Every year, like clockwork, winter arrives, and with it the inevitable onslaught of coughs, fevers and runny noses that marks the beginning of cold and flu season. The silver lining for retailers is the opportunity to provide effective relief for these conditions, while educating customers on how to support their immune systems with both foods and supplements.

Stocking strategies
Marketing cold and flu supplements and homeopathics is the easy part of the equation. Often, distributors can do much of the work for you. "We provide planograms for cold and flu sections, which can work as an end cap for stores or a guideline for layout of a cold and flu section, including homeopathics, within the supplements department," says Mary Jo Marks, natural and organic category specialist for natural products distributor UNFI, based in Dayville, Conn.

Stores that already stock by section rather than by line, so cold and flu remedies are always placed together, can use featured specials to draw attention to this area. "In the winter months, there's always something on sale, and you can pass on those sales to customers," Marks says. In addition to featuring popular products like Nature's Way's Umcka and Boiron's oscillococcinum, the section can also include lozenges, herbs and more. "Putting everything together narrows the field for the customer," Marks says. "You can even include teas from Traditional Medicinals and Yogi Tea, and functional beverages." The register area can also feature in the battle against colds and flu. "A lot of trial-size natural supplements and cold remedies are available now for placement at point of purchase," Marks says, "and cough drops and single packs of Emergen-C should also be available." Trial sizes may tempt customers to try something new, or even take home an array of options to see what works best for their health.

Often, distributors can do much of the work for you.

It can be harder to call customer attention to refrigerated items and bulk foods with immune-enhancing functions. "For retailers, the best way to market for colds and flu is to stress the immune system, and especially the importance of probiotics," says Michael Schuett, president of GBMM Consulting, based in Boulder, Colo. "I think shelf talkers are extremely important, not only to point out probiotics and yogurt, but other immune-enhancing products, like açai and goji antioxidant beverages and omega-3 fatty acids with an antioxidant like krill oil added."

Marks also likes shelf talkers to draw attention to featured products. "You can create a theme throughout the store with a "great for colds and flu" shelf talker, as long as you don't overdo it," Marks says.

Reading material
For more in-depth education, newsletters and brochures may be the best bet. "The February edition of our Health Hotline newsletter features an article on foods for the cold and flu season, an article on Umcka and recipes," says Heather Isley, executive vice president of Vitamin Cottage, a naturals chain based in Lakewood, Colo. "In our November issue, we featured [the immune-enhancing herb] andrographis."

The food article in this month's Health Hotline focuses on "probiotics as defense mechanisms to make you healthier, and also on basic foods that stimulate the immune system when you do get sick, like mushrooms and chicken soup itself," Isley says. Other information includes ways of getting vitamin D in the diet and eliminating foods that slow immune function, such as refined grains and sugar.

Isley prefers newsletters over shelf talkers because of the kind of information that can be conveyed. "The newsletter is considered third-party literature, while the shelf talker is an extension of labeling, so you have to be more careful what you say on those," Isley says. "In a newsletter, you can discuss outcome studies and disease states, instead of talking only about the way a product supports the body."

Don't forget sampling
Sampling and tastings are additional ways to promote products in cold and flu season. "Any of the superfruit juices can be demoed, and cooking demos using ingredients like goji berries can show customers how to use these products in their daily diet," Marks says.

Demos are especially important when featuring new or unusual products. "We come in and do tastings and educate the employees, and we also provide a book about our products," says Michelle O'Shaughnessy, a doctor of Oriental medicine and the owner of Healing Herbal Soups in Orlando, Fla. Her five soups, which are made according to the principles of Chinese medicine, are based on the five elements. "In winter, I suggest the metabolism stimulator soup, which contains thermogenic herbs like ginger, cardamom and nutmeg, as well as astragalus for the immune system," O'Shaughnessy says.

Be a teacher
Customers increasingly understand—or at least know about—the benefits of antioxidants, probiotics and herbal remedies in maintaining immune function, but naturals stores still hold the edge over mainstream competitors in the area of information and education. "I've seen Walmart and Costco getting heavily involved in probiotics, and I'm excited to see the mainstream picking this up," says Schuett of GBMM Consulting. "I think it helps the industry, because it drives more consumers to awareness. Education is a huge thing, and people go into naturals stores because they want to know what products contain the best antioxidants and the best probiotics."

When employees can help customers—especially those who are new to the naturals aisles—untangle the information on diet, supplements and immune health, chances are they not only help address cold and flu concerns, but also win a repeat customer. "Our employees are educated and can answer questions, and we also have nutritional health coaches in our stores to answer questions," Isley says. "We really try to promote nutrition education within the communities we serve."

Naturals stores still hold the edge over mainstream competitors in the area of information and education.

Of course, employees also have to be careful with the information they provide. "It's a good idea to have a guide like Prescription for Nutritional Healing (Avery, 2000) available for customers," Marks says. "Employees can certainly educate, but they can't diagnose, so you have to know where to draw the line."

As words like probiotics and antioxidants enter the general vocabulary, naturals stores can use a combination of signage, special sections, third-party literature and employee education to provide a level of knowledge that mainstream competitors can't match. There may be no cure for the common cold, but at least customers will know where to go when they get sick.

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.