Natural and specialty retailers see customer conditions up close and in the aisle, hearing about every ailment—urgent, chronic or a decades-away worry. If anybody has a grasp of what customers are looking for in nutritional solutions, it’s the people who see those consumers every day.
To get a report from the high-touch corner of the condition-specific supplement market, we enlisted six independent retailers: Kristine Hamrick of New Leaf Community Markets in Santa Cruz; Ramona Billingslea of Betsy’s Health Foods in Houston; Pat Sardell at Country Vitamins in Corvalis, Oregon; Rhonda Bone at Nature’s Way in San Antonio; Jeff Wright at Wright's Nutrients in New Port Richey, Florida, and Starkie Sowers at Clark’s Nutrition of Southern California.
This is what they are hearing, and seeing, in the aisles, and at the cash register.
NBJ: Regarding supplements, are your customers asking more about prevention or strategies focused on existing conditions?
Billingslea: Customers new to the health foods industry tend to come to the store with questions targeted towards specific health conditions they are currently experiencing. More “seasoned” customers may have a mixture of concerns between specific health conditions and maintaining their current level of healthiness. We focus on matching the legal structure/function properties of our products with what the customers are asking us for.
Wright: From a supplement point of view, customers are still waiting until they have an issue or concern before seeking help. On the food side we do see an increase in customers seeking healthier diets, non-GMO, antibiotic free, pastured raised as a source of prevention. Of course there’s an exception to every case. We do see what I call our “eagles” willing to engage in education and conversation in the aisle about prevention (or as I would prefer to reference, ‘optimal health’). Eagles are more motivated to maintain quality of life rather than the minimal approach.
Sardell: Over the years there definitely has been a shift with more of our patrons seeking alternatives to pharmaceuticals for existing conditions. From Baby Boomers wanting alternatives to offset aging issues, to Gen Xers and Millennials looking for natural remedies for their families as well as to promote their active life styles.
NBJ: What changes are you seeing in consumer focus on general wellness/vitality vs. supplements targeted toward a specific conditions?
Sowers: Condition-specific has had the biggest changes in the last 20 years, more to a scientific ‘dose’ specific vs. the ‘holistic’ shot gun ‘naturopath’ formulas. Although I am seeing some trends going back to the naturopath approach. Vitality has taken a big hit in the last few years because of the lack of herbal information and ‘push’ from the major companies. Also the New York State Attorney’s bad press and bad testing procedures on herbs, with media sensations to boot. Herbs need some positive press. Additionally Dr. Oz. sensationalized single herbs. We need to see formulas again.
Billingslea: I don’t know that we are seeing any changes in our customers that we haven’t always seen. In other words, the very usual pattern for most customers is that they come into our store focused on looking for support in an area where they currently do not feel well, and then when they get a feel for the benefits of filling nutrient gaps with the help of a better diet and the use of supplements, then they branch out to look for other areas where they want to maintain the health they already have.
Sardell: Though many come in for information, more consumers have done their research and are more savvy and specific about choices, often seeking explicit forms of supplements for health issues. An increasing number are interested in the raw materials sources, such as corn-free, soy-free, non-GMO, etc.
NBJ: Is there a generational difference in consumer attitudes on prevention/wellness/condition? Are younger people more or less likely to take supplements related to a specific condition?
Sowers: Younger clients (16-28) use pre-workouts, and that is the biggest growth in specific conditions. It’s not uncommon to use 2-5 different products and mix for a workout.
Hamrick: Younger people are asking more about superfoods, greens, adaptogens, protein powder, more inclined toward prevention. Still, we see an unusually high amount of irritated bowel syndrome complaints with the younger crowd as well.
Wright: The millennials tend to be more willing to make holistic changes than boomers for prevention, but boomers that are sick and tired of being sick and tired are still the most willing to make the wholesale lifestyle changes to regain health.
Bone: I see younger 20-30s doing more of what they can't get covered by insurance because of lack of funds and knowledge than due to anything else.
Sardell: Boomers are aging and increasingly seeking supplement protocols to age well. Younger consumers generally are focused on their families, immune support during cold and flu season, as well as allergies in the spring.
Billingslea: As might be expected, an aging population is more likely to be focused on specific conditions or concerns as the years of non-optimal nutrition begin to catch up with them. As the younger generation sees what parents and grandparents are going through, they are more likely to be motivated to want to maintain their current level of healthiness through more attention to supporting nutritional gaps in their diets with supplements. This is a pattern that we have seen pretty steadily in more than 20 years of business.
NBJ: Is there one condition people are asking more about now than they were in the past? Cognitive? Health? Joint? Skin? Etc.?
Wright: We’ve seen increased educational opportunities in cognitive issues and inflammation issues. But it is somewhat like playing 20 questions to help find the root cause instead of just addressing the symptoms. That is when educating truly begins and a more educated consumer will make better choices about their own health.
Sardell: Pain and inflammation. Of course Boomers are interested in cognitive and vision health, too. They are seeking to age well. Women from mid-40s on are interested in bone health and prevention of osteoporosis, as well as countering the effects of menopause. And sleep/stress issues seem to be increasingly prevalent for all ages.
Billingslea: It seems like more people are coming in with concerns surrounding auto-immune conditions than we have had in the past. Also, more people are trying to make up for the depleted nutrients they have due to the medications they are taking.
NBJ: Are people coming in more or less informed on supplements related to specific conditions?
Sowers: No, and yes—Most information that is being passed around on the net does somehow get deciphered down, but only a few get this type of information correct. There is an education problem. If people can’t have their information in three seconds, they take a diluted form of information. If they get the information, they often don’t understand the dose. We usually have to take the time and explain the dose. Many companies are avoiding the dose info as well.
Billingslea: The internet has made health sleuths of us all. Very often, customers will come in having found products online promising solutions (often that are not DSHEA compliant) and hoping we carry that product. Our job then becomes showing the customer what to look for as far as transparency and integrity of potential products, as well as certifications and cGMP indicators. We also do our best to see if we carry a product that has similar ingredients to the product the customer has found. We ask questions about what the customer found appealing about that product. We also share the structure and function information that will help the customer make an informed decision. Other places customers “learn” about product are on television programs, infomercials, and from family and friends who take the product. Most of the information customers bring in on their own is only a part of the story, or it’s actually incorrect.
Hamrick: About half of my customers are well informed with good solid information from classes, the internet or from health food store staff. The other half are quite open and interested in learning.
Sardell: Absolutely more! Thanks to easier access to information via the Internet and television programs, consumers do their homework. Unfortunately they sometimes gather misinformation from overzealous advertisers which we help clarify. We consider ourselves product specialists not diagnostians, so we are glad to help them understand natural products. We stress that we will not and cannot diagnose or prescribe supplements and, when asked, will refer them to health care providers locally.
Bone: Maybe a little informed but not always informed the correct way.
Wright: There is a small increase in customers who are more informed. We do see many customers, several new to our industry, that have misinformation about specific supplements. That information seems to come from well-intended friends who have experienced improved health from some supplement or combination of supplements for specific concerns.
NBJ: What could supplement companies do to provide better education? Do you see a company getting it right?
Wright: I would ask that the education be balanced, include dosages used in the trials they’re quoting; explain the limits of the research and the ingredients. Every company should be coaching retailers how to stay within the legal guidelines of DSHEA and structure function claims. This should be a great concern for everyone! Sooner or later this is going to come around and really bite us where it hurts. Focusing on the positive side, I see many companies making education more accessible with webinars, teleconferencing, in-person staff meetings and trainings, regional dinners, and regional trade shows, to name a few.
Billingslea: If we are talking about education for the consumer, then as an independent retailer I hope the companies provide just enough to get customers into my store, where I can match them to the best product for their needs. That being said, New Chapter and Country Life have the most informative packaging, including clinical study results and a clear message about what makes their product unique. As far as retailer education is concerned, I’ve seen a trend toward webinars and online training that might work for people who mainly work behind the scenes but are virtually impossible to implement for the employees whose job description entails spending basically all of their time on the sales floor. For our store, flyers that touch on the key selling points of products, short face-to-face interactions with the staff by manufacturing reps to highlight key points, and dinner trainings where the entire staff can be present to be taught after store hours have worked best. These manufacturer efforts supplement our own, in-house mentor training programs. Bluebonnet, Country Life, Host Defense, Flora, Nature’s Way, New Chapter and Nordic Naturals are standouts in this area of education.
Sardell: Supplement companies have their hands tied regarding what they can say on their labels. But magazines they contribute to help consumers understand supplements and their uses. We refer specific websites we trust to our customers for their research, such as VitaSearch, Linus Pauling Institute, Doctor Murray and Terry Naturally. Educating store staff via internet trainings, webinars and in-store aisle trainings help the store teams offer reliable information. Online programs, such as Enzymedica’s, and regular webinars by Europharma, Natural Factors and Source Naturals are great examples for staff education.
Sowers: Some companies get it right, MRM, lately Twin Lab (Gene Bruno’s influence), Jarrow, Natural Factors, some smaller companies as well, like Veritidas essential oils and Paradise Herbs (cool new stuff).
Bone: Some do get it right, but we need a lot more literature that gives information that’s not already on the labels.