping experience; and lifestyle branding.” It’s what millennials are looking for, he noted. Kate Brunson, category manager at Whole Foods Market, agreed: “Personalize the brands, humanize the stories behind them. That’s how you connect with millennials and grow your brand reach.”

Siebert told WholeFoods that that connection is precisely what he’s trying to make—but not just with millennials. Holding up a can of Good Day’s CBD Cold Brew, an orange can with minimal labeling, he said “This is what I call minimalism luxe. Our products are simple—simple ingredients, simple packaging. The minimalism appeals to millennials, but at the same time, a cold can would feel familiar in the hands of a boomer.”

WholeFoods will have even more coverage from Expo East on the way. Check our site updates!

 

 

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