PLYMOUTH MEETING, Pa. -- Sales of over-the-counter cough/cold remedies have been weak this season nationwide compared with last year, despite increases in the number of illnesses, according to a research firm here that tracks product sales and illness rates.
"This is a very strange year," said Gerald Kress, president, Surveillance Data, which generates weekly reports called the FAN Index, tracking the number of cold cases around the country. "We had expected a strong fourth quarter, with a peak around late December/early January, then a drop off. But what happened was -- for the first time in 20 years -- illnesses were up but product sales were not up, and in fact were flat or even down [compared with the year before]."
He said rhinovirus cases -- or common colds -- were up 13% in the fourth quarter over the preceding year. Traditionally, he said, product sales increase about 1% for every 3% increase in the number of illnesses each season.
Instead, sales of all types of OTC cold medications are down. According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, sales of cold/allergy/sinus tablets fell 3% for the 12 weeks ending Dec. 30 in food, drug and mass outlets, excluding Wal-Mart, compared with the year-ago period. Sales of liquid and powder remedies were down 1.4% vs. year-ago results.
Sore throat drops, cough syrups and chest rubs all saw declines as well during the fourth quarter.
Kress speculated that several factors could be contributing to the slow product sales, including an increase in the number of people with colds who visited the doctor in the fourth quarter and obtained antibiotics.
"We think that some people are not self-medicating but going to the physician, and not taking an [over-the-counter] medication but getting an antibiotic, because of the anthrax scare," he said.
He also cited the depressed economy as a factor.
"Even though this is a necessity category, we've looked at other necessity categories this year, and sales were down," he said. "We think the recession is affecting sales."
Another possible factor that could be affecting the sales comparisons is the fact that many consumers probably stocked up on cough/cold medicines in fourth quarter 2000 after throwing away products containing the decongestant phenylpropanolamine (PPA). The Food and Drug Administration banned the ingredient in November 2000, saying it could be linked to strokes in some people.
In addition, Kress said the unusually dry weather through much of this winter might have led some people to believe that their colds were actually allergies -- and treat them with allergy medications.
Not all retailers suffered from weak sales in the cough/cold category, however, at least in the early part of the season.
David Panter, health care category manager, Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, said sales of cough/cold medications at his company's stores in the 13-week period ending Dec. 8 were up 10.5% vs. the 13-week period from the prior year. For the 52-week period ended Dec. 8, sales were up about 9% on a year-to-year basis, he said.
Panter said his stores did a "full-blown category review" in the cough/cold department in July, which could have contributed to the strong sales performance.
He said he's also hoping for a strong first quarter in the cough/cold category, considering his city is hosting the Winter Olympics, which were scheduled to start late last week.
"We're geared up for a good first quarter," he said. "We're counting on the world bringing their colds to us."