Most cough, cold and allergy products containing pseudoephedrine have been behind the supermarket counter for six months or more.
Now that the dust has settled on the PSE regulatory controversy, retailers, pharmacists and other employees are using the increased level of customer interaction to take a personal role in consumer health care.
Final federal sales restrictions on cough and cold medicines containing PSE went into effect in September under the Combat Methamphetamine Act, to keep criminals from using the over-the-counter medication in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine.
PSE-containing products were pulled behind phar-macy counters or put into locked cases, with purchase now requiring ID and the signing of a log book. Mean-while, many reformulated products hit the shelves.
Even so, cold, allergy and sinus non-prescription medicine sales were up 3.9% to $2.1 billion in food, drug and mass market stores, excluding Wal-Mart Stores, for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 28, 2007, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
Sales of over-the-counter medications have been up in the past six to eight months, said Doug Barnett, director of GM/HBC, Brookshire Brothers, Lufkin, Texas. “Either the customer doesn't understand what happened, is buying another drug, or isn't willing to stand in line at the pharmacy, or even walk up to the pharmacy,” he said.
One of the fastest growers in the OTC category was Sudafed PE, the reformulation of Sudafed, containing phenylephrine, which was up “a whopping 155%,” said Jeff Seacrist, spokesman for Healthnotes, Portland, Ore., citing numbers from IRI.
Claritin DM, with PSE and now behind the counter, was up 21.4% for the same period, and Mucinex DM, containing neither PE nor PSE, was up 19.2%. “This generally suggests that many customers are buying non-PSE brands,” Seacrist said.
“However, in the case of Claritin D, this is a highly popular brand among those with allergies, so it has a high rate of repurchase, making it more likely that consumers will take the extra step of getting it from behind the counter.”
At the same time, there are some prescription medicines that are switching to over-the-counter, especially among allergy medications, Barnett said. Zyrtec, from Pfizer, New York, is getting ready to go OTC, “and that is going to be huge,” he said. “So with the sales that we lost, we are going to more than get them back.”
The fastest-growing medications are those on the shoppers' side of the counter, Seacrist said.
“There has been somewhat of a decline in the sales of products behind the counter, but not a dramatic one,” said John Fegan, senior vice president of pharmacy, Ahold USA, Quincy, Mass.
Fegan attributes the decline to the fact that replacement products are out on store shelves, “so the consumer says, ‘This is just as good.’” And they don't want to stand in line, he added.
Sales of PSE products “really aren't doing that well,” said John Beckner, director of pharmacy and health services at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va. “Any time you take things out of the mainstream where people can pick them up and look at them, the sales are going to be reduced.”
At Bashas,' Chandler, Ariz., the last 26 weeks of 2006 showed overall positive growth in the non-prescription cough, cold and allergy segment, according to Sue Vodika, HBC buyer, category manager.
Last year, however, many customers were relying on prescription drugs to get them through the cold season, Vodika pointed out. This may have positively affected behind-the-counter, non-prescription PSE product numbers, she said.
Healthnotes, which provides in-store health information via kiosks, has not seen a large increase in customer inquiries regarding colds in the past year, Seacrist said. “Coupled with the strong increase in sales of reformulated products, this would suggest that customers are simply shifting brands, perhaps without really knowing they are doing it. After all, Sudafed and Sudafed PE look almost exactly the same.”
After checking the website for Pfizer-owned Sudafed products, SN found that the red-and-white boxes of both products feature the same graphics and type faces. One says “Sudafed PE” across the top and the other says “Sudafed.”
A TIME TO CONSULT
At Ukrop's, however, the pharmacy sees this confusion as an opportunity. “Pharmacists are involved now, because the customer has to come to them for certain over-the-counter medicines, and they must keep a log book. This gives the pharmacists an extra chance to provide consultation,” Beckner said.
Just over half of the sales of cold, allergy and sinus medicines for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 28 took place in the drug store channel, Seacrist said. “This may suggest that customers who are curious about these medications are shopping drug stores due to the presence of a pharmacist.”
The recommendation of a pharmacist for non-prescription cold medicine is an extra step allowing for “more health care provider interaction with consumers,” said Stacey Swartz, director of management and educational affairs, National Community Pharmacists Association, Alexandria, Va. “Pharmacists who are now being approached by customers with cold symptoms can really engage them in a conversation about their health care.
Visits to the counter also provide a merchandising opportunity, according to Bruce Kneeland, president, Pharmacy Connections, Valley Forge, Pa. “Even if the supermarket doesn't have a pharmacy, the strategy is to realize that you have not lost the ability to sell these products, they just have to be moved behind the customer service counter.”
“Tough federal, state and local regulations on PSE have put smaller stores at a disadvantage,” said Vodika, referring to the 10% of Bashas' stores that lack pharmacies. Stores without pharmacies can still sell PSE products from behind a service counter, but pharmacies are better equipped to deal with the paperwork and other requirements, observers said.
However, once the product is no longer available for unaided consumer purchase, retailers no longer need to carry as many varieties, Kneeland said. “You can reduce duplicate brands to three or four besides your private-label brand.”
“We went from 197 stockkeeping units to where we are now, down to six,” Barnett said, noting that Brookshire Brothers' PSE product sales are down.
Employees may also recommend the private-label brand to demonstrate “that we care about the family budget and can get customers the same ingredients at an affordable price,” Kneeland said.
Stores with and without pharmacies are also concentrating on point-of-purchase materials, he said.
NCPA members usually use shelf tags that inform shoppers the PSE product is available and is behind the counter because of government regulations, Swartz said.
Additional reporting: Dan Alaimo
Consumers' desire for natural products, as well as their hope of driving off colds before they fully form, is increasing sales of products with ingredients like vitamin C, echinacea and zinc, retailers and analysts said.
After attending a recent meeting with vendors, Doug Barnett, director of GM/HBC, Brookshire Brothers, Lufkin, Texas, said, “There were a lot of natural and organic items in cough drops and cough syrups. It looked like all the big guys are coming out with natural products this year.”
Zinc-containing homeopathic remedies available in mainstream stores, such as Zicam from Matrixx Initiatives, Phoenix, and Cold-Eeze from the Quigley Corp., Doylestown, Pa., continue to perform well, said Jeff Seacrist, spokesman for Healthnotes, Portland, Ore., a provider of in-store health information via kiosks.
“Just this category is up over $100 million, which represents only a small portion of the total cough, cold, allergy category, but is growing,” he added.
Products like Emer'gen-C, a vitamin C drink mix made by Alacer, Foothill Ranch, Calif., and vitamins containing echinacea are being used more frequently by consumers to help fight off colds before they get them, he said.
“I think that is a category that is not going away. Organics and naturals are the way of the future everywhere you look,” said Barnett.
— W.T. and D.A.