There’s a pill for almost everything nowadays. Whether you’re looking for an energy boost, an improvement in brain power or even a shinier mane, there’s a vitamin or supplement that promises to help.
Sadly, those powers don’t yet extend to tackling coronavirus – but you wouldn’t know that from the way Brits are knocking back the pills.
In the month leading up to lockdown, sales of vitamins and supplements soared 19.5% to £48.5m [Kantar 4 w/e 22 March 2020]. That was largely driven by consumers seeking out an immunity boost – as evidenced by the 110% rise in vitamin C sales.
But this extra demand isn’t going through the usual channels. As certain outlets close – and consumers prove increasingly reluctant to venture out to those that are open – online has emerged as the fastest-growing area of the market. “We’ve seen a real surge in the older retired shopper going online and that demographic is the one that overtrades in vitamins,” says Matt Maxwell, strategic insight director at Kantar.
So who’s benefiting from this online boom? And which vitamins and supplements are flying off the virtual shelves?
“We’ve seen a real surge in older retired shoppers going online – they overtrade in vitamins”
The traditionally big players in vitamins, minerals and supplements are attracting more online shoppers than ever, despite many of their stores remaining open. Boots, for example, says vitamin sales on its website have almost doubled since lockdown began.
Holland & Barrett has seen an even greater change in its channel mix. “Over the past two months, we have seen an unprecedented increase in demand for online orders at 300%-400% of the normal level,” says a spokeswoman. Demand has been so high, in fact, that the retailer needed to open a new distribution centre and take on hundreds of extra staff to get out orders on time.
Supermarkets are seeing a similar pattern, albeit to a lesser extent. Kantar says their online vitamin sales grew 46% in the four weeks to 19 April as customers made greater use of health and beauty ranges.
At the same time, there has been an increase in orders from Amazon and specialist online players. Pukka Herbs, which sells vitamins alongside its organic teas, is one of the brands to have noticed this trend. “We have seen a huge uplift on our pureplay channels, particularly Amazon, where we’re tracking at over 150% against the same period last year,” says Shaun Measday, Pukka’s e-commerce lead.
Small online businesses are also posting truly stellar gains. Specialist site Personalised Co reports an 800% uplift as “customers fear going to the retailers to get their vitamins”. Chewable vitamin business Yumi Nutrition has seen its online turnover double. And Prime Fifty, a site that sells vitamins designed specifically for the over-50s, is seeing triple-digit gains on certain lines.
So it seems pretty much all retailers are benefiting from the online boom. Not all types of vitamins are following suit, though. Glucosamine sales, for example, fell 14.2% in the month to lockdown, while vitamin E shed 46.1% of its value [Kantar].
- In the month running up to lockdown, the vitamins and supplements market saw a 19.5% spike in value – equating to an extra £7.9m.
- Vitamin C saw the largest percentage gain during that period thanks to its associations with the immune system.
- There were also sharp gains in multivitamins. The 50-plus, pregnancy, children’s and adult multivitamin categories gained a combined £4.2m.
- Prime Fifty, a site that specialises in vitamins for over-50s, says there is a reason why the 50-plus category is seeing such growth. “Older adults are clearly worried about their health right now and many are looking to take a variety of vitamin supplements – with a real focus on immunity,” says founder Max Gowland.
- Sales of vitamins flattened out in the following month to 19 April, when value actually fell 1.8%. But volumes were still up 9.1%.
- “Price took a hit, most probably driven by newer shoppers choosing cheaper products,” says Kantar client executive Anna Soppelsa. “We also found private-label products growing ahead of branded products.”
Instead, consumers are gravitating towards anything with immunity boosting properties. The catch-all promise of multivitamins has proven popular, as evidenced by the substantial growth in 50-plus, adult, children’s and pregnancy multivitamins in that month (see left). “Growth in more mainstream sectors such as multivitamins was presumably driven by new shoppers entering the category with less knowledge on what to buy,” says Kantar client executive Anna Soppelsa.
By the same token, products that call out their immunity boosting properties are enjoying sales spikes. See Tonic Health, a vitamin drink that promises to improve immunity with ingredients including vitamin C, D and zinc. It reports sales growth of over 1,000% in March – a boom that came in the wake of a Telegraph article that said taking the product was one of the best things to do for your immune system during the coronavirus outbreak.
“The media and public profile of Covid-19 has created much-needed focus on immune health and the science behind it,” says Tonic Health founder Sunna van Kampen.
Indeed, the media has been a driving force behind much of the sudden public appetite for vitamins and supplements. Since the pandemic hit home, articles on the best immune-boosting foods and vitamins have popped up on an almost daily basis. Certain vitamins have reaped the rewards more than others.
“We’ve seen a real surge in older retired shoppers going online – they overtrade in vitamins”
Vitamin C, for example, saw sales double in a month (see left), largely thanks to its widely reported links to the immune system.
“As more people discovered the importance of vitamin C and other antioxidants to help mop up oxidative stress and reduce inflammation from the immune system response to a viral attack, we saw a sharp increase in enquires about vitamin C,” says organic supplement company Newgen.
Some retailers have seen almost inconceivable sales rises. Premium wellness brand Solgar saw a 1,432% increase in sales of its standard vitamin C line and a 626% increase in its premium version, Ester-C, in March.
Vitamin D spike
It’s a similar story for vitamin D. In the month running up to lockdown, sales of the immune-boosting vitamin grew 29.8% [Kantar]. Since then, it has received another boost in the form of government guidance. On 23 April, Public Health England advised everyone – not just at-risk groups – to take 10 micrograms daily. This is particularly important during lockdown “because you may not be getting enough vitamin D from sunlight” PHE said.
Cue a massive spike in searches for vitamin D that day, as shown on Google Trends. That seems to have had an impact on sales. Bassetts singles out vitamin D as a particularly fast-growing product. “We’ve seen a spike in enquiries regarding vitamin D and this is more than likely due to people being indoors most of the day,” says Skye Lucas-Banks, marketing manager at Bassetts. Meanwhile, Holland & Barrett has seen sales of vitamin D products increase by over 3,000% since March, and personalised vitamin site Vitl.com reports a 267.8% increase in vitamin D sales over the month of April.
That was before this month’s publication of a scientific study finding “very significant correlation” between vitamin D levels and coronavirus-related deaths. The ensuing media reports could boost sales even further.
Not all press coverage is good press coverage, though. There have also been some dubious claims made around the impact of vitamins in the pandemic. In April, the ASA banned private medical clinics from advertising intravenous vitamin drips that claimed to help protect against the virus.
There were also rumours in the media of overseas doctors using high doses of vitamin C to successfully treat coronavirus. Such sensationalist claims could undermine the trust that has propelled vitamin sales. “It could be quite dangerous to take large doses of vitamin C,” stresses nutritionist Sana Khan, who has her own supplement range (see right). “Plus, it gives a false sense of protection, which is really dangerous.”
And danger is not an association anyone wants in today’s climate.
How Brits are staying beautiful in lockdown
Lockdown can go one of two ways for your appearance. Either you let go of grooming conventions and give in to caveman chic, or you up your efforts to ensure you will be ready to face the world once restrictions are eased.
A sizeable number of Brits fall into the latter camp, if sales of beauty supplements are anything to go by. Seb Vanderlinden, CEO of chewable vitamin business Yumi Nutrition, has seen an increased interest in products related to appearance.
He cites the 208% increase in orders of apple cider vinegar, which has been linked with weight loss, since the lockdown, “I think people are trying to pay attention to their weight,” says Vanderlinden. “Haircare and nail products have also sold really well.
“A few people are letting themselves go but others are paying extra attention and taking are of themselves, so when the lockdown is over they can go out and feel the benefit,” he adds.
Nutritionist Sana Khan has seen a similar trend. Sales of her own haircare supplement, Nourish by SK Hair Formula (pictured below) have skyrocketed since the pandemic hit and hairdressers shut their doors. “My sales of Hair Formula have tripled,” she says. “In the first week of lockdown, we sold around 200 units.”
That was partly down to media exposure. Not only did an influencer post ‘before’ and ‘after’ results of using the formula, but the product also gained coverage in the likes of Tatler and Glamour.
The success has also been down to consumer mindset, Khan believes. “A lot of people are doing more of those preventative beauty hacks right now, like leaving on hair masks,” she explains. “They’re investing in prevention. They’re not worried how they look now but after lockdown, when things start opening, they want to look and feel their best.”
Well, it certainly beats emerging into the world looking like a caveman.
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Emma won the PPA New Talent Award for New Section Editor of the Year in 2016. Prior to joining The Grocer in 2016, Emma was deputy and features editor at Chemist+Druggist, a weekly magazine and website for UK pharmacists.
Follow Emma on Twitter: @EmmaWeinbren