KAVA GETTING GREAT PRESS BUT RETAILERS GET NO BUZZ

Despite increasing attention from the national press, an herbal extract touted as the next big thing in natural remedies has so far been slow to catch on in supermarkets.Proponents say kava root, ingested in capsule form or drunk in teas, relieves stress -- a kind of natural sedative akin to the prescription drug Xanax. A glowing report on the June 22 edition of the ABC news program "20/20" featured

Despite increasing attention from the national press, an herbal extract touted as the next big thing in natural remedies has so far been slow to catch on in supermarkets.

Proponents say kava root, ingested in capsule form or drunk in teas, relieves stress -- a kind of natural sedative akin to the prescription drug Xanax. A glowing report on the June 22 edition of the ABC news program "20/20" featured testimonials from several users, including a woman who claimed kava helped her cope with the trauma of her husband's sudden death.

But if consumers are rushing to buy kava, as manufacturers say they are, and as they did St. John's Wort following a 1997 "20/20" story on that herb, they are not flocking to supermarkets.

"Nobody from my stores has given me feedback to the effect that there has been increased demand," said a health and beauty care buyer for a 100-store chain in the Midwest.

Jim Paterni, HBC director at Glen's Markets, Gaylord, Mich., said shoppers aren't asking about kava, Glen's doesn't carry it, and the company has no plans to order it.

Dietary supplement makers tell a different story.

David Kronrad, vice president of national accounts at Rexall-Sundown's Sundown Vitamins division, Boca Raton, Fla., said sales of its kava products were up about 1,000% the day after the "20/20" story aired. Although sales have subsided, he said, they are still 500% above previous levels.

"We're seeing situations where retailers blew through the product and have nothing to sell," Kronrad said. "The replenishment system can't keep up. It's similar to the way St. John's Wort developed."

Bruce Burke, spokesman for Calabasas, Calif.-based Performance Labs, which makes a combination kava and St. John's Wort product called Kava Max, agreed. "It's taking off in a big way. The supply of kava on the market is practically nonexistent."

Private-label manufacturer Perrigo, Allegan, Mich., just added kava to its repertoire as part of its new Herbal Source line, according to Jeff Needham, vice president of marketing. "We're very optimistic that kava is going to be the next major herbal entity," he said.

Some retailers who were well aware of kava prior to all the publicity, and who anticipated big things from it, admit they are puzzled.

"We always have some business on it, and we've got plenty [in stock]," said J.B. Pratt, chief executive officer of Pratt Discount Foods, Shawnee, Okla. His stores carry about 10 different brands of kava. "But we haven't seen very much of an increase. I don't know why."

At Dorothy Lane Market's DLM Spa Store, Dayton, Ohio, which specializes in vitamins, supplements and other natural HBC items, the recent lift in kava sales has been "moderate, nowhere near the increase we experienced with St. John's Wort," said Scott Lindsay, manager. "I expected more. I was a little disappointed."

The Spa Store carries six brands of kava, Lindsay said. One product -- a kava and St. John's Wort mixture from Twinlab, Ronkonkoma, N.Y. -- has been selling especially well the past few weeks, he noted, adding that St. John's Wort on its own remains very profitable.

Rexall-Sundown does most of its business with mass merchandisers and drug stores, Kronrad said, although he declined to give a specific breakdown among channels of distribution. While praising a few chains in particular, he chided supermarkets as a whole for being slow to respond to consumers.

"You have other classes of trade that are profiting greatly from having the right product at the right time," he said. "I know there are food chains out there that are still not carrying St. John's Wort."

At least one retailer contacted by SN was high on kava.

"It's out of stock; we're selling the heck out of it," said Bill Mansfield, HBC director at Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis. He said he plans to make room for additional facings of kava by eliminating slower-moving supplements. "This is really great for the entire category."