With savvy – and increasingly cautious – shoppers opting to stock up on own label in autumn rather than buy brands on impulse, who’s winning in winter remedies, asks Natalie Brown

The battle for the bunged up noses of Britain looks set to be fiercer than ever this year.

Following last month's warnings that Britain is facing one of the worst winter flu outbreaks for years, analysts are predicting major offensives from the big brands as they attempt to regain ground lost to own-label and build on the past year's overall sales recovery.

Fear of a flu epidemic together with a particularly snotty cold season last year has led to 4.2% value and 3.4% volume growth in the category reversing a 1% dip in value and volume the previous year [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 7 August].

Sales have been boosted by what Reckitt Benckiser health and personal care marketing director Refik Oner describes as "record levels of cold and flu incidences, up 35% on the previous year". And if 2010 is anything to go by, this month could be key.

Last winter, many people stocked up on remedies before they fell ill, contributing to an early start to the cold and flu season sales-wise and a record October for some retailers and manufacturers.

"About 20% of total year sales were in October the biggest proportion ever," says Paul Gurnell, GlaxoSmithKline UK consumer healthcare category controller.

Own label was by far the biggest beneficiary. Sales soared 20.5% in value prompting a fall in sales for many big-name brands, including Beechams (down 6%), Sudafed (down 8%) and Vicks (down 3.5%) [SymphonyIRI 52w/e 9 July 2011].

"In autumn people are stocking up, so they're looking for cheaper products," Gurnell explains. "As the cold and flu season kicks in, people start to buy things like Beechams Ultra as distress purchases."

Tesco was the fastest-growing retailer in the category, according to Kantar thanks chiefly to its growing estate of in-store pharmacies (currently 340), which allow it to stock more powerful remedies. "We've seen significant growth in our own-label cold and flu products," confirms a Tesco spokesman.

"Customers are realising own label is just as good. Last winter, we had our widest range of own-label products ever."

Sainsbury's, the only major mult to lose shoppers last year [Kantar] is working more closely with suppliers this year, says healthcare buyer Richard Holland. "December continues to be our busiest month, but we are offering stronger discounts earlier in the season."

Canny shoppers are not just frequenting supermarkets. They are also heading for the discounters, says Kantar, pointing to an 11% increase in shoppers at the likes of Lidl and Aldi. As Kantar Worldpanel analyst Ashley Anzie says: "Average prices at the discounters are among the lowest in the market, so this should come as no surprise."

Poundland is luring shoppers in with larger than normal pack sizes, but the retailer stresses that all of its winter remedies are available elsewhere.

Some brands may be looking at retail channels, but others have raised their games on the marketing and promotional front. GSK, for instance, offered link-save promotions on its Nurses brand, which alongside a "large scale investment" in training pharmacy professionals about the brand, helped it grow 9.2% in value, according to Gurnell [SymphonyIRI].

Oner puts the 3.3% growth of Reckitt Benckiser's Lemsip and the 12.4% hike in sales of Karvol [SymphonyIRI] down to NPD, marketing and promotions.

Sales of winter remedies are dependent on more than promotions, however. Sales will vary according to the types of virus prevalent each season and the symptoms involved.

"Over the past year we have seen more cough-related viruses, so people have bought more cough liquids," says Anzie.

Lozenges have also had a strong year. "Helped in part by price average prices are below £1 we've seen a 3% increase in lozenge shoppers," he says.

This winter promises to be better still, says Susan Nash, trade communications manager at Kraft Foods, owner of Halls medicated sweets. "The season started with a bang this year," she says, attributing a 14% uplift in value sales [Nielsen 12w/e 6 August] to growing impulse purchases by having retailers place Halls on or close to the counter with mints and gum.

Facial tissues

Encouraging impulse purchases through promotions, NPD and work with retailers has also been key to the success of tissues market leader Kleenex, says marketing manager Chris Craig. "Across most categories, consumers are drawn to own-label products by pricing," says Craig. "However, in 2011, Kleenex has grown ahead of retailer brands in the facial tissues category."

Nielsen puts Kleenex's year-on-year growth at 6.6% for the year to 3 September and Craig is predicting another strong year on the back of what he claims is the "largest-ever marketing budget" for the brand.

Kleenex isn't alone in splashing the cash. In September, Reckitt Benckiser unveiled its £10m 'Don't lose a day' campaign for Lemsip, Strepsils and Meltus, with social media, TV, radio, PR, and in-store activity.

GSK is pumping £1.2m into Nurses this year, the range's first marketing spend in three years and Beechams will receive £2.3m in above-the-line support.

With dire warnings of flu epidemics already making headlines and the march of own label continuing, the cold war looks set to hot up in the coming year.

Focus On Winter Remedies