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The big chill: cold and flu report

Cold and flu season is here.


Autumn is that time when kids go back to school, when the leaves change colours, when homeowners put away the patio furniture and cottagers take the boats out of the water. It’s also the start of flu season. Most Canadians dread that tickle in the throat that turns into a painful cough. Or the sniffl e that leads to a runny nose and a throbbing headache. And when the symptoms appear, they want relief–the sooner, the better.

Over-the-counter flu and cold remedies provide the quickest fix and retailers report that up to 75% of their yearly sales of these products occur between late October and early March. They are also among the top-selling items in drugstores or the pharmacy departments of supermarkets during winter months. As well, consumers tend to buy for immediate needs as opposed to future use by a margin of almost two to one. Nielsen Company data for the 52 weeks ended April 30 reveals that single packs accounted for 64% of sales of throat lozenges, while multipacks represented 34% of the total.

“Cough and cold medicines tend to be impulse purchases,” says Stewart Schneider, marketing director at TFB & Associates in Markham, Ont. TFB is the Canadian distributor of Fisherman’s Friend, a throat lozenge developed and manufactured in England. “People get a cough. They need something right away. A lot of consumers won’t walk by the checkout counters; they buy whatever is on display at the point of sale.”

That may be changing, though. Steven Wallace, vice-president of marketing for Afexa Life Sciences, the Edmonton-based company that developed Cold FX, says he’s detected some changes in demand for over-thecounter remedies in recent years. For one thing, Canadians are beginning to think about prevention rather than waiting until they are coughing or congested and then scrambling for some relief. He attributes the change in part to last year’s H1N1 scare, as well as public health campaigns promoting flu shots.

“Consumers are a lot more attuned to prevention and protecting themselves,” says Wallace. “H1N1 was a catalyst for a lot of people who previously hadn’t thought about protection. For us it’s good because consumers are buying our products a lot earlier than they used to. There’s a lot of pantry loading going on now.”

A U.S. study done last winter by Bionorica, a maker of natural remedies, found moms in particular are paying more attention to cold and flu prevention. The top two ways moms in the survey are keeping their children from getting sick are a healthy diet (87% of respondents); and regular exercise (84%). But 76% also cited giving their kids vitamin supplements and 45% said they use natural remedies with children.

Bayer Canada is also touting prevention through year-round consumption of its multivitamins, which help support the body’s immune system. Bayer’s One a Day multivitamins are the No. 1 seller in Canada. The company has a similar product for children, Flintstones Chewable Vitamins, which are sold as a hard tablet or in a gummy format. Both have been formulated to support healthy growth and development in children and have been available for more than 40 years.

Over-the-counter flu and cold remedies provide the quickest fix. Retailers report that up to 75% of their yearly sales of these products occur between late October and early March

Prevention or not, when shoppers do get sick they tend to reach for tried-and-true brands they’ve used before, which can work against the introduction of new products. Fisherman’s Friend, for instance, is one of those stalwart brands. The extra-strength lozenges are the company’s top-selling SKU in Canada.

James Lofthouse, a pharmacist who owned a drugstore in the port town of Fleetwood in northwest England, developed them in 1865. Lofthouse created the product as a liquid remedy for local fishermen and initially sold it in bottles. But the glass containers had a tendency to break in rough seas, so he developed a lozenge and sold the hard tablets in small paper packets. Other residents of the town began buying the lozenges and they dubbed them the “fisherman’s friend.” The name stuck.

One new product has made a big splash in the last decade, however: Cold FX, which is based on proprietary natural products. It’s an immune-system booster designed to prevent colds and flu and reduce the duration and severity of symptoms.

Afexa began marketing Cold FX in 2003 and got a big break the following year when hockey commentator Don Cherry agreed to promote the product in TV ads. By the end of 2004, more than 4,000 Canadian pharmacies, food and health-care stores were stocking the product. According to Nielsen, it is now the No. 1 selling cold and flu product in Canada.

Cold and flu season may be as predictable as fall colours, but that doesn’t mean every grocer is going to move a lot of over-the-counter medication. “I carry a limited supply of over-the-counter medications,” says Brian Leduc, co-owner of a Foodland store in Owen Sound, Ont. “Most people are getting the flu shot these days.”

Bob Park, a Sobeys franchisee in Haliburton, Ont., says he has cut back on his entire offering. “I get beat up on price because of the pharmacies,” he says. “They have much bigger buying power. I’m down to three linear feet of shelf space. I used to have eight.” 

Retailers may also want to avoid using last year’s sales as a metric of success in the category. Last year’s H1N1 had people scrambling to stock up on medicines in case they got sick. Last fall, Nielsen in the U.S. determined that the H1N1 flu boosted cough and cold category sales 4% in dollars and 14% in units. And the number of households buying hand sanitizers soared more than 130%.


3 Merchandising Tips

1. Display top-selling remedies in highvisibility locations, such as at the checkout counters, to capture impulse buyers. These customers are usually suffering from flu or cold symptoms and need help as quickly as possible.

2. Display your flu and cold remedies in more than one spot. Retailers can create a dedicated over-the-counter medication section in a regular aisle as well as displaying them in the store’s health supplements section.

3. Capitalize on related categories. For instance, germs are a major fear amongst moms during cold and flu season. So promote cleaning products that kill bacteria and hand sanitizers. And promote healthy foods like orange juice and superfruits that’ll bring a bit of sunshine to shoppers during the dark days of winter.

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