All-natural vitamins and supplements are a cornerstone of any retailer's whole health portfolio -- but their value is only as high as their reputation and safety.
Growing scrutiny by federal regulators has resulted in some major media coverage of the category, not all of it good. Studies by universities and other institutions are also independently influencing consumer buying habits. Among these shifting sands, supermarkets are wise to walk nimbly and be prepared to work with customers who may be trying to interpret often-conflicting reports regarding their favorite dietary aid.
"People are tired of one minute something's great, next minute it's not," said Jeff Manning, president, F&M Merchant Group, a marketing and merchandising consulting firm based in Lewisville, Texas.
The category is extremely popular: It's estimated that more than half the country takes vitamins. As consumers lead more hectic lifestyles, they are increasingly looking to augment suffering diets with healthful additives. At Bashas' Food Markets, Chandler, Ariz., for instance, 44% of the chain's natural care purchasers take at least one vitamin daily, noted Susan Vodika, health and beauty care buyer and category manager.
"Only the new users tend to overreact to press reports. Your basic individual focused on natural foods, vitamins, minerals and herbs believes in them 100%," she said.
There's a vast difference between media reports on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which are Food and Drug Administration-regulated, and natural care products, which are not, retailers and industry observers noted. Dave Mongillo, health and beauty care category manager at Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., said customers dismissed as "a suspect test" the recently reported study about cardiac risks of taking the pain reliever Aleve, for example.
"Our sales didn't suffer at all, maybe slightly in the beginning," he said. "People came in and asked our pharmacists questions, and that was enough to help them decide."
In general, the media serve a role as a good safety net, Vodika said. They compel manufacturers to put safe products with the right ingredients on the shelf. "They might red-flag an item and it could turn out to mean nothing, or their report could save lives," added Vodika. "That's very important."
She sees herself in a similar role, as "a caretaker of customers' wellness. I don't want controversy. I tend to take the most conservative route when the media report potential risk of using certain products."
For example, she pulled weight-loss formula Metabolife 365 from Bashas' shelves "months before FDA banned products with ephedra," she said. The brand, which contained the adrenaline-like stimulant ephedra and caffeine, sold more than $900 million annually at its height and was hugely popular across the country. By removing the brand early in response to what she learned through the media, she probably cost Bashas' some sales, "but I won't take one single risk with my customer base," she told WH.
Credibility can help brands overcome adverse publicity, yet natural care manufacturers are typically far smaller and certainly less regulated, so consumer behavior can certainly be more influenced by media coverage.
Sometimes the messages are clear. When coral calcium got positive press for its roles in weight reduction and improved bone density about a year ago, wholesale grocer W. Lee Flowers & Co., Lake City, S.C., "got a lot of calls for it. We didn't have it in at the time," recalled Susan Spring, director, health and beauty care/general merchandise.
"We brought in bottles of 60 caplets, 1,000 milligrams each, the recommended daily dose which made for easy consumption." From order to shelf took three weeks, and "that was quick enough for us to capitalize on the trend. Sales flattened after about three months, and today they remain steady sellers in the handful of larger stores we service that have space for bigger natural care displays," Spring added.
Price Chopper also moved on the coral calcium trend. "At the peak, we brought in four or five brands for customer choice, then weeded out the slow sellers after five or six months," noted Mongillo.
Meanwhile, Bashas' Vodika brought in Airborne, a supplement said to prevent or minimize colds, only after customers saw talk-show host Oprah Winfrey refer to the brand and told the chain's pharmacists.
"The pharmacists called me, I researched and found it had been on the market for three years. That's the relationship between our customers and pharmacists," she said.
Following publicized reports connecting long-chain omega-3 fatty acids with heart health, sales of fish oils have been on a double-digit annual rise in 2003 and 2004, according to industry statistics. Even some of the larger rural stores serviced by Flowers are selling fish oils, even though they're not being warehoused. Moreover, Bashas' Vodika predicted cranberries and cherries will "blow out" in the next few months based on their recent positive publicity. She also anticipated a sales surge in liquid forms of calcium, glucosamine and multivitamins, which get into the bloodstream faster, and time-release formulas that supply the body with ingredients throughout the day.
Sometimes consumers are just plain daffy. In the wake of baseball's much-publicized steroid controversy, the FDA issued a ban on over-the-counter sales of prohormones, the substances used by former St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire to build muscle mass. However, in the months leading up to the January 2005 date when they became prescription-only products in the same drug class as steroids, the San Jose Mercury News reported a tenfold increase in demand, as users stocked up while they could.
In other instances, media messages haven't been so clear. This past November, an analysis by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine of 19 completed studies concluded that people raised their risk of death with increasingly high doses of vitamin E. The report didn't specify why, and it urged a lower maximum daily intake guideline. Within weeks, both the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which each represent manufacturers, issued rebuttals. CRN also issued the 2005 Dietary Guidelines in which it called for supplementation, and noted that "children and adolescents as well as adults often fall short in vitamin E."
No retailers interviewed by WH saw a decline in vitamin E sales as a result of these contradictory messages in the media, and it holds a lesson for retailers selling supplements.
"It will always be important to get on the front end of hype of a new study," said Manning. "It pays to be opportunistic. And don't worry too much about the downside because it will come. Nothing lasts forever."
To capitalize on trends, Bashas' has a dual process in place. One standard route takes eight weeks from initiating an item to stocking it. Another is meant for immediate response when called for.
"Our pharmacists communicate on their own internal Web site, where they can share information about an item being recommended. They can order from our wholesaler Cardinal Health and have it within 24 hours," she said, adding that she also tries to get a jump on media reports by listening first to her base of suppliers about upcoming studies and new products.
Some supplements are being assimilated more quickly into conventional medicine -- even as the role of vitamins and supplements changes.
A study published just this month by the Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, finds that the U.S. consumer's acceptance of selected herbals may continue to grow as another trend emerges -- their inclusion in mainstream multivitamin products.
The article, by Judith P. Kelly and colleagues from Boston University School of Public Health, showed the percentage of Americans using dietary supplements rose from 14% in 1998 to 19% in 2002; most of the growth came from those between the ages of 45 and 64, where there was a 50% increase in usage.
"The addition of these supplements to multivitamin products has signaled two subtle, but important, changes in recent years," the article's author stated. "First, the acceptance of herbal supplements and other dietary supplements as part of the mainstream health milieu has apparently increased. Second, the marketing strategy for multivitamin products appears to have broadened from supplying recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in the diet to preventing chronic disease, such as macular degeneration and cancer."
The researchers drew their data from 8,470 telephone interviews conducted between 1998 and 2002 in which study participants identified all of the over-the-counter products, prescription drugs and dietary supplements they'd taken during the preceding seven days.
Overall, supplement users were older, and likelier to be female (60% vs. 56%) and white (81% vs. 76%), they said.
While consumers' use of gingko biloba and panax ginseng declined during the study period, the use of lutein increased from less than 1% to more than 8%. The antioxidant, which studies suggest has possible protective benefits against macular degeneration, a cause of adult blindness, was first added to popular multivitamins in late 1999.