Sports nutrition during COVID-19: Convenience declines, bulk protein remains solid, and the opportunity of virtual events

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / GeorgeRudy
© Getty Images / GeorgeRudy

Related tags: Sports nutrition, Protein

While many sections of nutrition and dietary supplements industry have seen significant sales increases, there has been talk of declines for pre-workout products as gym visits stopped. But what are the brands themselves reporting, and what are the similarities between the US and European markets?

Speaking during a recent webinar hosted by the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), Claudia Mucciardi, senior manager, regulatory affairs-EMEA for Glanbia Performance Nutrition, noted: “We’ve seen the habits have changed in some ways and some haven’t. Protein has always been our best seller, and still is our best seller, but overall volumes have gone down.

“Performance and pre-workouts have gone down significantly, maybe because people don’t have the same intensity of workouts, they’re not at the gyms,” ​she added. “If we look at energy gels or isotonic drinks, which have a big following for events like marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons, and since those events have been canceled there’s obviously been a massive decrease in the need for those products.

“We have seen a shift from the convenience-style products and ready-to-drink because convenience isn’t as big of a factor anymore and people have a lot more time on their hands, and it’s not a go-to to save time. But what we have seen that any sports nutrition supplement that has anything to do with immunity has remained strong.”

Speaking during the same webinar, which can be view on YouTube​, Ben Smart, Sr VP of Product Operations & Compliance at Nutrabolt, said that the trends in the US are similar.

“As people have transitioned to this new way of life, their shopping behaviors have changed. We’ve seen a pretty dramatic decrease in convenience, both for convenience retailers and convenience-type products.

“While protein powders up to this point are still relatively unchanged, other forms of protein products like a protein bar or a ready-to-drink have seen a decrease.”  

Nutrabolt has two of the largest pre- and post-workout brands in the US – Cellucor C4 and Xtend – and sells products in over 100 countries.

The virtual event opportunity

Gary Roethenbaugh is managing director at MultiSport Research, which provides market research, information and analysis services for the global endurance sport industry. He noted that many nutrition brands did indeed experience an initial drop off in sales, but there does appear to have been an uptick in recent weeks as athletes have started to get back into training.

And picking up on Mucciardi point about cancelations of marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons, Roethenbaugh said that many events are also transitioning to virtual events (you register for the event, pay the fee, but then complete it on your own using a specific monitoring app). For example, the Brooklyn virtual half marathon attracted over 10,000 participants in May, while 125,000 athletes have registered for six Ironman races, he said.

“For sports nutrition specifically, there are a few opportunities here. Athletes need to be hydrated and fueled for a virtual event just like for a regular, mass participation event,” ​said Roethenbaugh.

“If you think about virtual cycling, these are largely undertaken by someone in their garage, or shed, or spare room, and basically it’s hot and sweaty and painful and athletes currently may be simply hydrating with water. Given the amount of sweat being produced this is probably not optimal, and I think nutrition brands could perhaps play a more prominent role with targeting of the virtual indoor racing experience.

“There’s definitely an opportunity for nutrition brands to work with virtual events on areas like product sampling, goodie bags, and other forms of athlete engagement.”

The changing retail landscape

It goes without saying that consumers have also shifted to online purchasing channels as countries and US states went into lockdown.

Sales are down for many sports nutrition brands for a number of reasons, said Mucciardi. These include people reducing or adjusting the intensity of their sports (thereby impacting their sports nutrition product needs), the elimination of some purchase outlets with products that were exclusively available in gyms, shifting health and financial priorities as consumers shift to more healthy eating and a focus on immune-supporting products, and financial pressures leading many consumers de-prioritizing the purchase of sports nutrition products.

“In the US, we’re seeing a change in the way consumers are shopping, both the where and the how,” ​added Nutrabolt’s Smart.

“As disposable income has shrunk, consumers are spending less money on products like sports nutrition products that would otherwise have been a nice-to-have. Instead they are spending their money on basic goods and pantry loading and less on personal image,” ​he said.

Commenting on the general shift to online shopping, Smart noted that the US has witnessed a large rise in online shopping in response to COVID-19, with 33% purchasing online for the very first time. “Shopper demand for eCommerce has fast forwarded by 2-3 years,”​ he said. 

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