How supplement stores are trying to capitalize on the Ozempic boom

As diabetes and weight-loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy have taken off in recent years, many people have abandoned established diet and nutritional products.

Now, two retailers specializing in dietary supplements – GNC and Vitamin Shoppe – are trying new approaches to win over people who take those drugs or are interested in them.

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

Michael Costello, GNC's chief executive, said his company saw a “big opportunity” in helping people who take such drugs to lose weight.

“As we were looking at the 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 drugs to lose weight, but Costello referenced a Goldman Sachs study that estimated up to 70 million Americans will have tried these drugs by 2028.

GNC thinks it can expand its weight management category through this push. Currently, less than 10% of GNC's business comes from weight management products, but sales in the category have reportedly grown more than 20% recently.

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

In October, Walmart, which has a sizable pharmacy business, said it noticed that people taking GLP-1 drugs were buying slightly less food than other customers. The month before, an executive at Nestlé, the world's largest food company, expressed optimism that consumers would turn to its Lean Cuisine meals, which is “exactly what you would end up eating on these types of drugs.” And fitness club chains Life Time Fitness and Equinox offer workout programs tailored to people taking medications.

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

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

“Most patients won't need any supplements,” said Dr. Maria Daniela Hurtado Andrade, an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, whose research focuses on reducing obesity. She also treats patients taking GLP-1 drugs.

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

“All recommendations that GNC is making for GLP-1 support are in line with the scientific substantiation, the outcome of our consultations with physicians and the review of the positions of accredited professionals on this topic,” Rachel said in a statement Jones, GNC's head of product innovation and science. .

Some retailers have gone further. The Vitamin Shoppe has partnered with WellSync, a telemedicine company that fills GLP-1 drug prescriptions. It's the first time Vitamin Shoppe, founded in 1977, has partnered with another company to offer customers a pharmacy option — a sign of how seriously retail executives are taking Ozempic and its relatives.

I think there's no question that we've seen people who have said, “Hey, if this isn't something you offer, I'll look elsewhere,” said Lee Wright, CEO of Vitamin Shoppe, in an interview.

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

The Vitamin Shoppe stays at arm's length 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 manages 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 is offering those who sign up a $25 coupon to use in its stores or on its website.

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

The market for GLP-1-related supplements is quite new. No significant studies have been conducted to verify the effectiveness of these products in alleviating the discomfort resulting from the use of drugs. And some doctors say many of the common side effects of weight-loss drugs can be easily managed or diminished over time, reducing the need for long-term use of supplements.

For example, Dr. Hurtado Andrade said that instead of recommending probiotic supplements, which contain live microorganisms such as bacteria, she encourages her patients to eat food that contains such microorganisms, such as yogurt or kefir. After a detailed evaluation, in some cases she recommended protein shakes, powders and supplements to patients who were not consuming enough protein, she 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 occur if patients were not followed closely,” said Dr. Hurtado Andrade.

Executives at GNC and Vitamin Shoppe said their employees, who they call health enthusiasts or coaches, are not substitutes for medical professionals. Executives also said the companies' approaches and strategies were devised in consultation with staff nutritionists.

We don't want our health enthusiasts trying to act,” said Mr. Wright of the Vitamin Shoppe. “They're not doctors. They're not trying to give any medical advice whatsoever.”

GNC's Mr. Costello said his workers were trained to show empathy for challenges. To that end, he asked retailers to watch Oprah Winfrey's recent special on Ozempic. The company also taught them to ask “lifestyle questions” before mentioning supplements, such as “What are your goals?” and “What are you currently doing to achieve your goals?”

That's all well and good, Dr. Hurtado Andrade said, but she worries that retail workers aren't as knowledgeable as medical professionals about how to interpret and address symptoms. This requires knowing what questions should be asked, something that health care providers and trained health workers are trained to do, she said.

I don't think a retailer will have the ability to think about the questions that need to be asked to narrow that differential and understand what the diarrhea or any other side effect is related to,” he said.

Such concerns, however, are unlikely to stop retailers and supplement makers from delving into what many analysts believe will be a rapidly growing market.

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

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

“This is how we will connect to the consumer consciousness,” said Marc Washington, CEO of Supergut. “We are extremely important for this time and for the Ozempic era,” he added.

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

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