Merchandising Features / Categories / Private Label vs. National Brands / OTC/Healthcare
Private Eye: OTC

Cold Season Approaches

Our secret shoppers head to their local retailers to find out what’s happening in the OTC aisles.

October 2, 2013

Private label cough syrup rose more than 16 percent to almost $127 million, with a 36 percent share of the category, according to SymphonyIRI Group data for the latest 52 weeks ending August 11, 2013. Private label cough/sore throat drop has an 18 percent share and saw a more than 5 percent rise to $84 million. Private label sleeping tablets saw a 7 percent increase to more than $131 million with an impressive 42 percent share. Internal analgesics saw sales rise more than 2 percent, while private label internal analgesic tablets increased almost 4 percent to more than $1 billion.

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PLBuyer sent five of its secret shoppers to check out OTC products at supermarkets, drugstores, and mass merchandisers, including a Walgreens in Kansas City, Mo.; a CVS/pharmacy in Asheville, N.C.; a Walmart supercenter in Colorado Springs, Colo.; a regular Walmart in Mesa, Ariz.; and a Giant Eagle in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

We asked them to evaluate how their local retailers market and merchandise their OTC products.

In addition to looking for in-store promotions and advertising, shoppers recorded prices of comparable private label and national brand cough syrup, cough drops, sleeping remedies, and internal analgesics. They then conducted their own product tests in one of these categories.

Here, we provide you with our gathered insight.


Side by Side

Private label OTC products are typically national brand equivalent products, so it’s not surprising that all five of the secret shoppers this month reported seeing private label OTC products shelved side-by-side with national brands.

“Walgreens seems to have a store brand equivalent for virtually every name-brand over-the-counter product out there,” noted Michael G. “Sometimes, the store brand gets preferential shelving (eye level), although always close to the name brand.”

Bill K. noted that, at CVS/pharmacy, “packaging (lettering, etc.) is consistent across all store brands, but colors often conform to, or mimic, national brands.”

Christina R. noted at the Walmart Supercenter store brands were the same size and quantity as their name-brand counterparts, while Sarah C., who visited a regular Walmart, noted the color of the store brand product packaging is the same as the national brand.

However, while products were shelved next to national brands, only Bill at CVS saw price tags comparing the private labels to brands. However, Michael noted most store brand packaging includes a message mentioning the name brand product to which the product is comparable, which was enough for him to get the idea.

Additionally, only Bill at CVS saw in-store private label ads.

The biggest saver this month was Walmart, where Christina saw Walmart’s Equate brand Tussin DM for $2.72, while the same size Robitussin Cough 7 Chest Congestion DM was $7.56. Sarah noted Walmart’s Equate Cold & Flu was $5.46, while the same size DayQuil Cold was $7.97.

The biggest savings in cough drops, keeping count size in mind, was at CVS, where 30 Cherry Cough Drops were $1.67, and just 19 Ricola Dual Action Cherry cough drops were $3.29.

At Giant Eagle, Amy K. couldn’t find a comparable store brand to national brand liquid sleep aid ZzzQuil, but she did find Top Care Sleep Aid softgels for $6.99 to compare to Unisom, softgels for $9.49. At CVS, Bill found CVS Night Time Sleep Aid for $6.99, to compare to national brand ZzzQuil at $9.99. At Walmart Sarah found Equate sleep aid for $4.98 to compare to ZzzQuil for $7.47.

Three of the shoppers this month said they buy private label pain medication. At Giant Eagle, Amy found Top Care Ibuprofen to be $4.80 less than the comparable-size Advil. At CVS the private label brand Migraine Relief saved shoppers $3.20 over Excedrin Migraine.


Product Tests  

Michael tried the Well at Walgreen’s brand cough drops for his cold-related coughing. He bought the sugar-free cough drops and couldn’t find a sugar-free brand name equivalent on the rack.

“I found drops to be about what I would expect, and they were pleasant (good flavor) and soothing. They worked!” he exclaimed.

Amy tried the Top Care Cherry Cough Drops.

“The drop itself was very comparable to a national brand (Halls) cough drop except for the strength,” she said. “I believe the national brands have a stronger menthol taste. Other than that, I believe these products to be very similar in texture, how long it took to melt, and the effect it had on calming a cough or soothing a scratchy throat.”

“The drop itself was very comparable to a national brand (Halls) cough drop except for the strength. I believe the national brands have a stronger menthol taste."

Sarah said private label ibuprofen is a common medication found in her medicine cabinet.

“I feel the store brand works just as good as the national brand, and the cost difference matters,” she said.

Christina tried the Equate cough drops and felt they were not as strong as the Halls brand, but did taste better. Christina also said a coupon or being a few dollars less than the brand name would get her to try a new private label OTC product.

Amy suggested a side-by-side comparison of the ingredients to compare what is in the national brand versus the store brands would help her make the move to purchase a new private label product. Shelf tags with an ingredient comparison may help with this.

 “I want to know if there is a difference and what it is exactly,” said Amy.  

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