The unusually mild winter across the United States has left many supermarket retailers pondering, "What happened to the cough and cold season?"
For January 1995, supermarket sales of cough and cold products dipped to $93.3 million, down a whopping 26% from sales of $126.7 million in January 1994, reported Towne-Oller & Associates, New York, a division of Information Resources Inc., Chicago. For the three months ending January 1995, the category declined 12% to $279.4 million.
As a result, many food stores are running hot specials on the items in an effort to move their current stock.
"One of my store-level people called me and asked if I could put Ny-Quil on sale. I've got a ton of it and other [cough and cold] products, too," said Kim Botkin, nonfood buyer for the 20 stores of Gerland's Food Fair, Houston. He called this year's cough and cold sales season "a disappointment," and added, "In Houston, we never got a freeze this year. The week after Christmas we had one really strong week of cough and cold sales where maybe the flu bug got around, but we never really had an outbreak here this year."
Many retailers noted that while the common cold is not caused by cold weather, but rather by viruses, the warmer temperatures nonetheless kept people less fatigued and their immune systems better prepared to fight ailments. Dick Lehman, physical scientist at the Climate Analysis Center of the National Weather Service, Camp Springs, Md., said the average national temperature in December and January was about 3 degrees higher than normal, "quite
significant" for a total national average.
One buyer from a large Texas-based chain went so far as to insist "there was no cough and cold season this year." The only positive effect of the temperature, she said, was that the season was slow from the beginning and, thus, her stores ordered products accordingly and weren't left with a large oversupply of cough and cold merchandise. Temporary price reductions spurred the category somewhat as well, she said.
Fulton Royal, health and beauty care buyer at Jitney Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., agreed the season was a slow one, but added, "Hopefully, by spring most of our cough and cold stock will sell down through normal sales attrition, without the need to resort to running hot specials or going beyond our regular temporary price reduction program." This year's sluggish season prompted Jitney Jungle to begin "cutting back on orders for the category on Jan. 1," he said, adding that "Due to the unseasonably warm weather this year, the category's purchases most likely will be cut next year. For next year we'll look at the movement of individual cough and cold items, making sure our forecasts suggest the correct amounts to order, and we'll adjust accordingly based on this winter."
Still, he explained, predicting the weather and the incidence of cold and flu outbreaks is tricky, and makes the ordering process for cough and cold "iffy." Karen Swanda, HBC manager at Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn., agreed cough and cold sales this season did not match the "exceptional" movement she saw last season. She added that her chain has run ads on the category as it usually does, and while sales have not been fantastic, cough and cold has performed decently.
Not all retailers got the shivers at the mention of cough and cold season, though.
Mike Kilgallon, HBC category manager at Genuardi Super Markets, Norristown, Pa., said his chain's cough and cold sales "are holding this winter and running as good as last year. Sales have met expectations since this has been a good season so far for cough and cold products in our area. The cold weather isn't always the only indication of how sick people will be."
Allen Karpe, director of HBC-pharmacy at Valu Food, Baltimore, said his chain had an "uplifting season in cough and cold. Our shelves were decimated."
Grant MacLean, director of pharmacy and HBC at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., also observed "excellent" cough and cold sales this winter, "especially so during February. The category's sales cumulatively for the total season, since September 1994, are approaching what we did the year before."
An HBC category manager at one of the nation's top-five chains said, "The cough and cold and flu season is late this year and so it's too soon to tell what impact this will have on overall sales. We'll know better in three more weeks. There is still enough potential left in the season to be a good season." For those whose cough and cold sales suffered this year, there's always next year, said Botkin of Gerland's. "You hate to hope everybody gets sick, but, as one salesman said to me this morning, hopefully sinuses and allergy will be a real problem this year," he chuckled, and then added jokingly, "This is a horrible business where you're waiting for people to get sick so you can profit off them." Additional reporting: JOEL ELSON