Natural Foods Merchandiser

Consumer Interest in Dietary Supplements on the Rise

While it may sound like the stuff of a retail fairy tale, a survey conducted in March 2003 reported that 45 percent of U.S. consumers say they have increased needs for vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements, up from 41 percent in October 2002. And this shift in consumer attitude may be the precursor to a revival of the supplements category.

The indicators are even higher for aging Americans and women, with 53 percent of those ages 36 to 55, and 52 percent of women, stating an increased need for supplements, according to a survey by researchers at The Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pa. In addition, there is higher-than-average interest among the "less than $50,000" income group and the "more than $75,000" income group. Americans in the central United States are more likely to state an increased need for supplements than those living on the coasts.

This survey of more than 1,000 U.S. households was generated through HealthBeat Interactive, NMI's online polling program with Harris Interactive.

NMI Managing Partner Steve French said interest in vitamins, supplements and minerals increased in 2001 and 2002 and that the trend appeared to be continuing in the first five months of this year. "Typically, we see the transfer of attitudes into beliefs and into action within six months to a year," French said. "Based on the fact that we've seen an increase over the past three years, [purchasing] should already be happening."

Short-term reasons for this trend include the war in Iraq, national security and the economy/stock market, French said. Consumers may perceive supplements purchases as a "rational," healthy way to offset increased consumption of "emotional" comfort and snack foods during anxious times.

Over the longer term, French sees a number of elements sustaining category revival: increased consumer confidence; work by the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance to encourage positive media coverage; better education of consumers regarding expectations from supplements use; increased scientific research to support credibility; and the continued graying of America. While these boosts for category revival are not going to produce a major jump, "Hopefully, [the category] can continue to grow rather than eroding," he said.

Repeat Purchase Priority
This tale does have a Brothers Grimm subplot: Because of the expansion of mass-market retailers into the supplements category by well-known brands like Olay (see related story), natural foods retailers may only reap the benefits of this revival if they can hold on to repeat sales. Customers may get their first taste of supplements at a naturals store, but they go to discounters like Wal-Mart to buy more, French said.

Eric Spinner, a certified nutritional consultant and the owner of Health Haven II, an 800-square-foot natural foods store in Medford, N.J., said his overall sales dropped 3 percent in a one-year period.

John Harden, owner of Great Earth Vitamins, a 900-square-foot store in Columbia, Md., says, "I can't compete with [mass-market] prices." Mass marketers carry brands consumers are familiar with, although the vitamins are often of lower quality, he said. Still, despite the challenges, Great Earth reported an average monthly sales increase of 18 percent compared to last year, one third of which Harden attributes to sales of low-carbohydrate-related products and omega-3 fatty acids.

French said "there's no easy answer," to how natural foods retailers win repeat sales. He recommends new products, new platforms and more consumer education.

Harden goes up against the mass marketers by "getting consumers onto a great vitamin program that they can't get anywhere else." He offers customers membership in a discount buyers club, runs ads in local publications and contacts customers via postcards and e-mail.

Spinner educates consumers by appearing in news segments on local TV stations, writing columns for the local newspaper and conducting speaking engagements. He also is opening a wellness center and hopes to start a wellness radio show.

Joyanna Laughlin is an Estes Park, Colo.-based freelance writer. She may be reached at [email protected].

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