Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Upside in Being "Outsiders"

I attended the Natural Products Association's big show in Las Vegas (if you've read my prior posts, you'll know, it's not my favorite destination, especially in July). It's the last one I will ever attend.

I sat in on the "town meeting" with the president of the association and the regional leadership. The Q&A was rather pedestrian, with people worried about GMPs (good manufacturing practices) and AERs (adverse event reporting) and general oversight of the industry. The time was dragging and only a few people asked questions at the microphone.

I decided to get up and ask about the association's strategy for supporting Internet business better in the future. The president, David Seckman, stepped up to the mike and glanced my way only once, going on to declare that "those businesses are 'outside' the industry" and are the "bad guys." Say what?!

You'd think that I had asked whether they would condone flashy x-rated advertisements to gin up business. Seckman went on to talk about health issues that get press coverage and "suddenly 8,000 Internet sites are out there promising cures."

I could have taken Seckman on in public, but that would have been silly. It was clear he saw his constituency as being retail store owners, who fretted audibly about Whole Foods and "discounters" who cut into their businesses and didn't seem much interested in understanding their customers better.

I never heard a lot of talk about consumers and nothing about helping more people afford nutritional products. I talked to vendors who could not tell me about their testing programs. And, yet, they're the "insiders" and we're the "outsider."

I patiently waited for Seckman at the end of the town hall meeting. He would not meet my eyes for many, many minutes as he listened to a pitch about a product from one of his "real" constituents.

I shared that I felt he had treated me dismissively and that we work our asses off (no, I'm not going to bleep that one out) to ensure quality for our consumers and at prices that our fixed income folks can afford. I told him we work hard to be productive members of the industry and I was disappointed that he would dismiss us and categorize us as one of the "bad guys."

I also noted that I was only asking about a strategy for the future, one which would help people discern the good from the bad online, similar to what the Better Business Bureau Online (BBBOnline) does for general business. I also asked him to consider that many consumers prefer to buy online and not to pretend Internet sales are outside the industry.

He apologized and said something about the health food stores feeling threatened by Internet stores and seemed genuinely at a loss for what to do with my concern. He took my card and I walked away feeling like he had listened, but wasn't very interested.

While most of the sessions I attended were a bit of a bust, the show itself was not. Stephen attended a very good session on labeling regulations. I met an interesting probiotics researcher and author and attended a good session on metabolic syndrome.

In the end, however, the very real upside in being an outsider is that I need never darken the Sands Convention Center in mid-July again, and that I can content myself to attend integrative medicine conferences, where the conversations have more depth, the people have more open minds, and the venues are far more appealing!

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