Less flu anxiety in 2010

October 14, 2010

The tools consumers can use to keep influenza (including the H1N1 virus) are fairly common

The tools consumers can use to keep influenza (including the H1N1 virus) are fairly common - hand sanitizers and facial tissues among them. They're part of the talk every year when health experts advise who should be vaccinated and project if enough vaccine is available. At the same time, retailers (especially those with pharmacies) aim to capitalize on the season by offering low-cost injections they hope will bring productive customer traffic into stores.

Yet the H1N1 health threat that surfaced in the United States in April 2009 and abated by that October led to sales surges in categories such as hand sanitizers and facial tissues.   According to Nielsen data for four-week periods in U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (including Walmart), dollar sales of hand sanitizers in the four weeks ended May 16, 2009 soared 211.7% over the same period a year earlier on a 447.7% equivalized unit volume (EUV) jump.

There must have been a lot of stocking up because the dollar sales jump in the following four weeks ended June 13, 2009 was a less dramatic but still robust 61.6% on an 87.7% EUV rise vs. the same year-ago period. By summertime, in the four weeks ended July 11, 2009, dollar sales were up just 7.6% on a 14.1% EUV boost over the year-earlier period.

Without the same high anxiety facing Americans in 2010, category sales during those same four-week periods fell precipitously. Nielsen reported that dollar sales of hand sanitizers fell 66.7% on a 72.8% EUV drop in the four weeks ended May 15, 2010. The category has continued on a double-digit slide in the subsequent four-week periods, down 36.0%, 17.7%, 14.6% and most recently 24.5% to $18.1 million in the four weeks ended September 4, 2010.

Still, the figures from last year serve as an object lesson for retailers whenever a similar health scare arises, and helps merchants ready prepare for such narrow-window sales opportunities. These performance swings aren't unexpected, yet they were in the single digits for facial tissues over these same 2009-2010 periods. Indeed, facial tissues posted a 1.3% dollar sales increase in the four weeks ended September 4, 2010 to $99.4 million over the same year-ago period

Examining performance on an annual basis, the more mature facial tissues category suffered a 3.5% drop in dollar sales to $1.31 billion in the 52 weeks ended September 4, 2010 on a 2.7% EUV dip. By comparison, dollar sales of the comparatively young hand sanitizers category advanced 21.8% to $198.2 million, albeit on a 5.5% EUV decline, reported Nielsen. Both branded and private label sales grew within hand sanitizers, but PL growth set a higher pace and ended the period with a 33.8% share of dollar sales.

Part of the backdrop for this coming cough/cold/flu season: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says manufacturers will produce 170 million doses of vaccine.  This is higher than the 100 million doses in a typical flu season, but is lower than the 200 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine ordered by the federal government last year.