Whole Health: Older and Wiser

THE DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS CATEGORY should be feeling pretty fit these days. With the recession emphasizing self-care as a money-saving strategy, consumers have been stocking up on letter vitamins, liquid supplements and condition-specific formulas as a way of lowering their own health care expenditures. Everyone is very solid on their daily multiples, said Joann Baker, Natural Living director for Sunflower

THE DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS CATEGORY should be feeling pretty fit these days. With the recession emphasizing self-care as a money-saving strategy, consumers have been stocking up on letter vitamins, liquid supplements and condition-specific formulas as a way of lowering their own health care expenditures.

“Everyone is very solid on their daily multiples,” said Joann Baker, Natural Living director for Sunflower Farmers Market, Boulder, Colo. “Then, there are herbal formulas, like echenacea and anything that not only helps prevent illness, but lessens symptoms and kicks it.”

Consumer sales of dietary supplements in the United States reached $25.2 billion in 2008, and were on track to rise another 6% to 8% this past year, according to Nutrition Business Journal. In supermarkets, the usually busy first quarter is up even more. Not only is volume cresting on unemployment and health insurance woes, there's also concern about the two flus circulating.

“Most of it I attribute to a very big immune season this year,” said Baker. “The numbers are holding very, very strong.”

At Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., some of the most popular products are “items that help boost immunity like zinc or vitamin C,” said Chris Edgerton, the Delhaize-owned chain's category manager for health care.

Sunflower, with stores in six states, has been inundated with customers looking for vitamins, herbs and formulas that can boost resistance.

“I've never seen anything like it,” Baker continued. “This is the biggest immune system season that we've had. They're selling very well to older populations like crazy.”

Indeed, of all the age groups currently purchasing supplements, baby boomers have emerged as some of the most reliable customers. A 2009 survey of consumers by the Council for Responsible Nutrition found that 68% of boomers take dietary supplements, as compared with 65% of the total adult population. When compared with other age groups, boomers come out on top. Overall, they buy more supplements than Gen X (61%) and Gen Y (58%).

Of course, health concerns become more important with age, an truism that's very much in evidence at United Supermarkets in Lubbock, Texas.

“Baby boomers are buying supplements to prevent possible aging problems and to feel good today,” said Ellen Todd-Good, the 50-store chain's Living Well business manager for body care and supplements. “Some of the most popular with the boomers are vitamin D, omega oils, resveratrol, bone/joint formulas, B-12, ginkgo and flaxseed.”

Similarly, older customers shopping at Food Lion stores are also picking up the omegas and joint health products such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

“We are seeing a focus on heart-healthy items like fish oils and omegas,” said Edgerton. “Bone and joint health are also key items.”

This kind of sales activity in this age group is not surprising. In its most recent Health & Wellness Trends Database, the Natural Marketing Institute found that the top three conditions boomers are looking to address in their supplement use are joint health, heart health and immune support.

“And with this group especially, the more, the better,” added Baker. “They like the big doses.”

To be sure, this is a generation with big ideas. The advances made in health care since World War II — which launched the boomer generation — mean that chances for living a longer life is a reasonable assumption. Boomers, who helped create the very technology and products that are keeping Americans alive longer, have been able to take advantage of the benefits. Dr. Douglas MacKay, vice president of scientific & regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, isn't surprised boomers are supplement users, since they come from a generation famous for pushing the limits of diet and health into new territory.

“Boomers are credited with being out-of-the-box thinkers, and that's where people say they're embracing alternative treatments like natural supplements, acupuncture and yoga,” he said. “They're doing things the previous generations wouldn't have considered.”

Those previous generations certainly would not comprehend the latest delivery systems that have been developed, several of which are especially helpful to older consumers.

“They definitely like capsules or liquids, since they're easier to swallow and digest,” said Baker. “We've also seen a big turn towards food-based supplements, where they can take a tablet and crumble it easily in your hand.”

Some supplements are made available in soft gel or chewable forms. There's also been wide experimentation with quick-dissolving strips, though these items are usually intended as booster formulas to complement workouts and physical activity.

With so many choices and an ever-increasing menu to choose from, consumers are experimenting to find the right combination of supplements that best suit their needs. According to a recent Information Resources Inc. Times & Trends report, units sales of vitamins increased 2% over the past year. A slight decline in sales of multivitamins (3.3%) was more than offset by growth in letter vitamins and liquid formulas (6.2% and 6%, respectively). Spending across income segments was fairly consistent, though there was a significant difference in the liquid category, which tends to feature higher premiums. Researchers found a correlation between income and purchase behavior. While they were not specified in the study, boomers typically are upscale, progressive consumers.

“For wealthier shoppers, vitamins are playing an important role in strategies developed to save money through disease prevention,” the report stated.

Retailers and industry observers agree. Boomers have been a key demographic in the purchase of condition-specific supplements. These formulas — supplements made up of individual vitamins and minerals that target a specific health concern — seem ideally suited for older Americans.

“Digestion and cardio are always strong sellers for this group. Joint is still very solid, but has taken a little bit of a back seat to pain and inflammation,” said Baker. “Right now, there's so much information out there about inflammation and reducing it in order to aid the joints. And with this condition, it goes beyond the joints to cover cardio and other functions, so we've seen a big uptick in formulas that address inflammation.”

Like the formulas being sold, merchandising has also become more sophisticated. Stores that used to offer little more than a half-aisle of alphabet vitamins as a part of their health and beauty care section now operate boutiques with special staff, extensive signage and special fixtures. At the very least, there's a lot more floor space being devoted to the category.

“There has been more focus on space to allow for additional offerings,” said Food Lion's Edgerton. “In many stores, we had smaller sets, roughly 4 feet, but have been working toward expanding this section.”

Edgerton said the changes are being made to accommodate the increasing number of vitamin consumers who enter the store already familiar with the types of supplements they're looking for.

“Vitamin consumers are often self-educated on supplements that will best fit their needs or have been directed by their health care provider,” she said.

Boomers, who live active lifestyles and seem destined to remain as independent as long as possible into old age, are looking for comprehensive solutions. Supermarkets have emerged as ideal venues for this broad-based kind of marketing — particularly if they incorporate the pharmacy into their strategy.

“Some places really integrate the pharmacist into the process, especially if it's a larger store environment,” said MacKay of the CRN. “In a big store, you can talk about a condition and bring in all the components: This is what you should be eating, this is what you shouldn't be eating; these are the potential prescriptions your doctor may suggest and here are some dietary supplements that can provide added support. Consumers feel really, really empowered by that approach.”

United's Market Street format represents this new emphasis on wellness marketing. The 10 stores under this banner are staffed with a “Living Well” specialist, augmented by Aisle 7 information kiosks.

“The supplement layout is by structure/function and brand,” Todd-Good said. “We have distinct copper-colored fixtures and shelving to differentiate the department.”

The strong growth of condition-specific supplements has caused changes at Sunflower Markets, too. While much of the merchandising focuses on structure-function sets, just about all of the products in the A-to-Z branded sets can be cross-merchandised in the structure-function sets.

Spurred in large part by the intense interest in immunity protection, Baker said the chain has seen supplement sales increase their contribution to total-store sales by as much as 10%

“I like to think we're doing a lot of right things,” she said. “We've got a very dedicated, well-educated staff and we have the right product mix, and we're very big on customer service. So we get them in the door and we take good care of them.”


  • Immunity is hot right now, so make sure there are adequate supplies. Don't forget private label.
  • Fixtures, signage and information should be senior-friendly.
  • Liquid, chewable and soft gel supplements are catching on with older adults. Update product mix to reflect the growth.

Trending Up

Volume is up, and consumers are starting to specialize.
2009 2008 2007
Multivitamins -3.3% 1.6% 3.6%
Letter Vitamins 6.2% 4.8% 2%
Mineral Supplements 2.4% 2% 8.6%
Liquid Vitamins/Minerals 6% 6.7% 20.3%

Note: Units sales, % change vs. a year ago, 52 weeks ending Oct. 11., 2009

SOURCE: IRI Consumer Network