Published on: October 17, 2008BOSTON – After years of being held in Baltimore, Natural Products Expo East moved this year to a new home at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, and the annual event had a bustling energy that one doesn’t always see at trade shows these days.
The economic world outside the show may have been on a roller coaster – on Thursday alone, the stock market went from being down 380 points to closing up 401 points – but the mood inside the show seemed pretty straightforward. No apparent panic here; just an unwavering commitment to the notion that even in tough times, natural, organic and local foods will continue to gain acceptance and marketing strength.
That’s not to say that the mood is entirely placid. In various conversations, one could pick up on concerns that perhaps the industry has become too mainstream, or that interlopers are somehow diluting the purity that natural, organic and local brands bring to the marketplace.
Not everyone feels that way, to be sure. For every person who might comment that major manufacturers ought to be legally prohibited from creating natural or organic band names that obscure the fact that they are the product of big agri-business, there is someone who thinks that this is an old argument that needs to be filed away as ancient history. But there remain people who believe that companies like Walmart, which has made a new commitment to carrying natural and organic products, are essentially hurting the “movement.” And, these people say, “all Walmart wants to do is make money.”
What this argument ignores, I think, is the basic reality that Walmart has the ability to change how people think about food, and how and what they eat, in almost unrivaled fashion. The world’s biggest retailer isn’t going to go away, and the natural/organic/local industry ought to embrace the notion that it has created a market that Walmart now wants to serve. (And the last time I checked, making money wasn’t illegal. Tougher today than in recent years, but not illegal.)
Does this create problems for the small retailers that now may have to compete with Walmart in categories they used to have all to themselves? Sure, but that’s life. Besides, these small retailers have the ability to do things that Walmart cannot do, understand the commitment of their customers at a level that Walmart does not, and have the ability to differentiate themselves to an extent that Walmart will not.
Does this create challenges for small suppliers with which Walmart wants to do business? Sure, but they have the choice of whether or not to work with Walmart. It is hard to ignore the lure of lucre when Walmart wants to place a major order (there’s that making money thing again), but there are suppliers at Expo East who have said no to Bentonville because they believed that it would damage their businesses in the long run.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the folks at Expo East is deciding whether they are part of a movement or a business. This is a decision being made on an individual basis by suppliers and retailers alike, and not everyone will make the same choice.
But as I walked the exhibit floor yesterday, it seemed to me that there were more suits than Birkenstocks, and more badges from mainstream companies than I’d seen in past years.
Of course, one of the great pleasures of walking such an exhibit floor is the opportunity to eat lots of different products. There is the occasional misfire – I tried some sort of bean sprout bagel that had something on it that looked like cream cheese but definitely wasn’t, and then had trouble getting the taste out of my mouth.
But there were some very good products out there as well. Some random hits…
• Ooba Hibiscus Beverage, which claims to have “the healing power of the flower,” is 100 percent natural and is high in antioxidants and Vitamin C. It was sparkling, delicious and extremely refreshing.
• WorldCatch, a frozen food company, has some wonderful crab cakes and sesame-rusted salmon patties - moist and delicious.
• Alexia Foods, one of my favorite frozen food companies, is coming out with a new product – Spicy Sweet Potato Fries with Chipotle Seasoning. This is a wonderful item – loaded with spice and flavor.
Purists will point out that Alexia is owned by ConAgra. I don't care. The fries are terrific…and at the end of the day, taste ought to be the bottom line.
- KC's View: