Photo: Letizia Le Fur/Getty Impages
July 13, 2020
Wissam Messad, owner of Gotham Supplements in Harlem, noticed something different about his customers after coronavirus hit New York City back in March. They started asking a lot more questions.
"Usually people come into the store knowing what they're talking about," said Messad, whose tiny shop sells everything from vitamins to herbal teas and protein powders. "In April, we had people who didn't know anything. They just said, 'I don't want to get sick. What should I do?'"
Indeed, the sale of vitamins and supplements promoted for boosting immune health has skyrocketed in recent months as consumers worried about contracting coronavirus hedge their bets with alternative medicine.
Some top-sellers, such as Vitamin C and Zinc, are probably familiar to anyone who's ever stocked up at the pharmacy during the cold season. Others are more obscure, such as elderberry, cordyceps, and moringa, which have also become surprise hits amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"With the pandemic, sales were through the roof," said Joan Driggs, vice president of thought leadership and content for IRI, which tracks sales in the supplements market. "People were going toward products that they perceived as being able to help them to boost their immunity. They thought that they could pretty much protect themselves from COVID-19."
The actual health benefits of these products are a perennial topic of debate in the scientific community, with a whole field of study showing varying degrees of effectiveness for different vitamins and supplements.
In the case of coronavirus, a CDC guidance states clearly that "dietary supplements aren’t meant to treat or prevent COVID-19." But it also notes that "certain vitamins and minerals (e.g., Vitamins C and D, zinc) may have effects on how our immune system works to fight off infections, as well as inflammation and swelling."
In addition, there is an ongoing debate over whether Vitamin D in particular is useful in treating COVID-19, as some of the populations hardest hit by the virus also show a deficiency in the crucial vitamin. For now, scientists are uncertain if one fact has anything to do with the other.
"I don't think anyone in the industry is purposefully going out and saying consume this, take this supplement, take this vitamin to help prevent COVID-19," Driggs said. "I don't think any reputable company would try to benefit from messaging like that during a time like this."
The Vitamin Shoppe, which has 700 locations across the U.S., has expanded its immune support offerings since the beginning of the pandemic, but CEO Sharon Leite stressed that these products promote overall wellness rather than prevent a specific illness
"I want to emphasize that The Vitamin Shoppe does not sell any supplement products that prevent or cure COVID-19," she said. "We have a scientific and regulatory affairs team that works closely with our merchandising, marketing and retail teams to ensure the highest standards of quality and expertise in every product we sell."
That doesn't mean the company's not actively engaging with customers around their concerns over COVID-19. Its health care blog "What's Good" has seen record views in recent months as it shifts its focus to stress management, nutrition, sleep support, and immune health.
"We completely re-engineered marketing content and messaging to provide relevant education and guidance during COVID-19," Leite said.
For consumers, the connection is clear. Supplements marketed as immune boosters are leading the record spike in sales. In part, said Driggs, who has surveyed consumers, this stems from a desire to get a better handle on personal health amid so much uncertainty. The Great Recession spurred a similar buying binge, but the nature of the pandemic has only intensified the demand for alternative health care.
"People were either thinking they couldn't go to a doctor, or they were afraid to seek medical attention outside of the home because it would further expose them," Driggs said. Individuals with family members who were potentially more susceptible to the illness, she added, were also eager to boost their immunity in whatever they could.
The heightened interest in self-care is now leading to increased sales in other products not related directly to immunity.
"More recently we’ve seen a shift in interest to stress, sleep, foundational health, sports nutrition and proteins, weight management, and detox categories as the country opens up and consumers return to their fitness routines and wellness goals," Leite said.
For Messad, the sudden 50 percent increase in sales at Gotham Supplements from February to March has started to taper off. In May, the sales numbers started to trend down, but Messad also noticed an uptick in purchases of sleep aids and other general health issues.
"We have our regular customers, but we didn't have the craze where people were coming in and asking what they could take," he said.
Picking up the slack, for now, is the new juice bar at the front of the store, which is helping bring more customers into the shop.
"The juice bar is helping us," he said. "We're definitely still up."