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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Wiser ways: Aging today means focusing on health

Getty Images Wiser ways: Aging today means focusing on health
No longer does aging mean wrinkles and aching joints. Older adults now embrace their new stage of life while they focus on being healthy and active.

Historically, aging was widely considered negative. Many consumers dreaded it, envisioning wrinkly skin, gray hair, low energy, aching joints and a flabby midsection, not to mention the long list of health complications that can accompany old age. As such, they saw aging as something to fight against, to try to stop in its tracks, and they paid big bucks for "anti-aging" products purported to make them feel and look younger.

Well, the funny thing is, aging is inevitable, which means fighting it is futile. Besides, as consumers are increasingly grasping, aging is not such a scary, awful thing after all.

As a result, there has been a monumental shift in how America views aging. Rather than a roadblock to a rich, productive, fulfilling life, aging is now more frequently seen for what it is: a natural, normal, nonnegative process. In fact, many consumers even consider it a positive. Instead of aiming to arrest aging, which they know won't work, they are focusing on growing older as healthfully as possible.

"I think of healthy aging as both accepting and celebrating the current chapter of your life, whatever that age may be," says Jolene Hart, certified beauty and health coach and author of the Eat Pretty book series. "It means taking care of your body so that you're not held back from living the life of your choosing because of preventable health issues. Healthy aging is also about continually growing into, and loving, a new version of yourself."

Among the many factors propelling this evolution, "the concepts of self-care and self-love are now more commonplace, which translates into consumers perceiving aging as beautiful," says Lisa Mabe, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Green Purse PR. "I'm glad to see more people embracing different views on aging and looking at it as a blessing instead of a negative."

Another driver is the changing conversation around food, as well as the wider embrace of body positivity. "Through the natural food brands we work with, we've seen how diet culture has really shifted to mindful eating and understanding that food is fuel," says Kate Weidner, CEO of SRW, a Chicago-based marketing agency focused on natural health and wellness. "There is a strong parallel between that and what's happening in the aging space. Consumers now understand that there is a relationship between what they eat and how they feel. Similarly, people are realizing aging is not about how they look but how they feel."

This shift makes sense given the aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people age 65 and up will more than double between 2000 and 2040, with one in five Americans belonging to that age bracket. Plus, thanks to advancements in nutrition and medicine, people are living longer—and realizing that if they treat their bodies well, they don't have to slow their roll like the "old people" of past generations did.

"Society is reaching a point," says Weidner, "where we are focused less on what we can't do after a certain age and more on what we can do."

Adios, anti-aging

There are myriad healthy approaches to aging well. That's why, when working with clients focused on healthy aging, Hart individualizes her guidance. "But across the board, I encourage them to take care of their bodies with a core routine of nutrition, movement and mindset," Weidner says. "This reflects in both their appearance and their love and appreciation for their bodies."

Along with eating a wholesome diet, exercising, managing stress and focusing on sleep, healthy aging–minded shoppers also seek out targeted, health-optimizing dietary supplements and functional foods and beverages. And, of course, they clamor for skin care and other personal care products that help them feel and look their best. However, "instead of looking to cover up, conceal or hide, consumers are now looking to protect and preserve," Mabe says.

Therefore, dovetailing with shoppers' desire to age healthfully, terms such as anti-aging, traditionally used to market personal care and supplements, don't really resonate anymore. In this new paradigm, phrases like healthy aging, aging well or longevity carry much more appeal.

"Women tell me they do not like the term anti-aging, and rightfully so—it's very negative," Mabe says. "Nobody, and certainly not women, wants to be reminded that their days are numbered." Besides, she adds, anti- terms, in any context, rarely conjure up positive connotations or emotions. And to maintain a healthy outlook on life, "it's never good to be 'anti' anything, but rather 'pro' whatever outcome you're ultimately seeking," Mabe says.

Many supplement, functional food and beverage, and personal care brands have harnessed this mindset. "Brands can really endear themselves to consumers if they adopt this approach and do it well," Weidner says. "Just as brands have removed diet culture from their lexicon, they can also steer away from anti-aging and embrace the conversation around healthy aging."

Great Lakes Wellness is a great example. Formerly Great Lakes Gelatin Co., the 100-year-old company introduced collagen peptides, a popular healthy aging ingredient, to the U.S. market many years ago. But just this year, it rebranded and changed its name to reflect its decidedly pro-aging stance.

"We've taken a much wider platform on wellness and are taking the time to talk about not fighting the aging process but embracing what aging really means," says Jim Burkett, president of Great Lakes Wellness. "Aging is a very individual process, but we encourage consumers to embrace all of the positives that come with it, whatever that may mean to them."

 Aging today means focusing on health

Healthy aging by the numbers

With more consumers adopting a healthy view of aging, natural products retailers report mounting customer interest in healthy aging–related products. The latest sales figures reflect exactly that. According to Nutrition Business Journal, U.S. sales of healthy aging supplements jumped 8.9% in 2020—more than double the 2019 growth rate—to reach $600 million. Top ingredients in this category last year included coenzyme-Q10, DHEA, combination herbs, vitamin A/beta-carotene and resveratrol.

Healthy aging's solid growth in 2020 is especially impressive considering the many other health concerns occupying consumers' minds amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an urgent focus on immunity, stress, sleep, lung health, and even heart and brain health, it wouldn't have been crazy if healthy aging fell off of many consumers' radars. But it didn't.

It's also worth noting that the healthy aging supplement market encompasses much more than products specifically labeled as such. Plenty of other condition-specific categories are intrinsically linked to healthy aging, such as brain, heart, bone, joint and vision health, as well as immunity, stress and sleep. By NBJ's tallies, most of these categories notched significant sales growth in 2020. Notably, the market for immune health supplements skyrocketed 72.3%, sleep support grew 36.6%, mood and stress soared 29.4%, general health climbed 27.5% and eye health increased 14.6%.

Healthy aging also extends to functional foods and beverages, and as retailers have likely noticed, more products focused on this area are coming out each year. According to Innova Market Insights, global launches of foods and beverages bearing "aging well" claims more than doubled between 2017 and 2020, with an average yearly growth rate of 32%. The leading categories are snacks and hot drinks, while snacks and dairy are the fastest growing. Immune health, heart health, skin health and antioxidant support are among the top health claims around aging well.

Shopper demographics and drivers

Just who are healthy aging shoppers and which particular needs are bringing them to the category? Demographically speaking, consumers in their mid-to-late 40s, 50s, 60s and older represent an important market. "The reality is that a very large percentage of the U.S. population are Gen Xers and boomers, and those are primarily the folks looking for healthy aging," Burkett says.

But younger consumers are showing interest as well. "Healthy aging can start becoming top of mind for consumers as early as their 30s," Mabe says. "But the needs of 30-somethings are very different from those in their 40s or 50s or older. Older millennial women who are just entering the healthy aging category tell me they are mostly concerned with sun protection and stress relief. Those who are mothers, and are often older moms, also tend to look for supplements that give them energy."

Some needs states tied to healthy aging transcend age and gender. "In the realm of beauty products, we tend to see women in their 40s or older, often with a busy lifestyle," says Steven Jamieson, health and body care merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Community Markets. "But in regard to sleep, stress and brain supplements, shoppers across all demographics are increasing their inquiries and purchases due to long-COVID symptoms and the stressors of the pandemic. While these products aren't specific to aging, the need to support our foundational mental health increases as we age and assume more responsibilities within our families and communities."

Jamieson says this trend is also rippling out to our functional beverages, both in supplements and the grocery aisles. "Shoppers are leaning into functional ingredients such as adaptogenic herbs and medicinal mushrooms, particularly lion's mane," he notes.

Mustard Seed Market and Café in Akron, Ohio, has seen an uptick in sales throughout its entire supplement department "due to increased interest in optimizing one's 'health span,'" says Abraham Nabors, second-generation owner and director of education and standards. Specifically, he calls out collagen, CBD, turmeric and vitamin D as hot products tied to healthy aging. "However, most of the recent excitement has been around mitochondria optimization," Nabors adds. "Supplements like NAD+, resveratrol and PQQ have really taken the front seat."

In fact, Mustard Seed recently added a whole section devoted to longevity and mitochondrial health. "Age is probably the biggest draw to this department, although I don't know anyone who wouldn't want to live a longer, healthier life," Nabors says. "As a result, we see people of all ages shopping that category."

Burkett believes that today's healthy, active older consumers are actually sparking ever-younger shoppers' interest in the healthy aging category. "Now that some older influencers are popping up, the younger set is following them because they are inspired by their stories," he says. "They think 'hey, that person is 75 years old, works out regularly and looks wonderful—I can do that.' So, while Great Lakes Wellness is certainly positioned to reach Gen X and boomers, our healthy aging message is also pulling in the younger set, something retailers should be aware of too." 

 Aging today means focusing on health

How retailers can win with healthy aging

To connect with and meet the needs of today's consumers, it's important for retailers to also evolve past anti-aging. Instead, champion the healthy aging concept in customer-education efforts, merchandising and marketing. This starts with ensuring HABA and wellness staff are knowledgeable about the aging process, which types of products are available to address specific needs and how to explain various products' effects without breaching the bounds of DSHEA.

"While you can't advertise the reasons why these products are exciting in explicit ways, it is a really good idea to know what the modern science of aging entails and what tools in the toolbox we have to help," Nabors says.

Because individuals' healthy aging goals vary, Mabe advises retailers to actively engage with customers to find out what matters most to them, especially younger shoppers just starting their journey.

When it comes to choosing brands to stock, Burkett suggests talking to individual companies to understand their value proposition. Brands that promote healthy aging versus anti-aging, he adds, will likely land better with shoppers.

As for merchandising, specific healthy aging sections or endcaps are often effective. "Our longevity section in our department went from nothing to substantial pretty quickly," Nabors says. "We merchandised NAD+ in the form of nicotinamide riboside next to resveratrol and saw the sales instantly tick upward."

Retailers should also consider running promotions around healthy aging. "September is Healthy Aging Month," Mabe says. "I'm an advocate of leveraging awareness days, weeks and months at retail to bring up topics like this. Partner with some of the brands you stock to offer promotions focusing on products such as CBD oil for stress relief or sunscreen for year-round use."

Finally, while most healthy aging shoppers may be older, make sure that offerings are accessible to a broader audience too. "Based on what we are seeing at PCC, I recommend focusing on foundational nutrients and expanding selections to be inclusive of all demographics, such as structure/function-based multivitamins in addition to gender-specific offerings," Jamieson says. "I also suggest increasing your format offerings of adaptogenic herbs, such as beverages, functional chocolates, drink shots, pills and tinctures. Place these products in a structure/function formatting so that shoppers can find them in a wide variety of settings throughout the store to best fit their needs."

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