6 sales-boosting strategies for herbal supplements

U.S. herbal and botanical supplements sales rose slightly in 2010, coming off a 2009 spike from immune-enhancing products. Keep the sales trend in the black—this year and beyond—with these six creative selling strategies.

The herbal supplements industry seemed to ride on the coattails of 2009 when initial estimates published in the American Botanical Council's HerbalGram indicated that U.S. herbal supplement sales rose 3 percent in 2010. But new estimates from Nutrition Business Journal reveal a smaller figure.

Herbal supplementsThe HerbalGram numbers were based on NBJ estimates. "However, these were initial estimates," said Carla Ooyen, director of market research, NBJ, "and due to some major declines in the network marketing channel, we are actually estimating that total 2010 herb and botanical sales only rose 1 percent to $5.1 billion."

Numbers will be finalized at the end of June, when NBJ publishes its final estimates for 2010 supplement sales in its June/July overview issue.

The 1 percent decline is influenced by several large network marketing players that didn't do as well as expected, causing the whole channel to decline even though the mass market and national specialty retail did well, said Ooyen.

"The fact that it's over zero shows that the market is stable or increased slightly in 2010," said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. "And at a time when there's still significant economic difficulty, this indicates strong consumer interest in and demand for natural medicine."

U.S. Herbal supplement sales rose 5% in 2009

Initial NBJ estimates show that total dietary supplement growth in 2010 was in the 4 percent to 5 percent range with sales at about $28.2 billion. Ooyen surmised that this may be due in part to the 2009 H1N1 scare which boosted supplement sales, while 2010 didn't play host to its own preventative healthcare worry. Several herbal supplement companies have echoed the sentiment, calling 2010 an "H1N1 hangover."

Herbal supplements sales tips

Despite these numbers, companies are implementing innovative programs in order to boost sales. While they're not giving away all their secrets, they aren't afraid to share these six with industry.

1. Be transparent about your products.

Gaia Meet Your HerbsLast year, Gaia Herbs launched a traceability program called Meet Your Herbs, allowing consumers to see how a product was tested, who tested it and what field the herb grew in among other traceable aspects. Meet Your Herbs is available on GaiaHerbs.com or via Gaia's iPhone app, and since its June 2010 launch has had 16,000 unique users.

The idea grew from what Gaia knows to be one of the largest studies of herbal medicine users, co-conducted by its branding firm. "What we found was one of the biggest concerns that people had stems directly from safety," said Angela Guerrant, vice president of sales for Gaia Herbs. "They felt like they couldn't trust what was on the label." At the same time, Gaia was evaluating internal strengths, one of which included vast documentation on the life cycle of its herbs. The two were paired and the Meet Your Herbs program was born.

This traceability trend is growing in food as well, but Gaia isn't concerned about copycats. "Retailers have asked, 'Aren't you worried that other brands will try to emulate this platform of traceability?'" said Guerrant. "I would encourage that if there are companies that are able to be completely transparent, it helps our whole category. It lends legitimacy that helps the entire industry and the consumer."

2. Value size it.

Value is always a top priority for consumers, especially in cash-strapped times. Not surprisingly, value sizes are selling very well in herbal supplements this year. "People who may have suffered some income setbacks over the last year don't want to trade out of the brand," said Guerrant, "so we're trying to find ways to make it affordable for them to purchase our products in greater quantities."

3. Offer solutions for the stress and anxiety subcategory.

Herbal supplements for the stress and anxiety subcategory grew in 2010, largely due to economic factors and the fact that more people lack health insurance. The category continues to grow this year, with companies such as Herbalist & Alchemist reporting strong sales in stress formulas and adaptogens.

4. Create a smartphone app for consumers and retailers.

While iPhone or Android app audiences are usually geared for consumers, consider how an app might affect a retailer's experience with a customer. Retailers have told Gaia that they use its Meet Your Herbs app to lend credibility to the brand during customer interaction. Other ideas for smartphone apps include those that are education based, such as which products match up with a customer's specific health concern.

5. Consider the nature of the solvents in your products.

Highly-educated consumers are becoming savvy about chemical solvents. New Chapter, Gaia Herbs and Herb Farm are three companies that are transparent about how herbs are extracted, and many more companies are becoming more interested in declaring the nature of their solvents on product labels, said Blumenthal. This also provides an opportunity to use and declare non-GMO solvents—a key sticking point with many health-conscious consumers.

6. Educate health practitioners about herbal supplements.

To grow credibility and awareness of the entire herbal supplements category, Herbalist & Alchemist's Lambert said the company focuses on education and providing quality information. "These products have been used for many, many years," she said, "it's just that most people have lost the knowledge of how to use the product."

As consumers trend toward taking more control of their health, they begin to research and unearth a variety of valid and invalid sources. "The worst thing that anybody could do in our industry is to hype a product and say this product is going to be the answer for everything," said Lambert.

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