BALTIMORE -- At the recent Natural Products Expo East trade show here the location of United Natural Foods' booth was so consistently crowded that it looked like a continual cocktail party.
It wasn't a party, but the launch of a Web site called UNF Online that backers say will drive business to brick and mortar stores.
Starting now, consumers will order from 16,000 products, excluding perishables and frozens. When the order arrives, the key component kicks in. The local store's name and logo will appear on the invoice. The store receives a percentage linked to the value of the order, explained John Raiche, director of marketing for the natural foods distributor, based in Chesterfield, N.H.
"It tracks the selection, tells you if it's in stock, and where it is in the shipping," added Richard Young, UNF president. "We have two types of services we offer, one for the retailer and one for the consumer."
Although many of the show's 21,000 attendees own specialty or natural products stores, there was a sizeable presence of mainstream chains, such as Kroger, Shaw's and Wegmans, according to vendors. Most supermarkets have Web sites, but many smaller stores don't. This new business venture promises "a low-cost, turnkey, end-to-end e-commerce solution that puts your store on the Web and offers new ways to grow your business," according to the brochure. For chains that have existing Web sites, UNF Online can act as a link, Young said.
As an organics channel, how is the Internet? Laurie Demeritt, speaking in one of the sessions during the show, said "consumers are not accessing the Internet to buy those products yet, but they are to get information." Demeritt is executive vice president of The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
"They need a larger booth," said one of UNF's neighbors in the Organic Marketplace, indicating the crowd in the aisle. In fact, the entire show needs more space and will move to the Washington, D. C., Convention Center from Oct. 12-14, 2001, with educational sessions beginning on Thursday, Oct. 11.