I love street bazaars. Crowded stands entice onlookers by offering great values and unique wares, while noisy, jostling crowds seem more congenial, as novel discoveries surprise and entertain.

My yearly attendance at NPEW (Natural Products Expo West, Anaheim, March 2009) brings feelings reminiscent of such marketplaces. Myriads of “boutique” companies hawked products striving to find and ride emerging trends. Unhampered by the need to watch their own stock values (or, at times, labeling regulations), small entrepreneurs can translate “quick on your feet” efforts into financial success. The event also provides hints as to potential future mass-market opportunities.

One of my favorite lines on the current economy came from Nutrition Business Journal’s (NBJ’s) “State of the Industry: Hot New Products and Industry Trends” session, where it was noted: “Flat is the new growth.” Given that, NPEW’s small increase in attendees over last year would translate as a great success. It was argued that the strength in attendance meant continued industry and consumer support for the natural and nutritional products industries. Underscoring that, NBJ estimated consumer sales of “nutrition products” grew an estimated 9% in 2008 to more than $100 billion, with 7.5% growth forecasted for 2009, said Patrick Rea, publisher and editorial director, NBJ. The economy is having an impact in other areas, as well.

According to SPINS, sales of NOP organic products increased 12% in natural retailers for the 52-week period ending 1/24/09, vs. the prior year.  However, when examining the four-week period of the same ending date, growth rates flattened to 2%.  There were similar slowdowns in growth of both gluten-free products and Superfruits, whose double-digit growth in the 52-week period ending 1/24/09 slowed in the 12-week period of the same ending date.

 Observations of my own from the expo floor were less quantitative--here are a few:
* Green products were alive and well, as consumer products and ingredients from algae, chlorella, barley greens, wheat grass, kale and spinach seemed prominent. Green tea could be added to that mix.
* Antioxidant values in ORAC units were common on package labels.
* Proteins for nutrition were being obtained from an array of sources, such as chia seed, rice and pea, while soy protein was offered in a fermented state.
* Offerings of Superfruits and satiety products seemed flat from last year.

This last observation, if correct, is a reminder that entrepreneurs often are not indicators of current sales opportunities, but function as “early adaptors.”  pf