VMS companies look to tailor products to consumer demands

David Salazar
Managing Editor
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It is no longer as easy as ABC — at least not in the VMS category. 

Industry experts say the category is showing continued changes in how people shop for their vitamins, supplements and sports nutrition products. From functional products to targeted options, shoppers are looking beyond letter vitamins and, even as multivitamins dominate the space, want products they know are safe and able to help them achieve their wellness goals. 

Last June, TABS Analytics shared the results of its 12th annual Vitamin Study, which picked the brains of some 1,000 consumers via Caravan panel. The category, which TABS pegged at $14.5 billion, currently is seeing sales largely go to adult multivitamins, with 52% penetration coming through in the survey. The opportunity that exists there is around gender specificity and gummies. At the same time, smaller segments within the category — probiotics, melatonin and various condition- or need-specific products, including black elderberry for immunity — have gained favor with consumers, something manufacturer executives also have seen. 

“A macro trend we’re seeing is younger consumers are seeking vitamins that address specific needs they have today, whether it’s a boost of energy or stronger nails,” said Michelle Yoon, brand manager at Olly in San Francisco, which recently launched an Active Immunity line that includes a daytime and nighttime option, with the latter featuring melatonin to help fall asleep. “For example, busy millennials are constantly on the go and don’t have time to be sick. As a result, they’re actively seeking natural solutions to help them power through colds, travel season, winter, etc.”

Additionally, ingredient-conscious consumers are not relenting in any category. “Consumers are looking for high-quality products with truth and transparency in labeling and a focus on clean ingredients,” said Kimberly Vigliante, senior vice president of wholesale sales and marketing at Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based Piping Rock Health Products. 

It is not just vitamin shoppers who are looking for something different from their products. Providers of sports nutrition products also are noting a shift in consumer demands, according to Jonathan Cannizzo, brand manager at Optimum Nutrition. Gone are the days that diet-focused products would fly off the shelves with the latest bestselling book. Now, consumers look for products based on a healthy lifestyle change, he said. 

“People rarely say they’re on a diet, rather they are ‘plant-based,’ keto, paleo and the like,” Cannizzo said. “In general, people are growing more informed about nutrition and more conscientious about ingredient labels — and they are seeking specific benefits from their food and supplement products.”

Ingredient Opportunities
A common trait of the current consumer, across categories, is an interest in ingredients. This cuts two ways in VMS — it means that shoppers are interested in knowing that the product has ingredients that are safe while being effective at the same time. 

On the former point, companies are investing in testing to ensure that the products they market are safe. For instance, Mason Vitamins, based in Miami Lakes, Fla., uses its heritage as a pharmaceutical manufacturer to thoroughly test its products. 

“We have exceptionally strong, good manufacturing processes,” said Chuck Tacl, vice president of sales and business development at Mason Vitamins. “We test the product when it comes in as an ingredient, and we test it as a finished good, which follows more of a pharmaceutical type of process than a standard VMS process.”

Similarly, Piping Rock and its Nature’s Truth brand are focusing on verifying their botanical ingredients by partnering with TRU-ID, which tests the botanicals and certifies their purity via DNA testing. “TRU-ID uses DNA testing to verify and identify the botanical ingredients used in our plant-based products, ensuring the purity and authenticity of our supplements,” Vigliante said. “This gives consumers and retailers alike confidence in our products because they know that what we say on the bottle truly is.”

In terms of products that deliver on what consumers want, there are several ingredients trending in the space that manufacturers have been looking to deliver on, including probiotics, turmeric, ashwagandha and collagen. 

“Probiotics sales are flattening out, but multiple-ingredient probiotics are picking up and actually have a significantly higher [compound annual growth rate] than just a straight probiotic line,” Tacl said. He noted that Mason Vitamins also has been making a big beauty push with complementary collagen products — a collagen supplement in both capsules and pectin-based gummies, as well as a collagen cream that enables cross-merchandising, which a growing number of retailers are turning to across need states. 

“If you’ve been in a Walmart lately and gone over to the beauty section, they are selling supplements in an endcap,” Tacl said, adding that other crossover opportunities have included digestive health and sleep, with some retailers creating dedicated sections. “It’s a market basket play, too. And the leading retailers that are out there are driven by insights. They’re doing a lot more test and learns, or taking the opportunity to bring in different departments into their categories to bring a solution and hopefully get another product into the basket.”

Collagen is playing a critical role in sports nutrition as well. Optimum Nutrition’s Cannizzo said that the company has found consumers increasingly becoming interested in the benefits of collagen for joint health and accordingly added it to its Amin.O Energy offering to create Amin.O Energy + UC II Collagen. Also trending among the company’s key shoppers is protein that does not come from whey for plant-based diets, for whom Optimum Nutrition launched Gold Standard 100% Plant. 

“That product has a specific blend of ingredients to ensure that it’s a complete protein with all the necessary amino acids to support performance athletes looking for a plant-based option.”

Innovation is Imperative
As old an adage as it may be, necessity is continuing to drive invention in VMS. Companies increasingly tailor new products to the need state that consumers are looking for assistance with. 

Officials at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based SlimFast took this to heart when introducing SlimFast Keto, a line that includes ready-to-drink meal-replacement shakes, meal-replacement bars and powder to make meal-replacement shakes. “With SlimFast Keto, we are giving American dieters what they told us they wanted. They want a quick, easy and super-convenient way to follow the ketogenic diet,” SlimFast president Doug Reader said when the product line launched in 2019.

Mason Vitamin’s Tacl said that supplements that play into such needs as sexual wellness, feminine hygiene, eye and ear care, and weight loss support areas where the company sees opportunity. “It’s fun. There are so many opportunities in the store now. You just have to find the more progressive retailers that are looking for solutions or different product assortment opportunities,” he said. 

Other factors are driving innovation. Demographics also are playing a critical role in what companies bring to market. More tailored options along gender lines are growing in popularity, according to the TABS survey. 

Piping Rock is planning to launch its Pink vitamin line in the spring that appeals to women, while also focusing on purpose-driven branding. The line of GMO-free and gluten-free vitamins and supplements will feature sleek packaging and colors focused on empowerment. 

“Pink vitamin and supplements are specifically designed by women for women with a cause,” Vigliante said. “This purpose-driven brand puts women’s health at the forefront by delivering high quality, ingredient-based nutritional products in a way that works for her busy, on-the-go lifestyle. Pink is committed to supporting the varying needs of women, our youth and their families by donating a portion of sales to charity.”

Demographics also are fueling new products among sports nutrition offerings — in particular age. With an uptick in active people over the age of 40 years old, Optimum Nutrition sought to provide a solution specifically for this growing segment of shoppers, according to Cannizo. “Older athletes have different needs, primarily an increased need for support of muscle recovery, endurance and joint health,” he said.

The company’s Gold Standard Fit 40 line includes products that support muscle recovery, endurance and joint health, which Cannizzo said was the result of listening to consumers. “Our focus groups in this demographic were very aware of the changing physical and nutritional needs of aging athletes, but there was no clear or easy answer,” he said. “Older athletes can find dozens of well-researched ingredients to meet their specific needs in three simple, easy-to-use products.”

On the Horizon
As companies eye the category going forward, one of the components that several executives said would help define retailers’ strategies is education — not necessarily exclusively in store, either. Tacl said that digital opportunities exist for informing consumers about product information and attributes in an increasingly targeted way as retailers build out shopper databases through e-commerce and click-and-collect offerings. He also noted that consultative selling is a differentiator and retailers are partnering with manufacturers that provide insights and in-store opportunities.

Beyond education, merchandising will play a critical role in how consumers view the VMS space. For Vigliante and Piping Rock, making the category an in-store space shoppers can seek out is critical. “Retailers who create wellness destinations for their shoppers stay at the forefront,” she said. “It is also very important to educate the consumer on product usage and create easy-to-shop sections. This can be accomplished by curating optimal product mixes that remove duplicate products that are less productive.”

The destination approach can serve well with vitamins, but among sports nutrition shoppers, Cannizzo said meeting them in different areas of the store better fits their needs. 

“From a merchandising standpoint, we encourage retailers to change the way they think about the supplement customer,” he said. “Right now, nutrition supplements tend to be grouped together in the back of stores near the pharmacy. That doesn’t reflect the new reality of today’s sports supplement consumer who incorporates products into their everyday routine.” dsn