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Playing defense: The immunity category is thriving


Immunity products went from the back of the medicine chest to front and center, all in the time it took for a pandemic to sweep the globe. 

As many mass retail industry officials quickly realized, if there is one thing consumers learned during the first stages of the COVID-19 crisis, it is that they need to pay attention to their health all the time. Shoppers who once bought symptom relief products only when they felt sick shifted to pantry loading when the pandemic hit. Now they are buying immune products proactively, and this move to constant purchasing and replenishing gives retailers an opportunity for a sales boost throughout the year. 

“Immune products are continuing to be used and bought at a consumption level,” said Art Rowe-Cerveny, vice president of marketing at San Diego-based PharmaCare US, whose flagship product is Sambucol Black Elderberry. “People are actively trying to get in front of their health.” 

The growing interest in immunity products is helping retailers maintain higher basket rings, while shopper traffic in stores is down. Visits likely will increase as people return to stores to get flu shots, so to capitalize on this consumer behavior, retailers are expanding their sets and merchandising immune products both in the cough-cold aisles and in the vitamin sections. There is little crossover between the two sections, Rowe-Cerveny said, so the purchases are additive.

“The consumer is changing and especially in the face of a pandemic where they realize how little control they have, they are looking for anything they can control,” he said. “What they can control is their own personal health and well-being and they are being more proactive, and immunity is now incredibly top of mind.”

Attracting New Shoppers 
Immunity also is top of mind for consumers who are new to the category. Before the pandemic, there was interest in products that help strengthen a person’s immunity and that benefit overall health, said Thomas Rinck, director of customer and industry development at GSK Consumer Healthcare, maker of Emergen-C.

“Since the beginning of COVID, we have experienced an acceleration of that interest with millions of households entering into the immunity space as a result of media reports on the importance of strengthening one’s immunity.” 

Consumers who are entering the immunity space are seeking information, and retailers can benefit by offering education at the shelf, online, in advertising, and through pharmacists and nutritionists. More consumer interest can result in increased household penetration and growth in market basket, Rinck said.

Since the beginning of COVID, we have experienced an acceleration of that interest with millions of households entering into the immunity space as a result of media reports on the importance of strengthening one’s immunity.
Thomas Rinck, director of customer and industry development at GSK Consumer Healthcare.

These consumers already are getting much information from media reports, covering everything from a study in Spain that indicated that patients who survived COVID-19 had higher levels of zinc in their blood to infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci saying he takes vitamin D supplements to maintain a healthy immune system. While none of the research points to immune health products curing or preventing the coronavirus, consumers clearly have decided it can’t hurt. 

“Media can significantly increase subcategories within VMS,” said Chuck Tacl, vice president of sales and business development at Miami Lakes, Fla.-based Mason Vitamins. “People have their phones and they look up everything.”

As a result, sales of vitamin C, vitamin D and multivitamins are seeing double-digit increases not only during the early days of the pandemic, but also in recent weeks. Zinc, a longtime favorite for preventing colds, is growing significantly, as are other products such as brain, stress and sleep with melatonin. “Those are the subcategories that are growing significantly during the COVID era,” Tacl said. “It made people rethink how they want to treat their bodies. Everything I’m reading is that’s going to be the new base.” 

Retailers are putting a stronger focus on immunity, carving out space for new products and increasing their signage around prevention. New manufacturers are jumping into the immunity space, much like new companies emerged in the hand sanitizer area this year. “One thing retailers should be cognizant of is these new brands hop in to ride the tide, and they might not be fully vetted out,” Tacl said. “You need to be aware of what’s out there, how they produce products, where they’re from and their history.” 

Mason Vitamins, which introduced an elderberry gummy in May and a sugar-free prenatal multivitamin with DHA and zinc in October, began manufacturing more than 50 years ago, using good manufacturing practices, Tacl said. 

Others agree that retailers can drive sales by offering products from reliable, established companies. “Immunity is becoming woven into people’s daily routine and proactive use seems to be up,” said Anna Selser, brand manager at San Francisco-based Olly. “In times of uncertainty, consumers also tend to seek out brands that they trust.” 

Olly, which offers gummies, recently expanded its immunity line to include powders. “We’ve heard from consumers that immunity powders don’t always taste great,” Selser said. The three new SKUs all have vitamin D, zinc, elderberry and 14 oranges’ worth of vitamin C. 

Retailers should look for brands they trust and that use premium ingredients. “Shoppers are willing to spend more dollars with brands they find most compelling,” said Brian Terry, national sales manager for food, drug, mass and specialty at Nordic Naturals. “Increasing preventive medicine is more important now than it has ever been.” The Watsonville, Calif.-based company recently launched Nordic Immune, which has elderberry, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc.

Keeping Up the Sales Momentum
Manufacturers are working to communicate immune products’ benefits beyond flu season and beyond the pandemic. For example, people have a general idea that the immune system needs vitamin D to fight off pathogens, said John Licari, vice president of marketing at Oceanblue in Delray Beach, Fla. They might not know how much or how often to take vitamin D or other vitamins or supplements. 

“I would recommend for retailers and for pharmacists that are giving consultations about vitamin D or vitamin C that they are really something you need to take consistently for the long-term,” Licari said. “It’s not going to be of benefit to you if you take it only when you feel under the weather.”  

Oceanblue makes omega-3 supplements, including Omega-3 2100 with Vitamin D. The brand offers educational information on its website and on social media to help consumers and retailers learn more about the products. Pharmacists play an important role in this educational effort. “We focus heavily on getting referrals and recommendations from pharmacists,” Licari said. “There is a layer of trust that exists between patients and pharmacists.” 

Manufacturers are helping retailers keep up with demand for immunity health products, not only in store but on their e-commerce platforms. Kimberly Vigliante, senior vice president of wholesale sales and marketing at Bohemia, N.Y.-based Piping Rock, said the company plans to expand its capacity to continue to bring best-in-class products to market quickly through its family of brands. “A new consumer mindset will continue to drive demand for products that help boost the immune system, as well as products for sleep and stress that can support overall immunity, health and wellness,” she said. “Piping Rock remains committed to supporting its retail partners and helping consumers take charge of their health.”

A new consumer mindset will continue to drive demand for products that help boost the immune system, as well as products for sleep and stress that can support overall immunity, health and wellness.
Kimberly Vigliante, senior vice president of wholesale sales and marketing at Piping Rock.

Piping Rock’s wholesale division, Nature’s Truth, recently introduced Immune Support Gummies with vitamin C, manuka honey and zinc, as well as Black Elderberry Immune Complex Chewables with black elderberry, vitamin C and zinc. 

Retailers also should keep in mind that gut health and sleep are important factors in immune health. “Seventy percent of immune health is in your gut,” said Kimberly Stiele, founder of Benesprays, which makes itSpray. “They need to look at gut health. It’s not just zinc or vitamin C or vitamin D.” The Largo, Fla.-based company makes oral sprays in BOOSTit immune support, CHARGEit energy and DREAMit sleep varieties. Sleep is an important part of immune health, Stiele said, because lack of sleep can stress the immunity system. 

The sprays offer a variety of immune health-related solutions with an innovative delivery system. “With pills and gummies, there are so many fillers and binders that you get so little of what’s in there, so you have to take larger quantities,” Stiele said. 

Probiotics manufacturers have also seen sales growth this year, as research indicates that probiotics may support immune health and overall wellbeing. “Probiotics are one of the top five products that people seek for immune health,” said Jason Mitchell, founder and CEO of Topeka, Kan.-based Probulin. “Probiotics are a defensive item. These are items that help to build healthy immunity in the body.”

Probiotics are a defensive item. These are items that help to build healthy immunity in the body.
Jason Mitchell, founder and CEO of Probulin.

Sales are still increasing, but not at the extreme levels seen when consumers were panic buying. Now people are looking at probiotics as part of their health maintenance. “People are getting into a routine,” Mitchell said. “Probiotics help you have your defenses in a manner fitting of whatever you have to face.” Probulin makes products including Daily Care Probiotic, My Little Bugs Total Care Probiotic for Kids, and launching in January, Total Care Immune Probiotic.

Other self-care products should also be part of retailers’ assortments. “Homeopathic medicines can be used in complement with immunity products, other OTCs and prescription medicines,” said MaryEllen Tefft, vice president of sales for food, drug and mass at Boiron USA in Newtown Square, Pa. “As consumers found themselves spending more time at home during the pandemic, they realized that keeping their medicine cabinets stocked with homeopathic medicines and at the ready was essential.”

Tefft also said that retailers should support education on holistic offerings like homeopathic medicines for their pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and retail team members. “This is a prime opportunity for drug stores to develop trusted relationships with their consumers now more than ever,” she said. “Additionally, this offers an opportunity to build the customer market basket. The homeopathic market basket has a higher dollar value than a conventional OTC market basket.”

Other Ingredients
While elderberry, vitamin C, vitamin D, echinacea and zinc have generated excitement, other ingredients are emerging. San Diego-based CV Sciences, which makes the PlusCBD brand of hemp-derived CBD products, recently launched an immunity line of non-CBD products. The first two immunity products are CV Acute, a plant-based traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, formula with forsythia, honeysuckle baikal skullcap extracts. The second is CV Defense, which contains selenium; PEA, or palmitoylethanolamide; vitamins A and D; selenium; zinc; and an organic reishi mushroom extract. 

“We have been looking at the immunity space for a long time,” said CV Sciences CEO Joseph Dowling. “We have been looking at other ingredients that are further ahead on the science side.” He said that while CBD is an exciting ingredient with much potential, there is a dearth of scientific study on the cannabis plant. Meanwhile, PEA has been the subject of several clinical studies, demonstrating that it has clear benefits for immune health. Also, the TCM formula and botanicals in CV Acute have been in multiple studies that demonstrate overall immune system defense. 

The two new products have been well received, said Jesse Karagianes, vice president of sales at CV Sciences. The company supported the launch with in-store signage, shelf talkers and QR codes that consumers can scan to get more information or watch a video. The immunity products also are available on, which restricts CBD sales, an obstacle that CV Sciences did not have to overcome with its non-CBD products.  

New York City-based Plant People offers hemp products, as well as non-CBD immune products. The brand already made a name for itself in the hemp category, and it wanted to leverage that brand trust with other botanical products. “Herbal solutions have been around for a very long time,” said co-founder Gabe Kennedy. “They are making their way into popular culture the way they never have before.” 

Among the immunity lineup is Advanced Immune Power, which features certified organic functional mushrooms, the immune supporting herb astragalus and vitamin C. Lung Guard, which the company said promotes a healthy respiratory system with a formula of research-backed reishi mushroom and herbs, also is included. “We’ve gotten a ton of interest and excitement because of our fresh approach,” Kennedy said. “We create things that are effective and new, not just the same product with a different label. We don’t think the world needs another vitamin C chewable.” 

Interest in immunity products will likely continue. “It’s a very interesting time within this category right now with everything that’s going on,” said Mason Vitamins’ Tacl. “I don’t see it slowing down for a while.” 

Consumer interest in the category remains strong, said Aileen Stocks, general manager of VMHS for Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based Nature’s Bounty which recently launched Nature’s Bounty Zinc Gummies. 

“Zinc and vitamin D, among other immune support products, have seen steady growth since the onset of the pandemic, and that continues today,” Stocks said. “In fact, insights show that a desire to support overall health and the immune system are top drivers in consumers who have increased their use of vitamins and supplements in recent months.”  

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