HERB MENTALITY

The growth in popularity of herbal supplements shows no signs of a slowdown.On the contrary, herbs, once relegated to the fringes of consumer health care in the United States, are now an everyday part of many Americans' health regimen. For supermarkets, which are working to transform themselves into "whole demand for herbs is no longer a choice -- it is imperative.There is evidence everywhere that

The growth in popularity of herbal supplements shows no signs of a slowdown.

On the contrary, herbs, once relegated to the fringes of consumer health care in the United States, are now an everyday part of many Americans' health regimen. For supermarkets, which are working to transform themselves into "whole demand for herbs is no longer a choice -- it is imperative.

There is evidence everywhere that herbal supplements have penetrated the mainstream. In November, the Journal of the American Medical Association devoted an entire issue to studies of alternative remedies, one of which found that the use of herbs had increased by almost 400% between 1990 and 1997. Also in November, the Washington-based Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association announced a major change in its mission, from focusing exclusively on the market for traditional over-the-counter medicines to dealing with issues affecting the dietary-supplement industry as well.

"I don't think it's a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon," said John Beckner, pharmacy director at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., and a leading voice in the grocery industry's whole-health movement. "My pharmacists are continually getting questions about vitamins and herbal supplements."

Kim DaSilva, nutrition department manager at an Andover, Mass., Wild Harvest store, agreed: "I'm finding more and more customers are asking questions, taking their health in their own hands. Instead of going for an aspirin, they might go for white willow bark." Wild Harvest, a format that combines natural products and some mainstream grocery items, is a division of Star Markets, Cambridge, Mass.

According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, supermarkets recorded $286.2 million in sales of mineral supplements, including herbal products, during the year ended Dec. 6, 1998. That's a 42.1% increase from the prior year, which is about on par with a category growth rate of 45.5% across all major retail channels. (Mass merchandisers racked up $537.6 million in sales, a 68.2% increase; drug chains, $657.4 million, a 32.3% rise.)

A closely watched trend in the herbal industry, and one expected to drive sales even higher, is the entry of major consumer health care manufacturers, led by Warner-Lambert Co., Morris Plains, N.J., and Bayer Corp.'s Consumer Care Division, Morristown, N.J.

In September Warner-Lambert launched its Quanterra brand of single-ingredient herbals, and Bayer introduced a line of eight blended herbal supplements under the One-A-Day name. Both Quanterra and the One-A-Day herbals are backed by large TV and print ad campaigns.

Dan Van Zant, supervisor of health and beauty care and general merchandise at C&K Market, Brookings, Ore., said it was too early to comment on sales of the new One-A-Day line, but, he noted, "It's a great-looking package with a lot of advertising support.

J.B. Pratt, owner and chief executive officer of Pratt Discount Foods, Shawnee, Okla., said he believes this heightened exposure is benefiting the entire herbal-supplement category in his stores.

"I think our sales are really increasing as a result," he said, though he had no direct evidence and was unsure how the Warner-Lambert and Bayer products themselves were performing. "It's being integrated in mainstream lifestyles, and that's where the business really gets a boost."

Now that the initial hype surrounding them has faded, saw palmetto, St. John's wort, ginkgo biloba and echinacea are still "solid mainstays" at the cash register, Pratt said. And he continues to relocate his in-store pharmacies so that they adjoin the vitamin and herbal departments. Three such moves have been completed, with one more upcoming. A fifth Pratt pharmacy, at a store in Norman, Okla., will open by midyear, he said.

Beckner, too, said he strongly believes increased pharmacist involvement will lead to even more acceptance. To that end, he said, Ukrop's is now developing its first true whole-health department, uniting the pharmacy with a large natural-products assortment, an expanded vitamin and herbal-supplement section, and produce. The department is tentatively scheduled to open in November in a northern Richmond store, where it will be situated directly behind the front checkstands, Beckner said.