With baby boomers booming and the organic trend coming in right behind, consumers are buying vitamins and supplements for everything from heart health to the replenishment of fruit and vegetable-based nutrients lost in industrially processed foods.
As these preferences shift, retailers are changing product mix and merchandising to match.
"People want to get the most for their money and health," said Sue Vodika, HBC buyer/category manager, Bashas', Chandler, Ariz. "The whole vitamins and supplements category at our stores is up double digits. There are a lot more of these supplements being taken than ever before."
Consumer tastes are taking the category in some new directions.
"At Wild Oats, we are constantly adapting our mix and category sets to meet changes in consumer preferences," said Christopher DePetris, national supplements category manager for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.
"Several important trends are starting to emerge. Exotic fruit-based nutritional juices like noni, mangosteen and goji berry are experiencing double-digit growth in our Wild Oats stores. In addition, antioxidant blends are showing strong growth trends."
It's not just vitamins and mineral supplements in the traditional sense anymore, said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. Phytochemicals, compounds found in fruits and vegetables that are not naturally occurring in the body, but can benefit the body, are seeing strong growth in popularity, he said.
Antioxidants and flavinoids fall into this category. Some well-known members are lutein, lycopene and carotene.
"Choline, which is thought to promote brain development, is being stressed for expectant mothers," Wisner said.
For those following the organic trend, it may be important to have phytochemical supplements on hand since they are often destroyed or removed in modern food-processing techniques. "Sales of these supplements are linked to the organic trend," Wisner said. "Emphasis is on this enhancement of nutrients that can be found occurring naturally in food."
"We see more customers looking for natural and organic vitamins," said Jack Serota, vice president of GM and HBC, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.
Wisdom of the Ages
Many of these same phytochemicals promise properties enticing to anyone who is aging.
"Baby boomers have been shaping the role of the vitamins and supplements category over the past few years," said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.
"As they age, more and more people are looking for alternative and maintenance solutions to their health in areas of diabetes, cholesterol, prostate, digestive, detoxing and heart-health support," she said. "The sales in those areas are developing at a steady pace."
"I'm seeing a big push for anything with lutein in it for the eyes," Vodika said. "Also, anything that is good for the heart is getting to be a really big thing, like glucosamines, and flaxseed oil has been big for over a year now. The baby boomers are getting to the age where they need to worry about their hearts."
DePetris agreed, saying heart-healthy fish oils are growing at a steady pace.
Brous listed fish oil, COQ 10, garlic, lower-dosage vitamin E, flaxseed oil, red yeast rice, plant sterols and policosanol as items that are "in the forefront of many news articles as alternatives to high-cost prescriptions for cholesterol reduction."
"Recent news stories on the negative health impact of vitamin E initially slowed sales, but we see the trend starting to reverse," Serota added.
New Delivery Systems
Another development close to the hearts, minds, eyes and stomachs of consumers is the various ways that supplements can be ingested.
"We've seen that more and more people are moving towards alternative delivery systems like liquids and powders to get away from taking multiple pills," DePetris said. Many people are also making breakfast and meal replacement shakes, which are a great vehicle for incorporating vitamin or protein powders into the mix."
Alternatives to pills make it easier for people who have trouble swallowing, especially seniors, Vodika said.
"Thirty-five percent of people in the U.S. have difficulty swallowing pills, so for them these other systems become very appealing," Wisner said.
Dollar sales for the vitamin category in supermarkets are up 3.4% to $1.4 billion for the 52 weeks ending June 17, according to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill. For the subcategory "vitamins/tonics - liquid and powder," sales are up 2.7% to $10.2 million for the same period.
The "liquid vitamins/minerals" category, reported on by Information Resources Inc., Chicago, jumped 15% to $31.2 million in supermarkets for the 52 weeks ending May 1.
Bashas' has carried the Coromega brand of omega-3 fatty acids, delivered in a liquid packet, for two years, Vodika said. The store originally carried only the 15-ounce size until customer requests led to the addition of a 33-ounce size.
"I think there is more knowledge about the application. A liquid gets into your bloodstream faster," Vodika said. "It is especially good for seniors. These applications seem to get into the bloodstream without irritating the stomach."
Other innovations include strips that dissolve on the tongue and vitamin-infused gummy candies for kids.
"The gummy, candy-like vitamins are growing in popularity for the children's market," said Sue Murtha, HBC/general merchandise buyer, Quality King Distributors, Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
"There is even candy-type powder that crackles as it dissolves on your tongue," Wisner said.
Effervescents have also started to surface, Brous said. But sales outside of the Emergen C and Airborne brands have not proven strong to date. "It remains to be seen if customers are willing to pay more for these high-end delivery forms," Brous said.
The tongue-strip delivery system holds promise, Vodika said, because "the biggest innovation with strips came with the Listerine PocketPaks, and that is definitely a universal product."
Although Bashas' has not seen much success with cough and cold medicine in strips, Vodika attributes that to the numbing benzocaine ingredient. "It tends to numb before it gets down to the throat."
With all of these choices, it is more important than ever for supermarkets to provide customers with an easy-to-navigate vitamin and supplement section, retailers and industry observers told SN.
"Consumers are looking for vitamins and supplements that cater to specific conditions," said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
"They may say, 'I've heard about macular degeneration, some of my friends have it, and I want something that can prevent that.'"
Shoppers are not necessarily looking for vitamin and supplement products by name, but by the conditions they address, Demeritt said. "They will say, 'I'm worried about heart health, immunity or stress.'"
Still, supermarkets have to be strong on either price or promotion, Wisner said. "You either need to meet the low prices, like supercenters, or be promotionally active to keep shoppers interested."
Staffing Is Everything
Supermarkets can capture new and old vitamin and supplement customers by offering knowledgeable staff members, retailers and others close to the industry told SN.
If the supermarket channel wants to succeed in sales of dietary supplements, it will have to spend on labor costs," said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. "In most supermarkets that section is like a ghost town, and even if a customer can find someone to assist them, most times that person won't have the information."
But this is not true for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., said Christopher DePetris, the chain's national supplements category manager.
"At Wild Oats, we are a supermarket, but our supplements experience in the store is much more like that of an independent vitamin retailer," DePetris said.
"We greet and engage our customers and provide them with excellent service at all times. This is unique because we have a very dedicated and educated supplements team, and most supermarkets do not provide this level of service."
For example, DePetris said, associates will give a sample of a product or open a bottle for a customer to try before they buy.
"And every product is always guaranteed 100% for a full refund," DePetris said. "Couple this with mandatory educational summits for our staff and you can see that our approach is significantly different from other retailers."
Rays Supermarkets, a 13-store chain based in Defiance, Ohio, recently hired a pharmacy and wellness consultant to oversee a staff of pharmacists that will provide one-on-one consultation services on a variety of topics, including diabetes, weight management, nutrition, smoking cessation and women's health issues, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Skylar.
"She is also going to help us put in a high-quality line of vitamins and supplements that she recommended," Skylar said.
Any move a supermarket can make toward providing customers guidance in the vitamin and supplement section is a good one, Demeritt said.
"If you look on the flip-side and look at specialty vitamin stores, sometimes people who are just getting into the category are leery and don't want to look like they don't know anything," Demeritt said. "This points to an opportunity grocery has as an approachable channel because vitamin stores are sometimes seen as ostracizing."