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Retailers Look to Capitalize on Protein Supplements and Sports Nutrition

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March 8th, 2013

Driven by a global obesity crisis and increasingly proactive consumer fitness trends, sports nutrition witnessed phenomenal growth during the review period (2007 to 2012). Averaging 7% constant value growth, sports nutrition far outperformed any other category of consumer health across the globe. Eager to capitalize on the category’s rising prominence, a host of major retailers have embraced the once rogue category and moved beyond simply providing shelf space to established mainstream brands to actually creating their own private label products. However, given the paramount importance of innovation and the category’s relative naissance in mass channels, retailers are expected to face a unique set of challenges in marketing their store brands.

A category comes out of the shadows

Until recently, sports nutrition existed on the far fringe of consumer health. Its close association with the niche bodybuilding world lent a negative image, revolving largely around concerns over suspect formulations, including steroids and other banned substances. While concern over illegal ingredients persists – even in the most advanced markets like the US and UK – the category has taken massive strides toward transparency and embracing average consumers. This comes at a time when the global obesity crisis and rising interest in healthy aging are driving millions of new consumers to reimagine the category. The resulting “mainstreaming” is having a transformative effect on the category. At its foundation, mainstreaming is the effort by many producers to attract and retain non-traditional users to sports nutrition by focusing on worry-free formulations (including third-party banned-substance-free certification), convenience formats, a greater emphasis on a general fitness message and, perhaps most importantly, greater accessibility in grocery stores and other popular mass retail channels.

Though the industry is making strides in expanding distribution, and individual brands like Muscle Milk have performed strongly in traditional retail channels, the mainstream retail landscape in general remains largely under-developed. Mass merchandisers, hypermarkets and supermarkets, which account for nearly a quarter of all retail sales globally, accounted for less than 10% of global sports nutrition sales in 2012. However, large retailers in these channels are increasingly warming to consumer health’s fastest-growing category.

Private label sports nutrition: A global snapshot

Unlike sports nutrition, few categories in consumer packaged goods are expected to grow by 40% through 2017. Along with the industry’s push to broaden user demographics, this outsized growth is a major factor in the increasing willingness of large retailers to take up sports nutrition products.

2012-2017 % CAGR for Consumer Health and Other Fitness-Relevant Categories

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Source: Euromonitor International

Unsurprisingly, retailers in the channels most important to global sports nutrition – other health and beauty specialist retailers like General Nutrition Centers Inc and Vitamin Shoppe Inc and other non-grocery retailers like sporting goods specialist Decathlon SA, specifically – were some of the first to capitalize by launching private label brands. In France, Decathlon’s Aptonia brand is one of the oldest, most established brands available. In 2012, it was the number-two brand in France, accounting for over 14% of the market.

Recently, more traditional retailing outlets, such as mass merchandisers, parapharmacies/drugstores, and grocery retailers, have moved to capitalize on the category’s growing appeal among average consumers. Parapharmacies/drugstores, which account for a significant amount of consumer health spending in most markets, are a natural fit for the category. Consumers tend to associate the channel with one-stop health shopping, which lends a sense of legitimacy to many of the products they carry. Relying on the overwhelmingly positive coverage protein has received recently in the health and wellness press, parapharmacies/drugstores like Germany’s Dirk Rossman KG have launched lines that focus on simple formulations and convenience formats, while India’s Guardian Lifecare Pvt Ltd – which is also GNC’s master franchisee for India – has sought to fill the brick-and-mortar gap for more advanced users with bulk powders and single ingredient products like creatine and l-glutamine. In a similarly ambitious foray, British hypermarket/supermarket chain Tesco launched its private label range Nutri1st in late 2011. The launch featured typical convenience formats, like protein bars, but was also one of the broadest-ranging, mass channel private label launches to date. Nutri1st includes three different protein powders (a high-calorie mass gainer, a whey protein powder, and whey and soy protein blend) in one- and two-kilo packages, as well as more advanced products like creatine monohydrate.

In the United States, the world’s largest parapharmacy/drugstore chain Walgreen Co provides an interesting example of how mass retailers could gain traction in sports nutrition. The company’s larger stores now feature separate sports nutrition sections in the supplement aisles, where Walgreens’ two separate lines of protein powders (one under the generic Walgreen’s banner, and a higher-priced version under its up-market private label brand Finest Nutrition) can be found. Though stocked with regular sports nutrition products, they are actually more akin to the protein supplements category of vitamins and dietary supplements, as they are not overtly positioned as muscle protein synthesis recovery mixes, but rather as a convenient way of adding protein to the diet with less fat and calories than whole food sources. These types of cross-over sports nutrition/vitamins and dietary supplements could prove alluring to consumers who, while eager to benefit from protein supplementation, still view the sports nutrition category as intimidating or even dangerous.

Walgreens’ Segmented Private Label Protein Supplements

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Targeting a new consumer type

Despite their push into the category, retailers are unlikely to gain much traction among the category’s core consumers. These hardcore workout enthusiasts, body builders and strength trainers tend to be price-insensitive, very well informed and on the hunt for the best formulations. To date, most private label options have focused on a small handful of high-profile ingredients, convenience formats and cost-saving techniques – such as using protein concentrates, instead of the more expensive isolates.

While unlikely to ever draw the core away from specialty retailers and the internet, private label could prove successful with the legions of fitness-interested, lifestyle consumers who are less familiar with the category and view it as an extension of the health and wellness movement. However, the commodity branding, so common in the parallel vitamins and dietary supplements category, is unlikely to appeal to lifestyle consumers. Brands like Aptonia are an excellent example of successful adopting lifestyle branding. The line’s sleek design, bold, but not overly aggressive colour schemes and its manageable array of formulations and formats lend the line credibility to consumers focused as much on presentation as efficacy. Crossover, general fitness/wellness positioning like those used by Walgreens could prove a significant draw.

As sports nutrition’s outsized growth and mass appeal grow, more and more traditional retailers are expected to enter the category. In an effort to squeeze every cent out of the category, more and more are expected to launch their own private label offerings. However, retailers will need to invest the time and energy that forays into parallel categories have lacked. In a category as driven by innovation, lifestyle imagery and branding as sports nutrition, traditional private label tactics simply will not do.

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Chris Schmidt

As a Senior Analyst, Chris co-directs Euromonitor’s consumer health research. Focusing on competitive analysis, Chris is responsible for the production Euromonitor’s company profiles and briefings on corporate strategy in the consumer health industry. He also serves as Euromonitor’s specialist in the vitamins and dietary supplements and sports nutrition categories.