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NEW YORK -- As supermarkets here go, so go the rest of the country's -- at least where vitamins and nutritional supplements, specifically the rapid growth of the category, are concerned.According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, nationwide supermarket sales of vitamins, including herbal and mineral supplements, were $585.9 million for the year ended Nov. 9, 1997. That represents a 16% rise

NEW YORK -- As supermarkets here go, so go the rest of the country's -- at least where vitamins and nutritional supplements, specifically the rapid growth of the category, are concerned.

According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, nationwide supermarket sales of vitamins, including herbal and mineral supplements, were $585.9 million for the year ended Nov. 9, 1997. That represents a 16% rise from the year before.

In the New York metropolitan area, supermarkets generated $33.6 million in vitamin sales, a 17.1% jump from the comparable period in 1996. (In its statistics, under the heading "New York" IRI includes a handful of surrounding counties in New York state, plus Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset and Union counties in New Jersey, and Fairfield county in Connecticut.)

New York is now the No. 2 market in the country for supermarket vitamin sales, running almost neck and neck with No. 1 Los Angeles.

"In general, accounts are recognizing the potential of this area," said one New York broker. "They're all gearing up."

Another source, while acknowledging that "supermarkets are not letting the category go because there's so much publicity," noted that their approach is "to throw things up on the wall and see what sticks."

Indeed, as SN found while visiting several Bergen County, New Jersey supermarkets Jan. 8, grocery retailers in the area vary in their levels of commitment to the category. Some devote more space and carry more product lines than others. Some with pharmacies place vitamins and supplements at or near the pharmacy counter, while others have them in remote in-aisle sections.

But even the stores with the smallest vitamin sets feature a facing or two of the hottest new products, like St. John's Wort and ginkgo biloba. Everyone, it seems, wants at least to be in the game, if not to win.

Officials from all the retailers mentioned below were either unavailable for comment or declined to speak with SN for this story.

A&P 520 Chestnut Ridge Road

Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Changes were under way the day SN visited this large, well-appointed Super A&P in an upscale town near the chain's headquarters in Montvale, N.J. The store's smaller vitamin section in natural food had recently been removed, an employee told SN, to make way for a new 40-foot section in another location, sandwiched between the pharmacy and the dairy aisle at the front of the store. At the new location, fixtures were coming down, and there were some holes on the shelves where product was missing, but the overall effect was impressive. The new wood-trimmed shelving looked upscale and product was highlighted under canopy lighting.

"A&P has progressed over the last few years, expanding their product selection, bringing in higher-end vitamins, herbals and antioxidants," commented the senior vice president of sales for a major vitamin manufacturer.

At the Woodcliff Lake store, Twinlab Corp., Ronkonkoma, N.Y., and Schiff, a division of Weider Nutrition, Salt Lake City, were the most heavily represented brands. Other brands included Sundown, Health Care Naturals, Naturade, Action Labs and Nutrition Now.

There was a wide array of Twinlab, Schiff and Health Pride private-label alphabet vitamins, and many of the more exotic items, like shark cartilage, kava root and dong quai.

The store had an ample stock of St. John's Wort, with product from at least four manufacturers on display. From Action Labs, for example, there were two-packs of 60-count, 150-mg St. John's Wort for $11.29.

Seven shelves of homeopathic remedies from Boiron, A. Nelson and Natra-Bio included herbal treatments for menopause, premenstrual syndrome, arthritis, hemorrhoids, acne, sinus problems, cold/flu, yeast infections and even nervousness. Retail prices ranged from $3.59 for something called un-petroleum jelly, to $11.79 for echinacea-goldenseal liquid complex.

To the left of the vitamin shelves, brochures listing different vitamins, herbs and their functions were available to shoppers. Several books on vitamins and herbs -- "Secrets of St. John's Wort" was one -- were displayed beneath the pharmacy counter.

"The Woodcliff Lake store represents a real commitment. That's what separates a store from the others," said a local industry source. "A&P has recognized the importance of the category and they're expanding it through product lines traditionally oriented toward the health food channel, giving the consumer a wide choice of stockkeeping units."

He estimated that 40 local stores in the chain have adopted this larger format or are planning to do so.

Kings Super Markets

112 N. Maple Ave.,

Ridgewood, N.J.; and

381 Washington Ave.

Hillsdale, N.J.

Judging from visits to two units of Kings, a 20-store chain based in West Caldwell, N.J., the retailer has expended significant effort on its natural-food presentation, but has yet to focus seriously on natural supplements.

The vitamin section at the 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot Ridgewood store occupied only 3 feet -- five shelves in all -- of the HBC aisle. Twinlab products dominated the assortment, and there were only two private-label SKUs -- multivitamins from Top Care.

As small as the section was, there was one facing of 60-count, 125-mg St. John's Wort from Futurebiotics, priced at $8.95, and one facing of 30-count, 25-mg DHEA from Natrol, which went for $7.99.

The larger store in Hillsdale had a strong gourmet- and natural-food emphasis.

The vitamin set was no bigger than that in Ridgewood, but comprised a much more diverse assortment. There were two facings of St. John's Wort, from Futurebiotics and Natrol; and several SKUs from Schiff and Health Care Naturals, American Fork, Utah. There were 13 Health Care Natural SKUs in all, including two kinds of ginseng, two kinds of echinacea, bilberry extract, cayenne, daily garlic, ginkgo extract, ginger, goldenseal, kava kava, saw palmetto and valerian.

Pathmark Stores

405 Route 17

Hackensack, N.J.

Pathmark, Woodbridge, N.J., will be putting more emphasis on, and giving more space to, the vitamin and supplement category in 1998, according to one New York-area broker. This store, located on a forlorn strip of highway in Hackensack, had a 12-foot vitamin and supplement section at the end of a 72-foot HBC aisle. Nature's Wonder and Fields of Nature, both of Freehold, N.J., were the most prominent brands.

However, the extensive private-label assortment overshadowed them both. About 100 SKUs of the Pathmark brand, along with a secondary private-label line called No Frills, took up 6 linear feet of shelf space.

There was a full range of Pathmark alphabet vitamins.

Grand Union Co.

175 Franklin Ave.

Ridgewood, N.J.; and

380 West Pleasantview Ave.

Hackensack, N.J.

The two units of the Wayne, N.J., chain visited by SN both had relatively small vitamin assortments. The Hackensack store featured 6 linear feet, heavy on products from Nature's Bounty, Bohemia, N.Y.

The Ridgewood store had much the same, but on shelves under the pharmacy counter, there were 9 additional feet of supplements, mostly from Nature's Bounty, including saw palmetto, echinacea and St. John's Wort -- a 100-count, 300-mg bottle of which retailed for $10.69.