A Lifestyle Approach

The diabetic products category can offer shoppers more than lower blood sugar.

If there were a product that about one out of every three Americans could benefit from, any retailer would be wise to promote it.

A whole section of products whose target audience is roughly a third of the U.S. population is one that any supermarket should not only market to its customers but also attempt to use as a way of converting those customers into loyal shoppers.

Diabetic products are just such a category. A growing number of Americans either have Type 2 diabetes or are borderline, and the customer base for these products is increasing every year.

"Right now in America, about 23 million people are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes," says John Wernowsky, president of Issaquah, Wash.-based In Life Business Group. "There are another 79 million pre-diabetics. It used to be that pre-diabetics weren't discussed much [as a target audience for these products], but diagnosed diabetics and pre-diabetics are about one-third of the U.S. population — these all are the potential customers."

As more people find a need for these products, the category has experienced sales growth. "In the diabetic category we're seeing double-digit growth for the third consecutive year, both for our product [CinSulin] and solid growth for the category," Wernowsky says.

The reason? "People are more aware of where their current health position is than ever before," he explains. "Also, the Internet is a great tool for people to get information and for those who are looking for alternatives. More people are empowering themselves with information and making more decisions about their own health, which helps the products in this category."

When looking at the category, some retailers have begun to shift their marketing emphasis. Traditionally, the category has been targeted at those customers who have already been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, with products such as testing supplies and items associated with insulin delivery. However, an increasing number of these patients are getting their supplies through the Internet or from a particular retail pharmacy that features a specific testing meter.

For many retailers, the shift has been to focus their diabetic products sections towards those shoppers that are pre-diabetic, a group which outnumbers diagnosed diabetics by more than three to one. These are shoppers that have been diagnosed with high blood sugar levels and may already be on oral medications.

While still actively carrying the products for diagnosed patients, stores are have begun to bring in more of the products that target the shoppers who are on the road towards diabetes but are making an effort to keep from becoming full-blown diabetics. These shoppers are looking at supplements and natural blood sugar-lowering products, as well as sugar-free products and weight management aids.

"The drug chains, mass marketers, warehouse clubs and health food stores have all been in the forefront of driving this category," Wernowsky contends. "Food stores have not gone after these customers aggressively."

Wernowsky believes supermarkets may be missing the boat by not catering to these customers. Many of these shoppers are looking for a healthier lifestyle and seeking diets that have less sugar and carbohydrates, or are trying to lose weight. Supermarkets have more product choices that can help these shoppers achieve the healthier lifestyle they are seeking than any of the competing retail channels.

Therefore, Wernowsky advises supermarket retailers to gear the marketing towards lifestyle changes instead of towards simply managing a diagnosed disease.

Another Approach

Recently, another approach to expanding the diabetic products section was uncovered. A 13-year federal study that was exploring the link between exercise, diet and cardiovascular disease among people with Type 2 diabetes was halted two years early because there was no difference in the rates of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol among those patients who followed an intensive exercise and diet program and those who in a control group.

"This is important because it says that diet and exercise aren't enough to protect people with Type 2 diabetes from cardiovascular disease," says James Lowenstein, founding principal of Ranch Palos Verdes, Calif.-based Procactive Life. "Diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by 2 1/2 times. People with Type 2 diabetes have a 70 percent chance of dying from heart disease or stroke. The study looked at lifestyle changes and while those are important it also shows that it is important for diabetics to support their cardiovascular systems and need products that not only lower blood sugar but also support their hearts."

This, according to Lowenstein, means once the results of the study are disseminated diabetics will likely be purchasing both products for blood sugar control and products for cardiovascular support. Products that can offer diabetics both properties, such as Proactive Life's product, can be particularly attractive to shoppers.

For retailers this is an opportunity to market cardiovascular support products as part of the diabetic section, thus expanding the category and meeting more of the needs of this consumer group. "An important part of the market for cardiovascular support is the pre-diabetic consumer," Lowenstein says. "Once the person is diagnosed as having Type 2 diabetes the damage is already done, so the pre-diabetic consumer will become much more interested in cardiovascular support along with blood sugar support."

Education Mission

Promoting products in the diabetic category is a dependent on three things: availability, awareness and education. For a retailer to successfully market the diabetic products category he has to first build the section including products for diabetes treatment, testing and blood sugar control as well as cardiovascular support and lifestyle changes, along with educational products such as books, magazines and even cookbooks.

But building the section itself will not necessarily make the shoppers come. Retailers should promote the category in the circulars, on websites and in-store. Obviously, the store's pharmacist and the pharmacy staff should be the prime promoters of these products, but they need to be aided by signage and educational materials at point of sale to help the consumer find and explore these products.

November is Diabetes Awareness Month, which Wernowsky says is "a fabulous opportunity to promote awareness of the category and a store's diabetic section. There is a great chance to cross-promote products from the diabetes category with healthy foods throughout the store. This is a great area for growth."

"Drug chains, mass marketers, warehouse clubs and health food stores have all been in the forefront of driving this category. Food stores have not gone after these customers aggressively."

— John Wernowsky, In Life Business Group

"Once the person is diagnosed as having Type 2 diabetes the damage is already done, so the pre-diabetic consumer will become much more interested in cardiovascular support along with blood sugar support."

— James Lowenstein Proactive Life

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