Health supplements defy historic retail slump as coronavirus spurs sales of immunity boosters in Hong Kong

Eric Ng

The coronavirus pandemic may have triggered the worst retail slump in decades in Hong Kong, but sales of health supplements have defied the downturn as consumers look to boost their immunity to avoid contracting the deadly disease.

Sales of vitamins and supplements marketed to consumers as helping the body strengthen its defences against illnesses have soared, according to AS Watson Group, one of the city’s biggest healthy and beauty products retailers.

“While Hong Kong’s retail market has been hit by the pandemic and we [too] are not immune to the impact, [but] within the immunity boosting vitamins subcategory, such as vitamin C, we saw first quarter sales jump over 40-fold year on year,” said Samuel Lee, managing director of Watsons Hong Kong, a unit of AS Watson Group, adding overall online sales more than quadrupled in the quarter.

This is in sharp contrast to Hong Kong’s retail sales in the first quarter, which fell by 36.9 per cent, the deepest year on year decline on record. This comes as the city remains mired in a recession. The economy contracted by 8.9 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the worst on record, having been hit hard by months of anti-government protests, a trade war between the US and China and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Samuel Lee, managing director of Watsons Hong Kong, a unit of AS Watson Group, says sales of health supplements have soared amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Dickson Lee

Health supplement is one of the major product categories of AS Watson, which operates a chain of 15,700 Watsons stores in 25 markets and is controlled by tycoon Li Ka-shing’s conglomerate CK Hutchison.

Personal care and cosmetics products retailer Sa Sa International also saw “multiple times” sales jump in popular health supplements in the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter of last year, according to a spokeswoman. She said that the company will “explore more product sources and work closer with the brand owners to fuel growth in this segment”.

Hong Kong retail giant AS Watson converts water plant to face-mask production line to help meet demand amid coronavirus

Watsons’ rival Mannings declined to comment on its health supplement sales, but said sales of personal hygiene products have surged during the pandemic.

Sales of vitamins and dietary supplements in the city grew 2.7 per cent to US$722 million last year, compared to a 11 per cent slump in overall retail sales, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.

The preferences for dietary supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, is growing rapidly because of ageing populations globally, increasing lifestyle-related diseases, and rising health care costs.

According to a report from ResearchAndMarkets.com on May 1, global sales of high dose vitamin C supplements have soared amid the Covid-19 outbreak. It said that vitamin C has long been seen as important for the immune system and many consumers are looking to give their immunity a boost at this time, with the lockdown also creating huge demand for vitamin D supplements.

The global research specialist expects the global vitamin C market to grow from US$982.59 million in 2018 to US$1.6 billion by the end of 2025.

However, Hong Kong health care provider OT&P Healthcare cautioned that although vitamin C is a safe nutritional supplement which may help prevent the common cold, but there is no evidence that it can prevent more serious respiratory infections, referring to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Tru Niagen – Watsons’ top selling health supplement – recorded “high double-digit” year on year growth in the first quarter, led by a near three-fold jump in online sales, Lee said. This followed more than 60 per cent growth last year compared to 2018. ChromaDex, the US supplier, says the supplement helps fight ageing.

Tru Niagen has been sold in Hong Kong since 2017, and the city is its second biggest market after the US.

Following the success of Tru Niagen, Watsons last month launched a second product from the same brand with additional ingredients that it claims would “reduce the appearance of wrinkles” and promote healthy skin, hair and nails.

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