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Health Aids

WITH A SHAKY ECONOMY and unemployment numbers at a 14-year high, consumers feeling the need to buy less are inherently motivated to plan ahead. One of the biggest concerns, especially for those facing job loss and disappearing health care coverage, is the maintenance of good health. For many, taking preventive measures means swallowing supplements. Vitamins, minerals, condition-specific formulas and

WITH A SHAKY ECONOMY and unemployment numbers at a 14-year high, consumers feeling the need to buy less are inherently motivated to plan ahead. One of the biggest concerns, especially for those facing job loss and disappearing health care coverage, is the maintenance of good health.

For many, taking preventive measures means swallowing supplements. Vitamins, minerals, condition-specific formulas and other compounds are just as important as that morning cup of coffee or orange juice.

“So many of our customers are focused on getting all the nutrition they need,” said Wendy McLain, health and beauty aids merchandiser at PCC Natural Markets, the Seattle-based chain where sales of vitamins and supplements in 2008 were above those from 2007, and this year's continue to be strong.

Superstar supplements like vitamin D, which has been linked to the prevention of heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer and depression, are becoming a consumer priority. According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition's 2008 Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, 51% of supplement users plan to continue their regimen, despite financial uncertainty.

“Taking care of your health now can save you money down the road,” said Judy Blatman, a spokeswoman for CRN.

This kind of thinking seems widespread. The nutritional supplements market, including vitamins, minerals, homeopathics and herbals, is projected to jump 29% between 2008 and 2012, to $8.5 billion, according to a new study from Packaged Facts, a division of The report, “Nutritional Supplements in the U.S.,” largely credits the preventive health care benefits of many supplements.

For instance, overall sales of vitamin D — which is often combined with vitamin A, and tracked this way by Information Resources Inc., Chicago — were up 80% in supermarkets for the one-year period ending Dec. 28, 2008, totaling $18 million.

“I can hardly keep vitamin D on the shelf,” said Edite Eckroth, vitamin buyer for Park Slope Food Co-Op in Brooklyn, N.Y. The store recently changed its supplement section's organization from by-brand to by-category, making it easier for shoppers to compare. Heart-health items and homeopathic cold and flu remedies have also been top sellers.

Vitamin B (sold as individual formulas, such as B12), which has been shown to improve metabolism and immune system function, among many other benefits, saw 20% growth, earning $28.9 million; probiotic formulas, which aid digestion and combat allergies and other conditions, jumped 26.9%, earning $11.4 million; co-enzyme Q10, an important antioxidant that has been shown to benefit those with mitochondrial disorders, heart disease, migraines and cancer, grew 12%, earning $23.3 million; and glucosamine and chondritin, joint supplements used in the treatment of arthritis, saw 6% growth, earning $91.6 million.

Overall, the vitamin and supplement category for the same period grew 7.8%, earning $869.8 million in supermarkets, and grew 9.4%, earning $2.7 billion, in the food, drug and mass channel, excluding Wal-Mart and club stores.

Supplements that have tallied the most customer searches on Aisle7 health information kiosks, used in eight of the top 10 U.S. supermarket chains, include natural immunity boosters like vitamin C, zinc, echinacea and antioxidant-providing fruit supplements like mangosteen and acai. Searches have also spiked for supplements that support overall wellness, such as multivitamins, chromium, fish oil, folic acid and selenium.

Although the vitamin category hasn't been up in recent years for Kowalski's, an eight-store chain in St. Paul, Minn., multivitamins have been moving recently, according to Debbie Leland, natural and gourmet foods buyer for the chain.

“People want to maintain a regimen of multiples, especially if their doctors are saying it will help them maintain good health,” she said.

More than three-quarters of U.S. physicians (79%) and nurses (82%) recommend dietary supplements to their patients, according to CRN's consumer wellness campaign, “Life … supplemented.” An almost equal number personally use supplements.

Industry observers point out that while cash may not be flowing freely, information is moving faster than ever. Social networking gives skeptical shoppers ease of access to research and, possibly more important, the personal opinions of friends, family and their health care practitioners.

“Social media is driving a general trend toward consumers wanting access to impartial credible recommendations,” said Bill Schneider, senior product director for Aisle7, headquartered in Portland, Ore. As such, shoppers are looking for transparency in the information provided to them by retailers.

For PCC Natural Markets, reaching consumers in the information age means taking a multifaceted approach. The store provides staff training, including at least two vendor sessions each month. Customers are offered educational classes and passive in-store demos. The store's monthly newspaper, The Sound Consumer, often includes information about supplements, as do its electronic newsletter and website.

“We do not have point-of-sale signage; we offer so many different vitamins and supplements, we could not possibly provide enough information at a responsible level of detail on a sign,” said McLain. Each store does have an on-site computer terminal that provides instant access to Aisle7 health information.

Kowalski's Leland noted that the retailer's vitamin and supplement category has been pared down over the years, and the standard educational signage has been removed because it wasn't resonating with customers.

Bashas', in Chandler Ariz., communicates with customers through a simple layout, blocking its three large manufacturers vertically by A to Z and specialty, then categorizing by condition. “We cater to many of the senior communities in Arizona,” said Sue Vodika, nonfood buyer for the chain, noting that the joint-health category and vitamin D are doing quite well.

The senior population as well as Baby Boomers are likely to keep the category going strong through the economic downturn, according to Shannon Brown, author of the report “Nutritional Supplements in the U.S.” for Packaged Facts. “Supermarkets will likely take advantage of these groups' desire for the preventive health benefits of supplements by offering more private-label products,” she said, citing Safeway's O Organics line, released in September 2008.

For supermarkets looking to do the same, carrying condition-specific products is worth the investment. As the Packaged Facts report stated, “Age-related treatments, gender- and kid-targeted products, and supplements cashing in on food and beverage trends are the main thrusts in this area, with condition-specific products accounting for nearly one-third of supplement sales through mass market.”

Good Advice

  • Consumers are increasingly shopping for condition-specific remedies. Make sure merchandising reflects this view.
  • Multivitamins and letter vitamins still dominate supermarket sales, and should take center stage.
  • Look to highlight new delivery methods (strips, liquids, etc.) to encourage trial and keep the displays looking updated.

Health Aids Bonus: Up-and-Comers

These supplement categories are poised to be leaders in the coming months:

SLEEP AIDS: A recent sleep survey from Hyland's, a homeopathic medicine company, find the economy is the leading cause of stress nationwide, with several geographic areas reporting lost sleep over the matter. Some 73% of Midwest respondents wanted to snooze longer, while 63% in the West said the same. These areas also have the highest unemployment rates. Products like melatonin, Sleep Assure by Nature's Plus and Hyland's Calms Forte are already gaining traction when placed in a “calm” or “sleep” section.

ANTI-AGING: Bee pollen supplements, which have been associated with anti-aging properties, are being sought out by core consumers, while collagen supplement sales in supermarkets shot up by 227% for the period ending Dec. 28, 2008, earning $57,000, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

WEIGHT LOSS: With weight-related health problems on the rise, consumers are seeking out supplemental help from DHEA, St. John's Wort, green tea and bitter orange.

OPRAH MANIA: More than one retailer told WH to “watch Oprah.” If she endorses it, it will sell.

SPECIAL DELIVERY: Delivery systems for supplements are showing up on shelves in greater variety as customer demand increases.

  • “Chewables and soft gels are flying off the shelves at Bashas',” said Sue Vodika, nonfood buyer for the chain.
  • Liquids, such as liquid cod liver oil, are selling at PCC Natural Markets, according to health and beauty aids merchandiser Wendy McLain.
  • Beverages such as VitaminWater, Odwalla and Naked Juice are hits with consumers polled by Tinderbox, a division of the Hartman Group.
  • Quick-dissolving strips will be the next big thing, according to Melissa Abbott, a trendspotter for Tinderbox.

New Report Casts Doubt

The largest study ever of older women has found no link between consumption of multivitamins and preventing common cancers and heart disease. The eight-year effort followed nearly 162,000 postmenopausal women.

Dietary experts say that vitamin usage might be a form of health “insurance,” but that nothing beats consuming essential nutrients directly from fresh foods like produce.

“Get nutrients from food. Whole foods are better than dietary supplements,” said the study's lead author, Marian Neuhouser of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.

Representatives of the supplements industry adopted a similar stance, noting that the study in no way diminishes the need for affordable multivitamins.

“The majority of Americans fail to consume the recommended amounts of a variety of essential nutrients established by the Institute of Medicine,” said Andrew Shao, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition.