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While dietitians stress that whole foods are best, vitamins and supplements gain momentum in supermarkets.
Scott Wink, director of pharmacy for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. concurred. However, he reported a slight decrease in vitamin sales due to some shoppers selecting fortified foods in lieu of supplements.
“The increased availability of nutrient-rich and organic products may be steering people toward spending their supplement dollars on slightly more expensive food products,” he told SN. “People are also interested in probiotic yogurts, vitamin-rich Luna Bars and fortified beverages, all of which are new alternatives to the traditional supplement. This may be shifting dollars out of the supplement category and hiding them in those traditional grocery department figures.”
That said, Piggly Wiggly stores still sell a substantial amount of fish oil, calcium and vitamin D. Sales of exotic herbs at high price points, however, have slumped due to economic-induced cutbacks, added Wink (right).
Few shoppers purchased vitamin E at the chain after medical reports linked the overdoses of the vitamin to some deaths several years ago. But Wink is optimistic that sales will rebound.
“Most people understand that prescriptions and supplements have limitations as to how much should be taken,” he said. “So while vitamin E sales are decreasing now, in the long term people should be more confident in the lower-dose products and demand should come back quickly.”
Fresh Encounter experienced a temporary rise in vitamin E sales recently when the once-deemed “heart healthy” supplement became a prostate cancer preventative product. Then, some evidence surfaced suggesting that too much vitamin E can actually cause prostate cancer.
“It’s amazing how responsive shoppers are to the latest studies. Any kind of publicity can easily shift trends in this category, which is why marketing works so well when it is out there,” said Needler. “With Procter & Gamble now in the VMS category and its massive marketing push for the company’s New Chapter brand, I expect overall sales to go even higher in upcoming years.”
Regardless of the latest hazardous pill reports and varying consumer dietary habits, people will always need vitamins, said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group.
“As people age, which we all do, there is an increased need for supplements, like lutein and zeaxanthin for macular degeneration or glucosamine and chondroitin for joint ailments,” said Wisner. “Plus, most pharmaceuticals leach nutrients from our systems, so anyone taking prescription medicines will need supplements.”
Even over-the-counter antacids pull out calcium and inhibit absorption of B-12, requiring people to take vitamins to regain what they’ve lost, he added.
In-store dietitians have been focusing efforts on educating shoppers about this reaction. Many are counteracting consumer concerns about dangerous drug interactions that have some shoppers scared to take supplements at all.
“Supplements can interact with medications and shoppers are becoming more aware of this. Our registered dietitians suggest that shoppers bring a complete list of their medications to our in-store pharmacists to ensure that they are safe,” said Miller. “I often recommend that people throw all of their prescriptions and supplements into a brown bag to bring with them so the pharmacists can see what and how much of everything they’re taking.”
With proper education, shoppers tend to feel more confident in their vitamin purchases. When they do, they turn their attention to savings, said Wisner. This, he feels, is where many supermarkets are missing a major opportunity to make money.
“If consumers are taking supplements every day, they benefit from buying larger, value-sized packages. With something as expensive as supplements, people don’t want to go to a supermarket and spend twice as much for a tiny bottle that will only last them a few weeks,” he told SN. “So, they’re bypassing supermarkets and buying bulk at Costco or Wal-Mart, choosing a several-month supply whenever possible.”
Indeed, prices vary drastically from one channel to another. At Wal-Mart, a 240-count bottle of double strength, three-a-day, Spring Valley brand glucosamine chondroitin runs $30 while an 180-count bottle of the same dosage of Sundown Naturals glucosamine chondroitin is priced at $32.59 at Meijer.
“Space may be an issue at supermarkets, but it makes sense to at least have bulk bottles of the top-selling supplements in order to capture more of the market share,” said Wisner. Because supermarkets specialize in food, this may not be the top priority, he added.
Consumers share a similar perspective, said Miller. While she expects shoppers to continue consuming vitamins, she expects more people to adopt the food-first focus in the future.
“I believe that we will see continued growth in functional foods, those that impart a health benefit naturally, like fiber in flaxseed,” she said. “Enriched foods with cholesterol-lowering plant stanols and sterols — think Smart balance products — are also likely to do well as consumers try even harder to get their essential nutrients from closer to the original source.”