As the UK entered lockdown in March, sales of immunity boosting products skyrocketed, with consumers seeking to improve their health in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rodney Steel, Chief Executive of the BCMPA, the association for contract manufacturing, packing, fulfilment and logistics, discovers how members have dealt with the demand and asks what the future holds for the nutraceutical industry
For people who take their health and well-being seriously, a nutraceutical solution is available for almost everything.
From supplying more energy and improving brain function to wanting shinier hair or clearer skin, there is a vitamin or supplement that can help.
Unfortunately, there is no single pill to combat the risk of COVID-19. Nevertheless, as the virus began to spread throughout the UK, members of the BCMPA were soon reporting huge demand for vitamins, minerals and supplements (VMS) as consumers tried to support their immune health, boost overall wellness and reduce anxiety.
A major upturn in sales at the beginning of spring is not a usual phenomenon on the nutraceutical production calendar. This meant that members had to adjust operations overnight, quite literally, to meet demand during a time when the world was also entering lockdown.
The experiences of Clare Campbell, Managing Director of Health Innovations, are typical of many companies in the industry. “We saw the demand for immunity products increase ten-fold since March and it has only continued to grow,” she commented. “Typically, our highest volume months are from September to March, which is certainly not the case at the moment, as forecasts show sales of key immunity lines will continue at current levels from now into the next calendar year.”
Health Innovations has witnessed a particular increase in higher strength dosage lines. In response, says Campbell, the company extended and further developed its portfolio of immunity products by introducing higher dosage formats, as well as children’s chewable vitamin D and immunity complex products.
Another product racing off the shelves in recent months was vitamin C, as Tom Humphrey, Director at Oxford Contract Manufacturing explained: “The demand for products marketed as immune-enhancing, in particular vitamin C, have been far higher even than what we would usually witness during the flu season in the winter months.”
Tony Barlow of Holland & Barrett said that, alongside vitamins, nuts such as almonds and walnuts were also strong sellers.
Many of these surges in demand can be attributed to the constant stream of advice circulating in the media, with the shift in sales of certain products mirrored in the latest headlines.
David Goodings, Managing Director for Redrose Manufacturing, cited one example: “We saw a significant increase in sales of vitamin D as soon as Public Health England made the announcement advising that everyone — not just at-risk groups — should be taking this supplement during lockdown owing to a lack of exposure to the sun.”
Nevertheless, it has not been a case of sales increases across the board. Sports nutrition products suffered from the closure of gyms during the lockdown, reports Vicky McIver, Managing Director of Power Health. However, this is when the flexibility of contract manufacturers and packers can really come to the fore.
“We quickly adapted our lines to fit with the latest consumer requirements,” said McIver. “For example, we launched a hand sanitiser in response to the high demand for this type of product and, not surprisingly, sold thousands.” Oxford Contract Manufacturing, meanwhile, has manufactured several products to be used in NHS trials to see if vitamins can aid the recovery of COVID-19 patients.
At the same time, these changes in buying habits and spikes in demand occurred at a time when the entire supply chain was having to cope with the lockdown, meaning that the nutraceutical industry found itself operating in an entirely new world and one to which it had to adjust immediately. From sourcing raw materials to packaging and distributing products, this new landscape came with an array of challenges.
“We experienced an understandable shortage of ingredients and other constituent parts used in the manufacture of our finished products,” said Goodings. “A number of our ingredients originate in China and the Far East where the initial lockdowns were introduced; obtaining ingredients from other areas of the world, including Europe, proved harder than it would normally be.”
Campbell agreed: “We struggled with accessing PPE supplies for staff along with certain ingredients earlier in the year; but, with contracted volumes and contingency approved suppliers, the disruption was kept to a minimum and we have managed to secure and procure increased raw materials in line with revised forecasts.”
Added to this, all BCMPA companies had to adapt production to provide a COVID-safe working environment: “We purchased more equipment and built additional cleanrooms to enable us to continue production while keeping our employees safe,” said Humphrey. “Luckily, in our industry, we are used to heightened levels of cleanliness and proper handwashing in line with GMP principles, so adapting to meet the new guidelines wasn’t too much of a challenge.”
At Holland & Barrett, working practices were reviewed and adapted. “We introduced staggered start times and break times, and employees had their temperatures taken as they arrived on site,” said Barlow. “As well as increased cleaning and the use of masks and sanitisers, we established a dedicated helpline for staff.”
For all members, maintaining good supplier relationships was critical to overcoming logistical and sourcing challenges. As items such as cleaning alcohol, face masks and filters began to rocket in price and plummet in availability, the long-term working partnerships that many had established with their suppliers helped to ensure they remained stocked up throughout the crisis.
Such relationships will remain vital in the (hopefully) post-COVID world, when considerations such as sustainability will no doubt take centre stage again and companies will need to respond quickly to changing trends and consumer concerns.
For example, Tony Barlow believes there will be increased demand for individual packs in the future, whereas Vicky McIver predicts further increases in online sales, both of which will have an influence on pack designs. And, as we look to the future, the question is whether the current consumer focus on health and well-being is here to stay long-term, and how this will impact on the nutraceuticals sector.
David Goodings said that although sales of certain popular products during the pandemic have reduced during the last couple of months, they are still higher than pre-crisis volumes.
Since July, there has also been a noticeable shift back to the more typically wide range of products that used to be purchased.
This underlines the fact that prior to COVID-19, the nutraceuticals industry was already experiencing impressive growth, with a report this year from Research and Markets forecasting global sales to be worth more than $722 billion by 2027, increasing by 8% annually.1 The pandemic has, therefore, further widened the appeal of products that support general well-being.
As Clare Campbell confirmed: “The pandemic has left a lasting impact on consumer behaviour and raised awareness of the need for certain vitamins and minerals that may not always be available from the diet. As the world learns more about COVID-19, we strongly believe the awareness and understanding of the importance of vitamins and minerals will also grow.”
Goodings agreed, yet he hoped that, moving forward, people would not be under the false pretence that they can prevent themselves from catching the virus by simply taking a product that boosts the immune system. “There are no miracle ingredients or formulations that have immediate and overnight effects, and nutraceutical products can only help to support the general practice of good health and well-being,” he pointed out.
Although the pandemic has been a challenging period for all involved in the production, manufacture and packing of nutraceuticals, BCMPA members remain confident for the future and believe they are in a strong position to support the current and future demands for VMS products.
Many have introduced new facilities to increase capacity. Indeed, the nutraceutical sector was already in a healthy state before the pandemic.
The unprecedented circumstances earlier this year were undoubtedly challenging but, as a result of strong customer relationships, advanced facilities, the ability to adapt quickly, introduce new product lines and extend ranges, BCMPA members were able to demonstrate their extensive capabilities and resilience — attributes that will also serve them well as the industry continues to grow.