Body-builders, gym enthusiasts, active athletes and an increasing number of soccer moms searching for the latest supplements to aid their sports fitness and health regimens are looking no further than ... their supermarket pharmacy department?
Once considered a category found only on the shelves of health food stores and other specialty retailers, sports nutritionals like protein powders and supplements, energy-boosting bars and sports drinks have beefed up their presence near pharmacy sections because of pharmacists' knowledge of health and nutrition and the health benefits gained from these products.
The supermarket pharmacy and whole-health sections have become cornerstones of education, trust and information for the category, retailers said.
Tom O'Dell, director of general merchandise, Nash Finch, Minneapolis, said displaying sports nutritionals near the pharmacy gives the category more credibility.
"Put them as close to the pharmacy as possible, because pharmacists need to recommend the [appropriate products]," he said. "Make it a destination center."
Nash Finch's 43 corporate-owned stores with pharmacies house sports nutritional sections near the drug-dispensing areas. The departments typically range from 12 feet to 16 feet.
Lon Pennington, pharmacy manager, Pratt's Food and Health, Oklahoma City, agreed the pharmacy has the opportunity to play a large role in promoting the efficacy of sports nutritionals.
"[Chief Executive Officer] J.B. Pratt likes that I can talk to people in a more informed way about some of these things that other people wouldn't have the access to the knowledge, or understand the knowledge if they did have access to it," Pennington told SN. "More and more stores are getting into the supplement business, and they need to be sure they have someone available who is knowledgeable to help give the customers access to the knowledge."
Girish Solanki, industry analyst, Frost & Sullivan, San Jose, Calif., said, "The pharmacy section would be good place to display because consumers have confidence in [pharmacists' drug-dispensing expertise] and it would provide a halo effect to sports nutritionals."
Some people in the industry said putting these health and fitness items near the pharmacy area sends the wrong message to consumers. Peter Leighton, founding partner, Copernican Associates, a Lafayette, Calif., business consulting firm, said retailers who place such products in the pharmacy area imply that they have a therapeutic benefit, when the products really are lifestyle enhancers.
"These consumers look for products that help them perform better, but they're not looking in the drug section," he said.
Leighton said supermarkets must think about consumers' needs and properly articulate them.
"To gain success in-store, retailers are wise to put sports nutritionals in an active lifestyle section with supplements, meal replacements, etc., and display it next to diet and weight-loss products," he said.
According to Frost & Sullivan, an international marketing and consulting company, the sports nutritional category, including nutrition bars, meal replacement powders and shakes, protein powders and creatine powder, generated $1.95 billion in revenues in 2000. With amino acids, diet aids, vitamins and minerals, and androstenedione (andro) products added to the mix, the category had $2.7 billion in sales, growing at a rate of 16% per year.
The supermarket channel accounted for 15% of those sales, according to Frost & Sullivan.
The growth of the category stems from the surge in popularity of nutrition bars, which brought sports nutritionals closer to the mainstream spotlight. Solanki said the energy-bar segment has grown 30% to 35% per year.
O'Dell said Nash Finch has added new nutritional bars to the mix recently, and the retailer has promoted the category more aggressively in its in-store circulars.
Michael Langenborg, chief strategist, Natural Planograms, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based category management provider with a focus on natural products, said specialty retailers like GNC, Pittsburgh make sports nutritionals a focus of their merchandising efforts.
"The users of these products are going to those destination retailers because they know they're going to deliver on product availability and variety," he said. "Supermarkets really have a difficult time in making that commitment known to their customer base."
He said promotional partnerships with local gyms or HMOs could help drive the category for retailers.
"Wouldn't it be great if gyms said, 'Consult your grocer before starting an exercise program?"' Langenborg said.
Pennington of Pratt's Food and Health said he takes product recommendations and requests from local fitness-center owners to keep up on hot items.
Langenborg cited several grocery chains and independents committed to the sports nutritional category, including Pratt's.
"Pratt's describe their stores as food and health, not food and drug. You're going there for health and it's extremely well-positioned," he said. "Just that one word is a huge difference in terms of what people can expect from that channel."
Industry analysts also said that education, proper merchandising and commitment to the category would help supermarkets compete against sports nutritional juggernaut GNC.
"Supermarkets need to have a lot of information available because that's the main way GNC would have a leg up over us in the competition," Diamond said.