Largest Marketers (and Al Gore) Skip Event That Used to Be Booming

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Food or Medicine Show? Groceries Get Healthful

CHICAGO ( -- Al Gore was a no-show to keynote the food industry's once-booming trade show this year. He wasn't clear regarding exactly why, but one pundit proffered this not-so-tongue-in-cheek explanation: The event carries so much less cachet and has so many fewer attendees than in years past that the would-be president didn't want to look even more like an also-ran.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Gore was far from the only one to pass on the FMI 2007 show. It was once the hot spot for major marketers, who fought each other for retailers' attention by dangling before them celebrities and furry mascots of all kinds (both real and costumed), few of the big food companies appeared this year. In addition to those that opted out last year, including Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee Corp., Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., Hormel Foods and H.J. Heinz Co., this year there was no trace of PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods, Kellogg Co. and Mars.

Meager showing
For those still in attendance, among them Kraft, Nestle, General Mills, Unilever and Campbell Soup Co., booths were far smaller, with few, if any, bells and whistles. (Outside of some sampling ladies in skimpy outfits, the only show-stopper was General Mills' street painting by illusionist Kurt Wenner.)

"They should put this show out of its misery," one food-industry executive said. Indeed, recognizing that most food companies do business top-to-top with major retailers throughout the year on their own without the expense and effort of a trade show, FMI announced plans last December to move the show to Las Vegas in 2008. It also will alternate every other year between the typical trade show and a Leadership Education Forum, the first of which will launch in Dallas in May 2009.

Bill Greer, FMI director-communications, said early indications on attendance show "we did have a strong turnout this year, definitely over 20,000," a number comparable to last year. The number of exhibitors, more than 600, also is on par with last year's.

What has changed, of course, is the presence of larger exhibitors this year, the show featured 225 first-timers.

Organic buzz
While complaints were extensive about the lack of excitement in the main hall, the buzz focused on the heightened activity in the adjacent All Things Organic Show, a separate show that was bursting with 600 exhibitors, up from an original 400. The aisles were crawling with retailers and marketers trying to determine ways to harness the growth of the sector, which, unlike the slow-growth of the mainstream foods, leapt 16.2% to $13.8 billion in food and beverage sales alone in 2006, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

According to FMI's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2006 report, natural and organic foods are available in 72% of retail food stores. Though they're sold in almost 20,000 natural-foods stories, typical grocery or supermarket outlets are where 53% of people buy their organic foods.

And, FMI reports, "today's organic company start-ups tend to be more sophisticated than their predecessors." For example, Nature's Path's EnviroKids cereals have given major players a run for their money at certain Costco locations around the country. Even with its 25% annual growth in sales, though, Nature's Path still holds less than a 1% share of the cereal category and is, in the words of one of its sales executives, "unlikely to embarrass the big boys in the next five years." Still, though, the big boys are watching, if only for acquisition's sake.
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