Feeling a bit under the weather? You’re definitely not the only one. Research from Johnson & Johnson suggests that us Brits catch between two and four colds a year - each one of which leaves us laid low for about seven days - and children can catch as many a 10 colds a year, medical researchers believe.

It might be cold comfort for retailers feeling ropey behind the counter, but all these seasonal sniffles have helped build a market for over the counter (OTC) medicines that’s certainly not to be sniffed at.

Mintel reported strong growth in the category during 2013 and expects the sector to grow 13% to reach £711m in 2018.

It’s all about trust

” OTC medicine is becoming increasingly important for convenience retailers as shoppers progressively rely on their local stores for a number of categories where they can access the same leading brands and products that they would find in the supermarkets.

In the OTC category, it is critical to stock leading brands that customers know and trust. The key categories within the OTC sector collectively make up more than £15m in value sales through the convenience channel annually. ”

Andrew Freestone, commercial director, SHS Sales & Marketing

Behind the popularity of OTC medicines lies a home truth about modern life. When we catch a cold, we’d all love to get over it by hiding under the duvet with a herbal tea, watching trash TV, but the demands of work and family mean that it’s hard to slow down, let alone rest up.

So while previous generations may have phoned in sick and had a nice lay down, today the emphasis is on relying on medicines to help us soldier on.

“With an ageing population, increasingly busy lives and pressure on GPs’ surgeries, consumers are increasingly looking to OTC remedies to treat a range of more minor illnesses such as coughs and colds, stomach upsets, headaches and allergies,” explains Andrew Freestone, commercial director at SHS Sales & Marketing.

Roli Ranger from Londis Ascot has seen first-hand how customers are increasingly shopping for medicines in c-stores. He says that although they might not be the biggest seller in his store, OTC medicines have a vital place on the shelves.

“I think that it’s an important part of what we offer customers and it’s definitely there in the retail mix,” he says.

“In our store I find that the medicines are usually a distress purchase. If people are ill and they want to pick something up on the way home they’ll come to us, rather than go to a chemist or supermarket, just because of the fact that we’re open later, and for longer.”

Supplement your income with vitamins

Local shops are already an essential stop for customers who want to soothe cough and cold symptoms. But what can c-stores offer to make sure shoppers don’t get ill in the first place?

According to Mintel, 16% of us actively take vitamins and minerals to bolster our immune system before the temperature drops and the nights draw in - which has created a £385m market for vitamins and supplements in the UK.

Of course, c-stores don’t normally stock supplements. Now Phillip Glyn from Innzone Ltd is looking to change all that with the launch of a ready-to-go vitamin selection available on sale and return.

“Most stores sell standard OTC medicines, but not vitamins,” he says, “so at the minute the one in three adults who take vitamins regularly have to go to the supermarket to get them. But they shouldn’t - this is about giving c-stores access to this market.”

Each tub includes a month’s supply of ‘super-strength’ (1,000mg versus the more usual 500g) vitamins chosen from the four best-selling UK variants - vitamin C, vitamin D, omega 3-6-9 and multivitamins. Glynn says that the range offers 33% POR and sale or return after a 16-week trial. A small countertop display unit is available.

Roli says he sees a true cross-section of people come in to buy medicines from his store.

“You can always tell when a cold is going around - usually because it’s started at the local school - and then basically all kinds of people come in with it,” he asserts.

The OTC category is dominated by the big brands - according to research from Reckitt Benckiser, 66% of consumers thought ‘brand’ was the most important decision in the category.

“Consumers buy products because they already have a cold or flu and are suffering from unpleasant symptoms,” says Kate Sweeney, senior brand manager at Reckitt Benckiser. “What they want is something that will make them feel better and they don’t want to try something unknown to see if it works; they want results and they want them fast!”

Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to apply to standard paracetamol and ibuprofen, which all the retailers in this feature identified as top-sellers in their OTC line-up.

Traditionally, the OTC supplies in c-stores have been stuck behind the till near the cigarettes, with a few medicinal confectionery lines put out on the counter. Unsurprisingly, brand managers are keen to liberate them from their hiding place and set them loose on the shop-floor, where extra visibility should win more sales.

In full view

Some retailers agree that in the right kind of store this approach can win dividends.

Dennis Williams from Broadway Convenience Store in Edinburgh says that a store re-think gave him the space to try putting selected OTC medicines out front.

“After our store refit we decided to put them out and see what happened,” he says. “The usual thinking is to put them behind the counter. But I think that having them out on show means that it’s easier and more convenient for customers in the long run - they can just choose what they want and then go.”

Keeping it sweet

Away from traditional OTC medicines the other category that chimes with convenience is medicated confectionery. Mariam Luff, brand manager at Jakemans, believes this is due to late-opening stores catering for sniffly shoppers.

“With longer trading hours to suit consumers’ ever-busy lifestyles, shopping at c-stores can often be the most accessible option to purchase reliable winter remedies,” she says.

In a £94.7m category, Halls is the world’s number one medicated brand, according to Nielsen. To maintain this lead it has created an on-pack promotion offering the chance to win a smartphone, or one of a million free EA Games, from hallsgameon.com.

Another big player in medicated confectionery, Fisherman’s Friend, will be celebrating its 150-year anniversary next year. Says Martin Stimson, the brand’s area business manager for the UK: “Sales of medicated confectionery typically mirror the number of coughs and colds doing the rounds, but Fisherman’s Friend is bucking the trend and continuing to grow regardless of whether consumers are feeling under the weather.”

To win over the independent sector it will be offering flash-marked promotional packs to c-stores and cash & carries, with 24 packs for the price of 22 across Original Extra Strong, aniseed and cherry, and 24 for 18 for blackcurrant, its 2014 headline variant.

Rav Garcha from Nisa Shrewsbury is also a big fan of getting OTC medicines out in full view of shoppers. While he has cut back on the amount of OTC medicines he stocks, their increased visibility has meant that sales haven’t suffered at all.

“We do a smaller range than we did a few years ago,” he explains. “But today we sell five or six times what we used to - and that’s all down to changing from over-the-counter to free sell.”

He adds: “I heard another retailer rave about it, so tried it out. I’d certainly say that it works.”

Alongside ibuprofen and paracetamol, Rav says that medicines for kids, such as Calpol, are also big sellers for him - and they’re complemented by winter remedies put out on shelves towards the end of the year.

“We’re preparing for winter at the moment, which means stocking all the cold and flu products,” he says. “You can’t go wrong with Beechams and Lemsip, which always do well in the cold and flu season.”

No matter how good your selection, OTC medicines tend to be a one-hit purchase. Most customers come in once for a bottle of cough syrup the moment that they’re needed, and these bottles often get half-used and sit in the bathroom cabinet until next winter.

Because of this, unlocking extra sales from the category can be tough for retailers, especially as price points tend to be relatively high. Yet as retail expert Alf Dunbar explains, there are practical ways to boost basket spend.

“I work with a lot of pharmacies, and I recommend that what retailers and their staff do is make suggestions based on what a customer’s buying,” he says.

So, this could mean asking a customer buying a cold and flu remedy if they need more tissues to take with them, or even offering some medicated confectionery to someone who’s come to the counter with cough mixture.

It’s one way of trying to squeeze maximum sales from OTC medicines over the winter - to see your store through till hayfever season starts again.

In Brief

Breathe easy

The Olbas Oil Inhaler is designed to decongest shoppers’ stuffy noses with a couple of quick nasal blasts. It pops in consumers’ bags or pockets for instant relief.

Cold comfort

Nurofen for Children Cold, Pain and Fever aims to do exactly what it says on-pack: help children get through seasonal colds and flu. The strawberry flavour should be a hit with kids, while the fact it gets to work in 15 minutes will get parents on-side, too.

Winter winner

Sudafed is hoping to add to its 26% share of value sales for decongestants in convenience (Nielsen) with new Sudafed Blocked Nose and Headache Capsules, designed to clear up sufferers’ niggliest symptoms.

Nurofen targets symptoms

Nurofen is aiming to raise awareness of the role of ibuprofen in tackling the side-effects associated with colds and flu, such as relieving fever fast, helping nasal congestion and cold-induced muscle pain.

Soothing sore throats

Strepsils is launching an advertising campaign this October with the focus on treating sore throats early and offering stronger relief. The campaign highlights 11 specially formulated lozenges and aims to reach 15 million consumers.

New face for 2014

Trusted cold and flu stalwart Veno’s has undergone a comprehensive makeover to emphasise its 100-year plus heritage while going for a contemporary feel. The brand has a 20% share of the cough liquids category in convenience (Nielsen).