Vitamin sales depend on several factors

October 13, 2008

Baby boomer health concerns are just the beginning of what drives vitamin sales.

Key Points

Which vitamin will give me energy?" "I don't eat right, and I'm tired all the time." These are just a few of the comments that pharmacist Ann Greene routinely hears from patients when they ask her advice on which vitamins to take.

The comments are consistent with results of an exclusive Drug Topics survey, "Over-the-Counter (OTC) Vitamin Recommendations for Patients," conducted online during the first two weeks of August. The survey asked pharmacists a series of questions about OTC vitamins, including how they counsel patients on OTC vitamin choices, the specific products they recommend and how vitamin sales contribute to the bottom line at their stores.

Survey results from the 323 respondents indicate an increase of vitamin sales. In fact, 73 percent of respondents reported that their pharmacies are selling more vitamins today than they were a year ago.

Stacey Swartz, PharmD, Senior Director of Pharmacy Affairs for the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) said in the association's annual survey of nutraceutical products sold by its members that during the past five years vitamins ranked very high – around 89 percent in member responses – as niche products.

Respondents' answers indicate OTC sales for the average retail pharmacy account for 18 percent of their stores' gross revenues. According to respondents, if pharmacies had the resources to counsel patients, sales could be much higher than that. Limitations on time and resources restrict what pharmacists can do. Respondents reported that on average, pharmacists counsel only 22 patients weekly on OTC vitamin selections, spending an average of less than four minutes with each patient.

Cindy Mende, RPH, explained, "I would definitely think that if a store had a pharmacist that had the time to consult with patients on the OTCs, they would sell more. In this day and age, most companies expect the pharmacists to churn out more prescriptions with less help."

Mende said that when she managed a pharmacy that was adequately staffed, she was able to be out on the floor and spending time in consultation with patients interested in OTC products. "I probably consulted 25-plus people a day, and I am sure the vitamin and OTC section was a much larger percentage of sales," Mende said.

Swartz said that this tends to be more of an issue in a chain store. "Pharmacists generally don't have the time to counsel on anything," she said. "The independents I know have real active niches in this [vitamin sales]. They have dedicated staff who can talk about all the medications, their interactions, and what they are used to treat for, and provide the science behind it."

Pharmacists are more educated about the role that vitamins play in patients' health and wellness. Part of their licensing board exam now requires pharmacists to be tested on nutraceutical products. "I had to know what a drug-to-drug interaction was between conventional pharmaceuticals and say St. John's wart. So with your newer graduates, they have had more of the learning experience, because you had to study it for your boards," Swartz said.

Baby Boomers: Health Concerns Drive Growth

The growth of vitamin sales is really a combination of factors. An aging population, a more health-conscious society, and a movement toward a "greener" way of life are just some of the reasons respondents think vitamin use is on the upswing. "Advertising" and "consumer awareness of the benefits of vitamins" were two of the most common responses to the question of what is driving the growth of vitamin sales. "Patients' increased awareness of health issues, the perceived need for vitamin supplementation, and advertising," one respondent said.

Another respondent answered, "Doctors' and pharmacists' recommendations to patients to improve overall health, plus the aging baby-boomer patient population, which is much more aware and proactive about their health today."

Many respondents reported that patients believe that they can correct their health problems by taking just the right pill. "Patients believe that there is a one-pill cure for not sleeping and eating right," pharmacist Ann Greene said.

Mende echoed this sentiment. "As the population ages, you have a bunch of baby boomers who are trying to hold back aging, so I think we are selling more vitamins than we were a year ago."