Britons are twice as likely to keep a supply of pain relief medication than they are to stock up on cold and flu remedies, according to new research by category and shopper management specialist Bridgethorne.

The research reports 54% of respondents only buying cold and flu remedies when they immediately need to use it, making it little more than a distress purchase.  Only 27% said they keep a supply in advance of a flu occurrence with 11% buying opportunistically whenever they see a good deal. Two thirds said that they buy cold and flu products within hours of having to use them. 

Andy Grout, Bridgethorne’s Head of Research, said that the survey reflects the “very different shopper missions of consumers when it comes to buying cold and flu remedies”.

“Not only did the survey find that 92% of shoppers’ last cold and flu relief purchase was made in store, but also that, of those who usually only buy their groceries online, two-thirds still bought their last cold and flu remedy in a bricks and mortar store.,” he revealed. “This supports the idea that cold and flu remedies are largely a distress purchase.”

“However, online shoppers are twice as likely to buy cold and flu remedies when they see them on promotion,” Grout adds. “The more agile placement and disruptive digital marketing offered by online may be more effective in prompting impulse behaviour to stock up when the need is not so immediate and when same day or next day delivery could provide some degree of reassurance,” adds Grout. 

The report also showed that when it came to medical products, shoppers took comfort in familiar brands.

The highest brand penetration went to Lemsip, Vicks, Nurofen, Beechams, Strepsils and Benylin,” Grout pointed out. “There was some variation by channel with online-only shoppers more readily buying A.Vogel herbal remedies, Night Nurse/Day Nurse, Boots’ own brand products and Nurofen.”

“Less well known brands also appear to be gaining more traction online than offline,” he continued, “with purchases of Puressentiel and Covonia are more prevalent amongst shoppers online than in store.”

More than half of shoppers questioned – 56% ­– said that they bought whatever they came across in store “in their hour of need” that claimed to do the job needed, Gout said, which was why in store visibility, ensuring the product was displayed during the right timeframe and early in the store journey were key. 

“Only a small minority,” he added, “seek advice or conduct a price check on line before buying.”

For those who do seek online advice, Boots, the  UK National Health Service (NHS) and Google were the primary online sources, the study found.

Shoppers were not always “instantly aware or conscious of the sources which influence them”, Grout explained, but when prompted they recalled the value of face to face advice – from friends or the pharmacist – and other trusted sources.

“Getting to grips with the way shoppers shop and the impact across different retail formats is as important for brands as it is for the multiples themselves,” he insisted.

The survey also found that adults in the 35-44 year age group were the most likely to consult a pharmacist, and often not for themselves, but with the health of a child, partner or relative in mind.  This demographic, the survey found, also judged live online chats as also a valuable source of advice.

The 18-34 year olds were no less likely to consult an in-store pharmacist about a cold and flu product, Grout pointed out, but this age group made greater use of health bloggers.  They also used NHS online as a source of information more than any other age group, he added, and placed a greater reliance on the advice of family and friends.

More than other shoppers, those in the 45-64 year age group tend to make purchases ahead of time in anticipation of the season, the survey revealed. However, this demographic also purchased as soon as symptoms became apparent, whether or not they actually end up using the products immediately.

“This research presents a complex view of the shopper landscape for cold and flu remedies,” Grout said. “There are clear differences in approach according to age and demographic, and according to the different channels people use to shop.”

“It showed,” he pointed out, “that, for many, the decision to purchase cold and flu remedies is less planned that we might have expected and less planned than it could be.”

Suppliers and retailers alike need to better understand the needs, behaviours and intentions of their shoppers in the cold and flu sector, and beyond,” Grout explained, “and use the insights they gain to inform their own strategic approach to the market.”