Two Albertsons execs share their trade show strategy at Expo West

The retailer’s venture execs offer insights on the evolving trade-show space and the looming presence of Big CPG
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Medianews Group/Orange County Register Via Getty Images/Getty Images

· 5 min read

At the Hilton Anaheim on day three of Natural Products Expo West in California, hundreds of conference-goers clad in badges and sensible footwear are queuing up for coffee at the lobby Starbucks, squeezing in some networking, and simply enjoying having somewhere to sit down before another day of strolling the trade show’s seemingly endless aisles of booths.

Every March, 60,000+ attendees, including most major grocers, flock to the show to see the latest products showcased by everyone from farmers-market brands to giants like Nestlé and General Mills. This year, Albertsons sent 75 team members, and two of them—Jim Foltz, VP of business ventures, and Karen Ivanis-Rogers, senior director of ventures—sat down with Retail Brew during Expo West to discuss why they came to the show, what they’re looking for, and the evolving importance of trade shows for retailers and CPGs.

Tricks of the trade

Foltz and Ivanis-Rogers serve on the venture side of Albertsons’s biz, looking to invest in and form strategic relationships with emerging food and beverage brands. They attend Expo West, and its Philadelphia-based iteration, Expo East, annually.

“We’re looking for new and innovative brands that are satisfying some on-trend consumer needs,” in categories across the store from produce to meat to center-store items, Foltz said. “Anything that’s somewhat disruptive to the category.”

  • The two particularly had an eye on fresh and frozen meal solutions, which Foltz noted is a growing trend among consumers.

With so many brands competing for space in a crowded industry, it’s common that brands exhibiting one year are out of the business the next, so determining which brands actually have legs is “a combination of gut and data,” Foltz noted.

Albertsons collaborates with M&A advisory firm Whipstitch Capital and data-tech company SPINS to create a list of brands to visit. Ivanis-Rogers and Foltz carry color-coded schedules organizing meetings and networking and social events for the week, along with a brand “hit list” for easy reference. But there’s still time to discover new brands and products. “It’s a combination of pre-planning and spontaneity,” she said.

That spontaneity goes hand in hand with networking, the other major reason Albertsons attends the show, Ivanis-Rogers noted. Industry colleagues and friends often “shepherd you around,” she said, pointing out products and brands they would’ve otherwise missed.

They also connected with new brands this year through Albertsons’ first-ever pitch competition at Expo West, whittling down 900 applicants to 50 finalists and eventually three winners: “puffcorn” brand Like Air, frozen smoothie-cube maker Evive, and plant-based dessert brand Dream Pops.

  • The top 10 finalists got a meeting with the Albertsons team, while the final three received prizes valued at $170K.
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The show goes on: Both Foltz and Ivanis-Rogers have been attending Expo West and East for at least a decade. Foltz joined Safeway—which Albertsons acquired in 2015—in 2006, and previously worked for CPGs including Nestlé and General Mills. Ivanis-Rogers joined Albertsons in 2016 with a CPG background that includes Del Monte Foods and Clorox.

While Expo West debuted in 1981, it was often seen as a “hippie” event, Ivanis-Rogers noted, due to its positioning as a natural products show. But it’s gotten “bigger and bigger” in recent years, gaining importance for larger retailers and brands, Foltz said.

“If you would go back 10, 15 years ago, [conventional retailers] weren’t going to those trades,” he said. “It was really a smaller ecosystem of natural retailers, for the most part, and then over the years now, everybody’s coming: Walmart, Costco, Kroger…”

That retail presence has grown in tandem with interest from Big CPG. Many giants even have their own booths, often holding court in the convention center’s main hall, Hall A, which tends to feature the most well-known brands and elaborate booths.

  • These booths are quite the investment: Ivanis-Rogers estimated Del Monte spent $100K on its Expo West booth and storage, and that was about a decade ago.

But booth or no booth, Big CPG looms large at the show. Foltz noted that investors come to the show to seek out emerging brands knowing that, if they’re successful, they’ll be acquired by CPG giants. The smaller, entrepreneur-driven brands represent an opportunity for larger companies, who “are not good at niche innovation,” and often not trusted by consumers to create “a really natural, functional product," he noted.

“It doesn’t fit in [Big CPG’s] model, because they’re usually bigger runs, big factories, millions of dollars, and they can’t really manage a really small brand with the kind of passion and attention that a founder would give it,” he said. “Their culture is committed to that consumer. So that’s the difference. That’s what really makes this whole thing work.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.