History and Current Status of Homeopathic Drugs and the Mass Market

By Susan De Gress

It goes without saying that the status of homeopathic OTC drugs sold on the mass market has drastically changed in the past two decades. In fact, in the early 1990s there were virtually zero homeopathic products sold in drug, grocery and mass merchandise stores. Presently – while health food stores still carry the widest selection of homeopathics – there are a few homeopathic SKUs now distributed solely on the mass market. Those who study these OTC categories are beginning to ask, “Exactly what is going on here?”

The dynamics of this change can be attributed to many factors. Probably the most notable factor is the FDA Compliance Policy Guidelines (CPG 400.400) published in 1988, which clarified for manufacturers the “Conditions Under Which Homeopathic Drugs May be Marketed.” The guidelines provided long-awaited regulatory parameters, within which manufacturers could develop, advertise and promote their homeopathic products. Most importantly, the guidelines specified the requirements for how to label a homeopathic product and which claims were allowable.

These guidelines were published at a time when millions of consumers were poised for a shift to a healthier mindset. The fitness craze of the 1980s was evolving into the wellness movement of the 1990s and beyond. The stereotypical “Buns of Steel®” consumer began to hear that exercise is merely one component of wellness. In fact, total wellness was more about what we put into our bodies – not just the amount of hours spent on the StairMaster®.

As a result of these “total health and wellness” messages in the media, the organic and natural product boom took off. Magazines such as Health, Natural Health and others espoused the benefits of nutrition, organic foods, supplementation, natural healing and yoga, among other things. Life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease were increasingly linked to poor diet, food additives, stress and sedentary lifestyles. This link was made over and over again in both the mainstream and alternative media. As a result of these messages, many consumers attempted to lead healthier lives by consuming healthier foods and products.

At the same time – while perhaps more slowly – conventional western medicine was undergoing increased scrutiny from some media outlets, as well as the natural foods community. A subset of consumers became ever more skeptical of the now infamous “Big Pharma.” Such skepticism led to a gradual, attitudinal shift that continues today. Certain consumers began and continue to walk away from the allopathic over the counter drugs, in favor of safer, more holistic, back-to-nature approaches.

In the mid 1990s, mass market retailers recognized this trend toward total health and were approached by more and more herbal and supplement manufacturers who sought mass market distribution. Vitamin and herbal products became quite visible on the shelves, even at WalMart. A small number of homeopathic products were also sold at these stores.

But it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s – after the peak of the herbal/supplement boom – that retailers began recognizing the true value of homeopathic products. Zinc-based cold products making “duration shortening” claims popped up on shelves everywhere and became formidable competitors within their OTC categories. (Of course, many traditional practitioners of homeopathy do not view these items as genuinely homeopathic, but that is another topic altogether.)

This leads us to 2005, where the lines between “health food” and “mass market” products become more blurred than ever. With the tremendous growth of the health food market – as evidenced by the expansion of large health food chains – mass market retailers are seeking out new ways to keep consumers in their stores. Offering traditional health food items (often at a lower price than health food stores) is one way to do this.

A walk down any HBC aisle in a drug, food or mass merchandise store will readily demonstrate this. There are now mass-marketed, homeopathic, OTC products indicated to relieve everything from the flu to a hangover. Why are traditional mass-market consumers interested in these products? That answer is probably multi-fold, but here are two reasons to consider: 1) The mass-market consumer does not realize or care that these products are homeopathic, as he is merely looking for something that solves his problem; and 2) There are an ever-increasing amount of “hybrid” consumers who shop both health food and mass market stores. Mrs. Hybrid is finding her homeopathic products on the mass market for a lower price, and she is buying. Evidence of the hybrid consumer can be found in any metropolitan area where hybrid grocery stores are fairly widespread and established food chains are adding natural sets.

As for HBC buyers at major retailers, most are now accustomed to the benefits of homeopathic products. Homeopathy – no longer considered “strange voodoo” – often breathes new life into existing flat categories. Current sales figures indicate that homeopathic SKUs are competing well against established, allopathic brands in certain categories.

The blurring of these once-distinct dividing lines in the marketplace means great things for homeopathic companies who are no longer pigeon-holed into one type of retail outlet. More importantly, consumers are benefiting. The consumer now has more choices when shopping HBC products in the mass market. While some may say it’s a more confusing marketplace, others argue that consumers who prefer healthier, natural options are no longer alienated at the mass market shelf. On the contrary, these are consumers are made to feel welcome. What could be better?