The past five years have seen dramatic changes in the way OTC medicines are sold. Wider availability, more medicines being switched from pharmacy-only to the General Sales List (GSL) and government promotion of self-care have all contributed to more consumers treating minor ailments themselves.
The Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB), which represents the manufacturers of OTC medicines, has been beating the self-care drum for years and has called upon the government to launch a national campaign to promote a move away from prescriptions.
This presents an opportunity for convenience retailers with their longer opening hours and stores ideally placed for people looking for quick relief.
A spokeswoman from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) says: "As OTC medicines can be a distress purchase they are not always price sensitive and convenience/accessibility may well be more important. Convenience stores are therefore ideally placed to offer OTC GSL medicines where symptoms are causing discomfort and there is a need for immediate relief, especially out of normal shop hours or on the customer's journey."
The OTC market is not to be sneezed at. According to the PAGB, the current value of the UK market is a sizeable £2.3bn. IRI figures for 2007 show that people bought more than 976 million packs of OTC medicines to treat themselves, compared with 873 million prescriptions (IMS Xponent).
Painkillers dominate the sector and according to IRI December 2007 data, the total adult oral analgesics market is worth £373m with the convenience sector accounting for as much as 19% of total value sales. Anadin's Pain Nation Pure Profile Consumer Survey found that one in four women think that carrying a painkiller in their handbag is as essential as carrying a mobile phone or their keys.
When choosing painkillers, effectiveness seems to be the primary selling point with the leading pharmaceutical players targeting their npd on tackling pain quickly. For instance, in November GSK launched Panadol Advance 500mg tablets. The tablets contain a disintegration system called Optizorb, which it says enables them to break down in the stomach up to five times faster than ordinary paracetamol.
But a recent survey by Reckitt Benckiser (makers of Nurofen Express) found that 88% of Brits are still suffering pain unnecessarily. As such, they have injected £10m into a media campaign which directs consumers to a website where they can find their pain profile and "adapt their behaviour to help get rid of pain quickly and effectively". It has also launched two new formats - the Express tablet and a smaller, easier-to-swallow liquid capsule.
Pharmacist Terry Maguire, a spokesperson for the campaign, says: "The public is very cautious when using OTC medicines and that is restricting proper usage. People shouldn't remain in pain or let the pain reach a certain level before using medicines. For example, dental pain can get significantly worse if it isn't dealt with over a period of time because medicines control the inflammatory process that leads to the pain."
Recent publicity about cough and cold medicines in the United States may also have confused parents here about what to give to their children. However, Sheila Kelly, executive director of PAGB, says: "There is no need for parents in the UK to worry that the products they have given their children may have harmed them in any way."
The cold and flu category is the second largest OTC category (behind analgesics), worth £195m by value (based on core cold and flu categories multi-symptom and decongestant) while the winter remedies market as a whole is worth £393m (AC Nielsen). The cold and flu market is dominated by three major players: GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, Reckitt Benckiser and Pfizer, with 26.8%, 28.9% and 15% of the market respectively. Pharmacy sales account for 46.6% of the market, grocery multiples 34.9% and impulse the remaining 18.5%.
Apart from seasonal factors, such as smoking cessation products after New Year, consumers may be swayed by brands supported with major media campaigns. During the cold and flu months £4.5m has been pumped into the 'Fight Back with Beechams' campaign, Benylin has followed suit, investing £6m into its winter multimedia campaign to back up new launches Benylin Dry Coughs in blackcurrant flavour and Benylin Cold & Flu Day & Night Max Strength. Anadin topped the lot with an £8m spend in 2008.
Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, maker of Anadin, is helping the independent sector gain more profit by offering 12 packs of Anadin Extra for the price of 11 though wholesalers and cash and carries.
Other OTC markets include heartburn and indigestion, which is worth almost £135m and experiencing overall growth of 0.3%, and 11.2% through impulse stores (AC Nielsen). Products include Milk of Magnesia, Andrews and Tums, which recently launched updated packaging and a new cherry flavour.
But with the usual space constraints for OTC products, it can be hard to decide which remedies and medicines to stock. Hanna Nowak, marketing director at Reckitt Benckiser UK Healthcare, says: "The convenience store retailer faces challenges on space and the need to turnover products regularly and must therefore choose carefully the best lines to carry. OTC medicines are potentially a very important profit and cash driver - but need to be on sale at the right time (for example, cold and flu remedies from autumn, and hayfever remedies from spring) and in the right place to maximise turnover."
But while GSK believes remedies present a good opportunity for retailers it questions whether over the counter is always the best position for merchandising. A company spokeswoman says: "With familiar remedies, consumers are used to self-selection so these products do not need to be hidden away behind the counter. If possible they should be merchandised so consumers can study the packs and make an informed choice."
Reckitt Benckiser's Nowak agrees. She says where the products are displayed will greatly affect their success - because they are impulse purchases they need to be on show, front of counter if possible, and not hidden away behind the counter. She says that the ideal location is an area where the stock can be controlled, but the customer can easily pick up what they need.
So with consumers becoming more self-care savvy, and the leading pharmaceutical players investing heavily on promoting their brands, this winter it may be worth considering moving OTC medicines over the counter.