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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.