What used to be simply cough and cold season remedies are now viewed more broadly by some supermarkets as the upper-respiratory category that is being given year-round merchandising emphasis.
In a study on seasonal best practices that was delivered last year by the General Merchandise Distributors Council, Colorado Springs, Colo., the upper-respiratory category was defined as cold, allergy and sinus products, as well as cough syrups, cough drops, nose drops, nasal sprays and inhalers, throat lozenges and sprays, vapor rubs, chest rubs and lip medications.
Add to all this the natural alternative remedies that increasingly are becoming an important part of this category's equation.
"The alternatives and herbals are playing into category sales. They have done real well, have a high price point and so have a good dollar ring in stores," said John Bovender, health and beauty care buyer at Merchants Distributors, Hickory, N.C.
Said Emily Brummel, HBC buyer for Haggen Inc., Bellingham, Wash., "Alternative products are definitely increasing as people try to avoid getting sick by taking their vitamins and herbal supplements."
Last year's cough/cold/allergy and sinus sales were down, according to figures from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, 1998. They slipped 2.5% in the $2.3 billion category sold at food, drug and mass-merchandiser outlets. Unit volume was off 3.3%.
Industry observers speculate declining sales could be the result of a mild season, more shoppers buying herbal remedies, the effect of private label on the category, and the lack of innovative new products over the last year.
One HBC category manager for a large New England supermarket chain mentioned there haven't been any new technologies of late to drive the category. "A few years ago there was an influx of new items like hot-flu and liquid gels," he said.
Private label remains the category leader, capturing 30.5% of the dollar volume, or $730.7 million, and 32.2% of the unit volume.
"All private-label items in the category are doing very well. Nothing is selling poorly," said David Himel, HBC buyer at Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., who reports the flu season in that part of the country has been slow to date.
"In cough and cold, private label has strong appeal,"said Bovender. "The biggest hurdle in private label is to get the customer to try the item. We encourage stores to have off-shelf displays of private-label cough and cold. If it is a good quality item, and somebody tries it, they'll come back for it again. If they like that first item, they'll also shop for additional store-brands," he added.
For the 52-week period ended Oct. 25, 1998, supermarkets and drug stores' sales were down by 3.7% and 2.1%, respectively. Mass merchandisers picked up the slack with dollar sales up 3%. As in most HBC categories, mass merchandisers continue to grab share points in the upper-respiratory segment.
Despite flat sales, the stakes are high for supermarkets in the upper-respiratory category. Each year flu sufferers spend about $5 billion on over-the-counter and alternative remedies as well as prescription drugs.
The GMDC study found that 75% of all households that purchase upper-respiratory products do so in supermarkets. The opportunity, according to the report, is to get those 25% that shop elsewhere, and capture the high frequency of supermarket shopping visits.
The market basket for upper-respiratory products in supermarkets is valued at $55.69, according to the study. This compares with the average value of a supermarket basket, which is $31.30.
Supermarkets wanting to retain this big business are more likely to concentrate on the category all year, as well as heavily promote during the big seasonal pushes.
"I don't have practically any items that I carry just for cough and cold [season]. I carry them all year since their movement may fluctuate," said Bovender.