How supplement stores are trying to capitalize on the Ozempic boom

As diabetes and weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy came out in recent years, many people abandoned established diet and nutrition products.

Now, two nutritional supplement retailers GNC and Vitamin Shoppe are trying new approaches to win over people who take or are interested in these drugs.

GNC is dedicating a wall of supplements in its more than 2,300 stores to products it believes will appeal to people on Ozempic, which contains the compound semaglutide, and other drugs known as GLP-1 medications. The chain is also training workers to help customers assess which substances can help them manage the common side effects of these prescription drugs.

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Michael Costello, CEO of GNC, said his company saw a huge opening to help people taking these drugs to lose weight.

As we were looking at trends with people, where people are going, Ozempic and obviously Wegovy and other GLP-1s started to explode, Costello said in an interview. We saw that there were significant side effects for many of these drugs.

It’s unclear exactly how many Americans are taking Ozempic and similar weight-loss drugs, but Costello pointed to a Goldman Sachs study that estimates as many as 70 million Americans will have tried the drugs by 2028.

GNC believes it can expand its weight management category through this push. Currently, less than 10 percent of GNC’s business comes from its weight management products, but recently, he said, sales in the category have grown more than 20 percent.

Retailers, food and other companies are trying to figure out how Ozempic and similar drugs will hurt or help their businesses and what, if any, they should do in response.

In October, Walmart, which has a significant pharmacy business, said it had seen people taking GLP-1 drugs buy slightly less food than other customers. Last month, an executive at Nestl, the world’s largest food company, expressed optimism that consumers are turning to their lean meals, which is exactly what you’d end up eating with these kinds of drugs. And fitness club chains Life Time Fitness and Equinox offer workout programs tailored to people taking medication.

GNC executives said they had assembled more than 20 products that could be used to treat common side effects such as occasional fatigue, nutrient deficiency, reduced bone density and loss of muscle mass. Some of these products were already sold, but others are new to the retailer. Supplements include once-daily multivitamins for women, ginger root capsules, and a low-fat chocolate shake. On the wall, signs list the side effects along with shelves of supplements that can alleviate them.

None of the supplements that GNC has in its reconfigured store were specifically made or clinically tested on users of the new weight loss drugs. Medical experts say that most people can get all the nutrients they need from a well-balanced diet. In addition, experts say that some supplements may not be effective and may cause their own side effects.

Most patients won’t need any supplements, said Dr. Maria Daniela Hurtado Andrade, an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., whose research focuses on reducing obesity. It also treats patients taking GLP-1 medications.

Executives at the retail chains said they had selected the assortment in their displays after consulting outside doctors, toxicologists, nutritionists and other professionals.

All of the recommendations that GNC makes for GLP-1 support are aligned with the scientific rationale, the outcome of our consultations with physicians, and our review of the positions of credentialed professionals on this issue, said Rachel Jones, chief scientific officer and of CNG product innovation.

Some merchants have taken it a step further. Vitamin Shoppe has teamed up with WellSync, a telehealth company that fulfills GLP-1 medication prescriptions. It’s the first time the Vitamin Shoppe, which began in 1977, has worked with another company to offer customers a pharmaceutical option—a sign of how seriously retail executives take Ozempic and its relatives.

I think there’s no doubt that we’ve seen people who have said, ‘Hey, if this isn’t something you offer, I’m going to look elsewhere,'” Vitamin Shoppe CEO Lee Wright said in an interview .

In a Vitamin Shoppe survey of more than 1,500 customers, 40% of respondents said they would be very or very likely to use a telehealth service offered by the retail chain. Wright said learning that some employees in his stores were already taking GLP-1 medication helped persuade him to work with WellSync.

Vitamin Shoppe maintains a distance from the evaluation and prescription process, which involves an online questionnaire about medical history and goals and, in some cases, a live video interview with a licensed medical provider. (One of the questions is about body mass index.) WellSync handles this process, including working with doctors. The companies have created a subscription service called Whole Health Rx, which starts at $219.

To bring people back to the chain, Vitamin Shoppe offers people who sign up a $25 voucher to use in their stores or on their website.

Similar to GNC, Vitamin Shoppe highlights products like protein powder in its locations to attract people with Ozempic or similar medications. In early May, Vitamin Shoppe and its sister brand, Super Supplements, will have displays in all 700 stores advertising their telehealth partnership and providing a QR code that directs consumers to the telehealth portal.

The market for GLP-1 related supplements is fairly new. There have been no significant trials demonstrating the effectiveness of these products in alleviating the discomfort associated with drug use. And some doctors say that many of the common side effects of weight-loss drugs can be easily controlled or lessened over time, reducing the need for long-term supplement use.

For example, Hurtado Andrade said, instead of recommending probiotic supplements, which have live microorganisms such as bacteria, she encourages her patients to eat foods that contain these microorganisms, such as yogurt or kefir. After a detailed evaluation, he has in some cases recommended protein shakes, powders and supplements to patients who don’t consume enough protein, he said.

I think having that medical oversight is extremely important because we can really mitigate or decrease the incidence of serious side effects that I think could happen if patients weren’t followed closely, Hurtado Andrade said.

Executives at GNC and Vitamin Shoppe said their workers referred to as health enthusiasts or trainers did not represent medical professionals. Executives also said the companies’ approaches and strategies had been designed in consultation with staff nutritionists.

We don’t want our health enthusiasts trying to act, said Vitamin Shoppe’s Wright. They are not doctors. They are not trying to give any medical advice.

CNG Costello said his workers were trained to show empathy for challenges. To that end, he has asked retail workers to watch Oprah Winfreys recent special on Ozempic. The company also taught them to ask lifestyle questions before pointing to supplements, such as What are your goals? and What are you currently doing to achieve your goals?

That’s all well and good, Hurtado Andrade said, but she worries that retail workers aren’t as well-informed as medical professionals about how to interpret and address symptoms. That requires knowing what questions to ask, which health professionals and trained providers are trained to ask, he said.

I don’t think a retailer has the ability to think about the questions that need to be asked to narrow that spread and understand what diarrhea or any other side effect is related to, he said.

However, these concerns are unlikely to stop retailers and supplement manufacturers from delving into what many analysts believe will be a fast-growing market.

Four years ago, before Ozempic became a blockbuster drug, Supergut, a Los Angeles-based company, began selling prebiotic supplements, which feed microorganisms. It marketed these products, such as smoothies and snack bars, in part as a way to help people control their blood sugar.

Two years ago, Supergut began highlighting the potential benefits of its products for gut health and dedicated a section on its website to GLP-1 drugs.

That’s the way it was going to connect with the consumer’s consciousness, said Marc Washington, CEO of Supergut. They were very relevant for this time and for this Ozempic era, he added.

In the past six months, sales have quadrupled, he said. GNC is stocking Supergut on its shelves in the GLP-1 section of its stores, the first time the brand has been sold in a national chain. Washington said it was also talking to other national retailers.

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