Staying strong: VMS will maintain strong post-pandemic role among consumers

Even as vaccines become widely available, consumers remain eager to buy the vitamins, minerals, supplements and nutritional products that have become part of their new health routines.
David Salazar
Managing Editor
David Salazar profile picture

The nutritional category just keeps getting stronger and stronger.

More than a year into the COVID-19 crisis, it is becoming extremely clear that consumers are still buying products to boost immunity, get better sleep and mitigate the effects of all that sourdough bread. Even as vaccines become widely available, consumers remain eager to buy the vitamins, minerals, supplements and nutritional products that have become part of their new health routines.

According to a February report from Chicago-based research firm IRI, consumers are still including VMS in their self-care rituals as they await the vaccine. More than 8 in 10 consumers routinely rely on the broad-based vitamin category to bolster their immune systems, with sales totaling $9 billion in brick-and-mortar retailers and $10 billion through e-commerce sales. IRI said it expects continued sales momentum in supplements and single letter vitamins, as well as outsized growth in elderberry, zinc and vitamin C in the coming year.

Manufacturers said people are remembering what the pandemic taught them about being proactive with their health. And, many vendors are continuing to keep the heat up on the category, with product introductions and marketing support in store and through the media.

a vase of flowers on a table

“Preventative health measures never go out of style,” said Jason Mitchell, CEO and co-founder of Denver-based HempFusion Wellness. “We anticipate that the significant focus on supporting the immune system will remain top of mind to many consumers, despite COVID vaccine availability.”

Mitchell said that one positive result of the pandemic is increased consumer awareness of the importance of a strong immune system. Manufacturers are doing their part to educate consumers, for example, on the connection between gut health and immune health, as 70% of immune system activity resides in the gut. Probulin, the sister company under the HempFusion umbrella, makes digestive probiotics and other products.

[Read more: Mad Tasty, Natreve impress buyers at ECRM’s Healthy Living program]

Retailers need to remain prepared for whatever happens with the vitamin category in the near future, especially as the pandemic hopefully subsides over the next few months.

“We believe retailers would be wise to stay the course in continuing to offer nutritional products that support immune system health, since it is an absolutely fundamental aspect of overall wellness,” Mitchell said. He pointed to figures from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, which noted last August that 43% of dietary supplement users have changed their supplement routines since the start of the pandemic. Among those who altered their regimens due to COVID-19, 91% reported increasing their supplement intake, including adding new supplements to their existing routines (46%), taking the same supplements more regularly (25%) or increasing doses (22%).

“If retailers can continue to provide good information and products that truly work for people, I think they’ll continue to maintain that position of trust that keeps people walking in the door,” Mitchell said.

a close up of a bottle

Maintaining Good Habits
It has helped that consumers have opportunities during the pandemic to learn about zinc, vitamin D, elderberry and other immunity-related ingredients. “Especially during the beginning of quarantine, they were home with time on their hands,” said Stephanie Corridore, an official at Bohemia, N.Y.-based Piping Rock. “They were able to investigate how they can stay healthy.”

Armed with information, consumers developed proactive health routines that will continue. “Now that these healthy habits have been established around immune health, we don’t expect a change,” Corridore said.

Another factor contributing to continued sales momentum is that supply chain issues have been resolved, Corridore said. When shoppers were pantry loading during the early days of the pandemic, they left many VMS sections at retail empty, and some manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand. She also said that, for its part, Piping Rock never had trouble supplying retailers with products in its Nature’s Truth, Pink or other brands.

Others said that they agree that a newfound approach to self-care will continue to drive sales in the VMS category. “There’s going to be a longer-term focus on prevention or immunity,” said Chuck Tacl, senior vice president of sales and business development at Miami Lakes, Fla.-based Mason Vitamins. “We see strategic retailers carving out 4-, 8- or 12-ft. sections and calling it immunity.”

The category is expanding beyond the VMS sections, as food and beverage manufacturers are launching items that make immunity claims. “There’s going to be blurring across the store because you’re going to have many options for immunity,” Tacl said.

[Read more: Nature’s Bounty launches gamer-focused Brain HP]

In addition to immunity, Tacl, and others, said the segments of sleep, stress, brain and beauty with collagen are driving the VMS category. Also contributing to the sales gains is the explosion of e-commerce, including buying online with curbside pickup. “I don’t see e-commerce slowing down,” he said. “I see more consumers shopping online specifically for vitamins, and we’ve seen a pretty significant shift and share growth on that side of the business.”

Even with some concerns about too many products invading store shelves and consumers getting confused about what items are best for them, the category is expected to continue to grow, at slower rates than the 2020 surge. “We’re not expecting the category to continue rising by 20%, but we believe there is going to be a new baseline,” Tacl said.

“If retailers can continue to provide good information and products that truly work for people, I think they’ll continue to maintain that position of trust that keeps people walking in the door.”
—Jason Mitchell, CEO and co-founder, HempFusion Wellness

Food for Health
That said, many industry officials stressed that it is still quite difficult to predict how much sales will increase compared to 2020.

“The alert to retailers is they should not look at last year’s performance as an indicator of this year,” said Colette Heimowitz, vice president of nutrition and education at Denver-based Simply Good Foods. “Last year was so different and will have a profound effect on consumer behavior.” The company offers the Atkins and Quest brands of nutritional products.

Consumers changed their eating behaviors during the pandemic. Sales of nutritional bars went down as people worked from home and did not seek on-the-go nutrition. Sales of protein powders and shakes went up because they provided a discreet way for people to drink instead of eat during Zoom meetings. Sweet treats products such as Atkins Endulge Desserts sold well as people sought comfort foods.

[Read more: Think! launches High Protein Crisp collection]

Demand for nutritional products will continue, as people gained weight during the pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” poll, conducted with Harris Poll in February, 42% of adults reported that they gained more weight than they intended, and they gained an average of 29 lbs.

“We anticipate strong performance across bars once people get out of the house,” Heimowitz said. “People looking to lose their pandemic weight will want higher protein and lower sugar.”

Sports nutrition products also performed well during the pandemic, as consumers worked out at home and ordered supplements, bars, protein powders and other products. “Customers are more engaged in nutritional supplements than ever before,” said Becky Bellman, head of brands at Wolfson Brands, based in Glasgow, Scotland. “Consumers are more heightened than ever to protect their health.”

While many consumers switched to online purchasing during the pandemic, Bellman said that retailers can adapt by offering click-and-collect service, providing favorable price points and engaging with consumers through in-store experiences. Even sports nutrition products are showing immunity claims now, and that will remain a trend. “Immunity will remain a top health concern for consumers, with no signs of it fading even post-COVID-19,” she said.

a close up of a bottle

Losing Sleep
Sleep also will remain a concern. “People are realizing the connection between sleep and immunity and general wellness,” said Stephen Gecewicz, co-founder of Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Zero Brands, which makes Nature’s Night all-natural, plant-based melatonin products. “I don’t think the trend will change.” He also said that melatonin has been around for decades, and sales of it grew 17% in 2020.

The brand recently launched Nature’s Night Kids, a plant-based, 100% natural melatonin product for children. “Parents were concerned because other brands use synthetic melatonin,” Gecewicz said, noting that the product is free of sugar, as giving a child sugar at bedtime seems counterproductive. Also, Nature’s Night Kids has only 1 mg of melatonin, which gives parents a better alternative than trying to cut adult tablets in half.

[Read more: Natrol debuts Sleep+ line of melatonin products]

One way to measure which health concerns are top of mind is to look at online search data. Searches for such ingredients as elderberry and melatonin spiked 500% in the early days of the pandemic, said Nik Hall, co-founder of Dallas-based vitafive. “The news has had a massive impact and caused a lot of anxiety,” he said. “People are stressed.”

Hall said that demand for vitafive’s gummy vitamins is still higher than the pre-
pandemic for several reasons. People stocked up, then had to restock as the pandemic wore on. Also, gummies and especially pectin-based, vegetarian-friendly gummies are very on-trend right now as is environmentally friendly packaging. Vitafive’s gummy vitamins and dietary supplements for adults and children come in pouches that use 80% less plastic than bottles.

While gummies currently are trending, other delivery systems are emerging, especially for children. El Segundo, Calif.-based ChildLife Essentials makes probiotics and immune support products, as well as vitamins in tablets, chewables and gummies. There also is a large selection of liquid vitamins that can be given to children through drops or added to smoothies and other foods. The brand posts online recipes for banana bites, crispy bars, PB&J wraps and other kid-friendly foods that feature the liquid vitamin drops. “We do a lot of our advertising on social media because that’s where we reach moms and dads,” said Karyn McCarthy, vice president of sales and marketing. “We got a little bit creative.”

McCarthy said last year’s sales of liquid vitamin C were “through the roof,” and chewable probiotics, echinacea drops and First Defense liquid immune support all had strong sales. It is difficult to determine how consumers will shop this year. “A mixed bag is my prediction,” she said. ChildLife Essentials recently launched a line of SoftMelt Gummies.

“To remain top of mind for consumers, brands and manufacturers will need to reach them with always-on engaging content and experiences that provide added value beyond the product, such as education or personalization tools.”
Rhonda Hoffman, chief marketing officer, Pharmavite

Post-Pandemic Health
Although no one expects e-commerce to disappear, some anticipate that shoppers will return to stores in pretty big numbers. “As retail opens up post-COVID-19, I can see a trend going back to store loyalty,” said Mark Hicks, vice president of sales at Lynden, Wash.-based Flora. “Consumers have missed that customer service interaction and the unique experiences and knowledge that can be found in retail stores that know their demographic.”

Therefore, retailers should ensure that staff is well trained so they can answer questions, and make sure the store provides a sensory experience with displays, samples and an assortment of products that shoppers can pick up and examine. That is especially important as younger adults start shopping for VMS and nutritional products. Although baby boomers are the core loyalty group, Flora has lately focused on reaching millennials. “Over the last year, we’ve seen a significant increase in website traffic and purchases from this age group,” Hicks said. Flora recently launched Ferritin+, a plant-based iron supplement.

[Read more: Focus On: Flora Health brings its natural products to the mass market]

It remains extremely important for retailers and other industry officials to remember that not all consumers will go back to shopping in store, as online shopping turned out to be more than just a convenient way to wait out the pandemic. At West Hills, Calif.-based Pharmavite, the percentage of business that was e-commerce doubled, and the company said it expects consumers to continue shopping online.

“Almost two-thirds of consumers are planning to continue their daily VMS regimen post-COVID, with the primary health benefit being to ‘build a healthier immune system,’” said chief marketing officer Rhonda Hoffman. “To remain top of mind for consumers, brands and manufacturers will need to reach them with always-on engaging content and experiences that provide added value beyond the product, such as education or personalization tools.”

For example, social commerce is a big trend, as consumers are purchasing products directly through social platforms, Hoffman said. Retailers will need to identify opportunities to bring the retail experience to consumers. “Reimagining the consumer experience to seamlessly transfer between in store and online will be table stakes,” she said.