Over the 12 weeks to 24 January, cold and flu products such as cough liquids, decongestants and cold treatments saw sales slump by 49% compared with January 2020, the biggest decline for the sector ever. This is a decline of £67 million in cash terms, as just 24% of the UK population purchased a cold and flu product this season, a decline of 8.4 million shoppers year on year. There’s several factors directly linked to the pandemic that contributed to this decline.
Reduced social contact
With many of us working from home, and schools and non-essential retailers remaining closed, the number of people we are coming in to contact with is much lower than usual. Alongside social distancing measures, this could be limiting the spread of common winter bugs this year, and therefore our need for remedies to treat them.
In addition to social distancing, over the past year (52 weeks to 24 January 2021) we’ve seen a huge rise sales of hygiene products, such as liquid soap and hand sanitiser (up 129%) and disinfectants (up 77%) meaning we are keeping our hands and our homes clean from germs and viruses.
During this time, we’ve also increased our protection against colds by taking more vitamins than ever, with 49% of the population buying the category. Sales of Vitamin D supplements are particularly strong, having increased 89% as consumers look to boost their immune system in light of the pandemic.
Well-stocked medicine cabinets
Another factor to also consider is that in March 2020 we saw a large number of consumers stocking up on cold and flu remedies in anticipation of the first national lockdown. This meant sales during this time where unseasonably high, up 22%. Lots of this stock hasn’t been used up, meaning that shoppers haven’t needed to replenish their medicine cabinets this cold and flu season.
Moreover, the variability of British weather may have played a role. Temperatures at the start of the winter season in November and December were slightly milder than in previous years. On the other hand, January was a colder month... but any potential for spreading bugs during this cold snap was hampered by the latest lockdown coming into effect.
Looking ahead, with consumers continuing to prioritise health and hygiene and with many of us still working from home, it’s likely that sales of winter remedies will not return to previous levels for quite some time.
Matt Maxwell appeared on Radio 4 You and Yours on Monday 22 February to talk about this story. You can listen again on BBC Sounds (12:39 onwards).