EARLY FLU SEASON BOOSTS OTC SALES

Early and intense influenza outbreaks across the country have spiked sales of over-the-counter flu and cough/cold remedies for retailers.Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., has experienced varying levels of flu product sales in its stores compared to last year's numbers, but they've gone as high as a 24.4% increase, said Sue Vodika, HBC buyer and category manager for the chain."We've seen unbelievable

Early and intense influenza outbreaks across the country have spiked sales of over-the-counter flu and cough/cold remedies for retailers.

Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., has experienced varying levels of flu product sales in its stores compared to last year's numbers, but they've gone as high as a 24.4% increase, said Sue Vodika, HBC buyer and category manager for the chain.

"We've seen unbelievable numbers compared to the last two years," Vodika said.

At Bashas', the expected products have been performing well, she said. These include Robitussin, Tylenol Flu, cough drops, Advil, Triaminic and Dimetap. Different symptoms have resulted in multiple purchases within the category, she added. For example, while flu-specific products are doing extremely well, Arizona has also seen a high number of bronchial symptoms.

Karen Ramos, spokeswoman for Albertsons' drug division, Boise, Idaho, said that any product with the word "flu" on the package has sold well for them this season. The chain has seen a wide range of increases over last year's numbers across the country.

"We have experienced sales increases between 10% and 95% depending on the area of the country. But overall, we have had very strong sales in cough and cold products because of the increase in flu and colds this year."

Data from the Strategic Planner of ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., confirmed these trends. For the 52 weeks ending Nov. 29, 2003, the total cough and cold remedies category in supermarkets was up 11.6% in dollars and 2.5% in units. Within the total cough/cold remedy category, adult remedies saw a 22.8% jump in dollars while children's increased 2.8%.

Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Retail Marketing, Libertyville, Ill., said of the current flu epidemic, "You could think of this as the HBC version of a crop year."

The increased demand in the total category has put pressure on stock levels of OTC remedies, as well as vaccine levels, but most retailers are responding in time. At Bashas', the biggest-selling remedies in each symptom category have been out of stock, Vodika said. For example, the chain went several days without Robitussin DM. Albertsons experienced few out-of-stocks, Ramos said, partially due to the company's ability to continually update orders and the manufacturers' early response to increased outbreak levels.

Predictions for the remainder of the flu season are difficult to make, retailers said. Sales have already started to taper off in Vodika's stores, but she anticipates an early allergy season, which could generate similar sales activity for the category. Ramos said she expects Albertsons' sales will remain strong through the end of the season as flu cases continue to occur.

"These things have a life of their own," Wisner pointed out. "Sometimes you have an early flu season, sometimes you have spikes both before and after the holiday season. On an annual basis, the week between Christmas and New Year's is historically the peak time when people are under the weather."