PHOENIX -- The vitamin category often is elusive and difficult to assess and sometimes sales trends can be deceiving, industry sources report.
The challenge is to stay on top of rapidly changing nutritional trends but move quickly when those trends shift, said retailers, wholesalers and industry executives interviewed by SN at the 2004 General Merchandise Distributor's Council's Health & Beauty Care Merchandising Conference here last month.
"What's hot will move well for a while and then people seem to back off, like the low-carb thing. When it's hot it's hot and when it slows down it dies. In vitamins/supplements it depends on who's pushing what, and what's behind it," said Charles Yahn, vice president, merchandising, Associated Wholesalers, York, Pa.
With new studies and information available in nearly every media source from the Internet to morning news programs, consumers receive a lot of contradictory information.
"The trend is always changing. It's always the supplement or vitamin of the day. Sometimes they're up, sometimes they're down. It depends on the study and who is funding it," said Jeff Manning, managing partner, F&M Merchant Group, Lewisville, Texas. "I see it as an industry with a lot of turmoil and a lot of upside long term."
Sources said the category will continue to generate a high level of sales, in spite of a slight decrease. Dollar sales of $773.2 million for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 8, 2004, in the food channel, were down 0.3% vs. a year ago, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
The graying of America and a much greater focus on healthy lifestyles bode well over the long term for the vitamin category, said retailers.
"The demise of vitamins and supplements was greatly exaggerated," said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. "While many supplement items come and go, and fade in and fade out, really what's going on with the population is that as the baby boomers age there will continue to be an increase in use of this category."
Bill Mansfield, vice president of general merchandise and HBC, Pueblo International, San Juan, Puerto Rico, agreed. "The baby boomer generation is certainly paying more attention to their health today than ever before. They want to take care of themselves, live longer and the information that is at everyone's disposal has renewed an interest in taking vitamins and supplements for health reasons."
In this category, whenever there is positive news from the health industry on the benefits of a product, the consumer is willing to try it, Mansfield said.
"Baby boomers are getting older and as they do they don't want you to talk about aging gracefully. The baby boomers don't want to age, period. They want to live forever," noted Al Jones, senior vice president, procurement and merchandising, Imperial Distributors, Auburn, Mass.
The benefit of trends like the low-carb fad, Wisner said, has been to educate consumers about nutrition. In general, a greater focus on health and nutrition is causing consumers to sit up and take notice of the category. Blockbuster products like glucosamine can be two or three times larger than "core" food products like ketchup, he said.
Noting the upside to the vitamin category, Wisner said, "These are huge products. They are price sensitive, they build loyalty in terms of where a customer buys them when she finds a brand she likes. There is a lot of private-label opportunity. This is an important category."
Wholesalers and retailers are starting to take note as well.
"We're seeing an expansion of much higher awareness of vitamins and supplements, which allows retailers to expand out in more space in the various nutrition categories," said Curtis Maki, vice president, HBC/ GM/pharmacy program management, Topco Associates, Skokie, Ill. Topco is a cooperative with more than 50 retail and wholesale members.
Clemens Family Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., has added more footage for vitamins, increasing the section size to 32 linear feet in a new store that opened Oct. 1, said Larry Schimpf, director of HBC/Nonfoods for the chain. The store boasts expanded HBC offerings in general. Schimpf said upscale vitamin lines perform better in his stores, which serve middle- to upper-income areas. Customers are looking for effectiveness more than price, he said.
"Vitamins remains a viable category," he added, pointing out that it's a category that Clemens regularly promotes.
Sources agreed that promotions help to drive vitamin sales, particularly in a food store where synergies are apparent. The vitamin category is driven primarily by promotion, selection and display, according to data released by the GMDC at the HBC Marketing Conference in the second part of the association's "Merchandising for Success" study. Price is somewhat of a factor.
According to Tony Pooler, director, HBC/GM, Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., Save Mart has seen growth in the vitamin category because of an enriched mix of products that contains three new brands. The linear footage was not expanded but the offering was diversified, he said.
"We're seeing growth that's outpacing what we're seeing in the total industry," he said.
While it can be hard to keep pace with the changeable nature of the vitamin category, some health trends have staying power, sources said.
In general, products oriented toward health problems like diabetes, cholesterol, heart problems, menopause and aging are always popular as well as products like multivitamins, children's vitamins and women's products that treat general health and nutritional needs.
"I think today the consumer is looking both at a multiple vitamin, something that will answer most of their needs plus specific vitamins and nutritional health to help handle the more clearly defined ailment or state of health that they want to address," said Bill Mansfield, vice president of general merchandise and HBC, Pueblo International, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Some health states are so widespread in the United States that they drive specific product categories.
Products that address heart, cholesterol and diabetes sell well because the impacted population is large, said Charles Yahn, vice president, merchandising, Associated Wholesalers, York, Pa.
Others point to a similar trend. "Anything that has to do with the immune system and the heart healthy type of products -- new item offerings in those categories continue to drive the category up," agreed Doug Schwab, corporate director, wholesale health and beauty care, Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn.
Many of the products that are popular aren't all that new.
"The hottest item right now is coenzyme Q10, as people are trying to really clean out their bodies, working on their hearts, etc., but other than that we're not really seeing a lot of change in the category," said a nonfood executive with an east Texas retailer. Coenzyme Q10 levels in the body are depleted by cholesterol-lowering drugs.
An aging population is also giving rise to vitamins and supplements that can help with bone health. Calcium and joint products have driven some growth at Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., said Sue Vodika, HBC buyer/category manager. Bashas' serves a market with an older population.
"Our [sales] trend is up this year, as of July 10 about 4.6%. The trends are in the calciums. The joint products are, of course, my biggest category," she said, pointing to the older demographics of the Arizona market as the driver.
Other retailers identify similar trends. "In vitamins and supplements, the joint pain products continue strong in our marketplace," said Tony Pooler, director, HBC/GM, Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.