The supplements aisle in your natural foods store is most likely a pretty busy place, especially since supplements sales grew 17 percent in 2003, according to The Natural Foods Merchandiser?s market overview for that year. And with all of the choices on the market, from capsules to chewable tablets to essential oils, it looks like supplements shoppers couldn?t ask for more variety. Or could they?
Step over to the tea aisle and instead of monochromatic jars, you see colorful, inviting boxes. Instead of a hard-to-swallow pill, shoppers can look forward to a warm, soothing beverage to heal what ails them. Tea sales are on the riseâaccording to San Francisco-based market research firm SPINS, natural foods stores? specialty tea sales were up 18.5 percent in 2003 and organic tea sales rose by 50 percent that same year.
But are retailers realizing the full potential of these comforting herbal concoctions? It?s time to break out of the tea-and-crumpets past and move ahead to the tea-and-supplements future, where a marketing-concept powerhouse awaits you: supplementing supplements with medicinal tea.
Bringing tea to supplements shoppers? attention shouldn?t be too difficult, considering that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration categorizes medicinal teas as supplements, not as food and beverage. But are teas as effective as solid supplements? Josef Brinckmann, vice president of research and development at Sebastopol, Calif.-based Traditional Medicinals Inc., believes that medicinal teas can be equally or more effective than solid supplements, depending on the quality of the product and the predilection of the person ingesting it. ?Dosage forms are a matter of preference,? says Brinckmann. ?People will see different results from different supplement forms. I personally get better results from liquid supplements, like teas and syrups, than from tablets or capsules.?
Janet Zand, licensed naturopathic physician and co-author of Smart Medicine for Healthier Living (Avery Publishing Group, 1999) agrees that teas work better at healing minor health problems for some people. ?For children and the elderly, teas are especially good because they?re mild. Children can sweeten their tea to make it pleasant to drink and it?s easier for the elderly to swallow a liquid than a solid supplement. But they?re great for everyone in between, too,? says Zand. ?There?s something to be said about ingesting a liquidâyou absorb it more quickly, and it?s easier to incorporate into everyday life. Anything you do every day is much more significant than something you do once in a while. I have my patients drink tea as a habit.?
Hopi Darnell, herbal specialist and director of customer care at Om Organics, an ayurvedic tea company based in Boulder, Colo., believes that tea offers unique health benefits that solid supplements do not. ?With tea you can control your dosage amount by steeping the tea for a longer or shorter amount of time to get more or less of the medicinal constituents of the herbs. If you need a stronger dosage, you can get it, without spending more money,? she says. ?Aromatherapy is another important benefit of drinking tea and can help tea have a more immediate effect than a pill would.? Om Organics customers must agreeâthe company had a sales increase of 250 percent during 2004, according to Darnell.
For tea to maintain its effectiveness, however, it is important that it is manufactured and packaged in a way that preserves the herbs? healing characteristics. ?In predicting efficacy, the quality of the starting material is really important. Herbs have different grades, with medicinal-grade herbs being the highest and the best for making effective medicinal tea,? Brinckmann says. Packaging plays a significant role as well. According to Brinckmann, ?herbal teas that are not tightly sealed will rapidly lose their strength during storage. For a medicinal tea to maintain its quality and remain effective until the expiration date, it is essential that each tea bag is sealed in an ?overwrap? that provides an oxygen and moisture barrier.?
With these stipulations met, researchers have established tea?s curative capabilities. According to a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (August 2000), Traditional Medicinal?s Organic Echinacea Plus, an immune support herbal tea, ?significantly relieved cold and flu symptoms in a shorter period of time than placebo in health care workers with symptoms of runny nose, scratchy throat and fever.?
Indeed, numerous studies have been published backing the health gains of drinking tea. For instance, according to Zand, ?women who drink four to six cups of green tea a day are 40 percent less likely to get breast cancer, and drinking green tea inhibits the spread of prostate cancer in men.?
The benefits of tea are also the very things that can help it sell in your store. Highlighting the medicinal properties of tea by placing it among encapsulated supplements boasting the same properties helps customers connect tea with healing. Julie Morris, associate supplements buyer and tea buyer at the Whole Foods Market in Boulder, Colo., has had success in selling Om Organics? Tulsi Tea by setting up a ?stress station? that attracts shoppers. The station consists of a table filled with two types of Tulsi tea, as well as bottles of Bach?s Rescue Remedy and Source Naturals? L-theanine capsules, all known to help reduce stress. An information card draws attention to the tea, and explains that Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), otherwise known as holy basil, is an Indian herb recognized for helping lower stress-hormone levels in the body. Sampling cups are available so customers can try the tea, and the table is strategically located near other soothing items, like eye pillows and massage tools.
?Combining the tea and the supplements in one area has really driven sales of those items,? says Morris. ?It helps shoppers see that there are many approaches to treating the same symptom.?
Another way to get customers to notice tea is to keep store displays interesting and constantly changing. Like Morris, Zand encourages featuring tea with supplements that address the same symptoms, but also emphasizes the importance of changing store displays frequently. ?If your store looks exactly the same every week, customers become immune to the displaysâthey don?t see them,? says Zand. She suggests featuring a tea or group of teas every month in a newsletter or in store aisles to keep customers interested and learning about the different health benefits of tea. ?Put an information desk in the supplements area with some type of educational literatureâcustomers love to take something home,? she says.
Zand also encourages retailers to sell tea as ?the new juice.? ?Herbal teas are a blessing in this low-carb craze we?re experiencing. People want to cut sugar out of their diets, but still retain variety. Instead of drinking plain water, they can try different teas to mix up their liquid intake and not get bored,? she says. ?Place herbal teas near your weight-loss supplements and suggest that customers use them to add variety to their diets without adding calories or carbs.?
By thinking of teas as liquid supplements instead of just another beverage, you can bring entirely new marketing opportunities to your store. ?Customers are captivated by possibility,? says Zand, and with the help of medicinal teas, your store?s marketing possibilities are endless.
Christine Spehar is a free-lance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 2/p. 32, 34