Retailing dietary supplements and natural products in 2022: An opportunity for improvement

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 25, Issue 1

COVID will continue to impact supplement retailing. But instead of scrambling to adjust, brands have the opportunity to hone their omnichannel strategy and improve long-distance retail relationships.

If it hasn’t yet become clear, allow us to be the first to inform you: COVID isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And supplement brands need to realize, sooner rather than later, that working with retailers in 2022 will include more of the same challenges—and opportunities—they’ve experienced over the past two years.

According to Natural Grocers (Lakewood, CO) Vice President of Purchasing Laura Perkins, brands can continue to expect limited in-person meetings and the ongoing use of mediums like Zoom and Teams. But that’s not to say that face-to-face interactions can (or should) disappear entirely. “Face-to-face meetings and the combination of alignment, collaboration, and innovation are not replaced by Teams and Zoom,” says Brian Hoke, general merchandise manager at The Vitamin Shoppe (Secaucus, NJ), noting that it’s more challenging for brands to break into new retailers without the in-person meetings and trade shows where personal connections are often made. That’s why it’s more important than ever that brands are in tune with what retailers need in the coming year and maximize what meetings they do have, whether they’re virtual or in-person.

First, Hoke says it’s critical in 2022 that supplement brands collaborate with retailers on exclusive innovations that enhance the retailer’s current offerings. “Include and partner with the retailer’s merchant team from the beginning of the innovation process, for alignment,” he says. “Shop the retail store and understand where your brand and product fit, and if it has a purpose. You can’t just be good; you need to be better than what you replace.” For Natural Grocers, the brands that best fit on its shelves understand its stores as well as the principles, standards, and goals that guide its business. “At Natural Grocers, we have very high standards for all of our products, including vitamins and supplements,” says Perkins. “All products must go through a vetting process before making it to our shelves, and we won’t carry a product if it does not meet our criteria.” As such, it’s important for brands to understand each store’s unique criteria as well as why they’re important to the retailer and its customers throughout the process of developing relationships as well as products. But remaining mindful of a store’s values isn’t a task limited to determining which ingredients go into a product; Perkins says brands must also look at supporting efficiencies in ordering and shipping as well as reducing packaging and packaging waste if these values are important to a brand’s target store and consumer.

Indeed, shipping is becoming a huge differentiator for brands, says Hoke, and it’s his opinion that supplement brands must ship 95% of their orders on time in order to be valued by a retailer. “Retailers can no longer wait for a brand’s current item to be in stock, as they must support the customer, and need to move on from partners who can’t support forecasted inventory needs,” he says, which have increased during COVID as more people shop online in addition to in store. Indeed, Hoke says that supplement retailers will want to partner with brands capable of filling orders from customers who shop both ways. “Brands should expect retailers to require an omni partnership and not be store-only,” he says. “Our Vitamin Shoppe customers love to experience both our stores and web business, and we will support our customers.”

If you ask Hoke, it could take several years until consumers return to their pre-COVID behaviors, and COVID is not likely to ever go away entirely. As shipping and supply chain concerns mount, it’s important to retailers that brands be aware of their pipeline concerns, invest the money needed to improve them, prioritize distribution, and be aware of the changes in customer needs and shopping habits, says Hoke, especially as more consumers are newly prioritizing wellness and shopping where experts can support them on their journey. “Education and innovation will continue to give customers a reason to be in store, and those who invest in this will position their business for the next 10 years,” he says. At Natural Grocers, Perkins says brands should continue to provide more transparency and science-based data, which helps the store’s standards team vet products against store guidelines—and can also help employees on the floor educate consumers coming in with questions. “Lastly, invest in customer acquisition and retention, as the wellness business will continue to have incredible growth for the foreseeable future,” says Hoke, especially as more consumers prioritize their health amidst a pandemic.