Shopper Insights: Cold & Flu Medicine

Nov 17, 2015


– If your coworker’s persistent sniffles didn’t already tip you off (yes, Ashley, we can all hear you), I have some bad news: it’s cold and flu season. The occasion got us thinking about how consumers typically handle treatment of the disgusting (seriously, Ashley, buy some Kleenex) symptoms we associate with this brutal time of year.

We Wanted to Know

With cold and flu season looming, we wanted to understand how consumers buy cold and flu medicine, and what pain points, if any, exist in the process. We also wanted to understand the purchase thought process as it relates to navigating stores and finding the necessary cold and flu products.

Research and Methodology

Our questions seemed perfectly suited to GutCheck’s new Shopper Insights qualitative solution, a proven approach to gaining valuable insights into consumers’ in-the-aisle reactions and decision-making processes.

We used an Instant Research Group of 30 respondents, male and female, 18–54 to tackle the following:

What are the motivations and barriers to purchase when it comes to over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu products? Within that, what is most influential to drive a purchase?

Research Objectives:

1. How do they prepare to shop? What are the expectations as they prepare to shop?

2. Understand motivations and barriers to purchase when it comes to shopping for OTC cold and flu medicine.

3. What breaks through the clutter at the shelf in store? What’s happening at the shelf?

4. Uncover any pain points or frustrations in the process of finding and purchasing cold and flu products.

The Results:

So Many Options, So Little Time

The seemingly endless varieties of OTC medications available can be overwhelming to consumers as they search for a solution to their specific set of symptoms. Indeed, this was the most frequently cited pain point of the OTC shopping process.

Due to the frustration of navigating brands and products, consumers report that when they’re in the medicine aisle, they’re most drawn to trusted brands they’ve used to successfully treat symptoms before.

However, despite loyalty to proven brands, consumers also respond positively to new brands and products for a variety of reasons, including:

  • When they see sales or coupons for a new brand or product
  • When products they normally use aren’t working
  • When their symptoms differ from those addressed by their usual products
  • When they’re unable to obtain their preferred brand or product

I usually stick to a couple of brands like Theraflu but I might pick something to add to it if I have a coupon, see a sale, or if someone tells me about it. Just depends, I also might buy some generic in case of emergencies and to leave at work. 

– Female, 35

There is a certain brand of Nyquil Cold and Flu that comes in liquigel tablets that I come back to over and over. I may not always buy the brand itself, but I like the liquigel form and the ingredients it contains. I typically do not try something new unless I am desperate and/or if I find a much cheaper product. – Female, 25

I don’t always buy the same product. A lot of it has to do with what symptoms are occurring as well as sale prices and new items. I generally go with an open mind and try to keep my budget in mind. – Female, 26

In the aisle itself, new products have ample opportunity to draw consumers’ attention. During their shopping trip, respondents in our study were asked to take pictures of OTC products that caught their eye. While consumers occasionally cited brands they already identified as their preferred brands, a variety of design elements on unfamiliar products also caught their eye.

Reasons they listed for why these products stood out included bright/bold colors, eye-level placement, large selection, and sale tags. Adjectives used to describe the products they singled out in the aisle included “effective,” “trustworthy/reliable,” “bright,” “bold,” and “colorful.”

This stands out the most because it is among the brand that is taking up the most space. The lids are different colors and this one is the brightest.

– Female, 39

The colors in the aisle are all very similar. This Mucinex makes me want to purchase or catches my attention because of how much boldness and MAX is written on it.

– Female, 25 

It was the bright color that brought it to my attention as well as the placement at eye level.

Female, 36

Waiting to Buy Until Symptoms Arrive

Consumers by and large aren’t planning ahead for colds and flus by buying medicine before symptoms strike. While some shoppers report that they might stock up before getting sick if they see a particularly tempting sale on their preferred brand, they generally buy medications as a response to certain symptoms of sickness. Because they use different medicine for different symptoms, it makes more sense to most consumers to buy the medicine that will treat those symptoms in any given case. A minority reported keeping a stock of medicine on hand in preparation for cold and flu season. These respondents emphasized how frustrating it can be to have to shop for them when they are already sick.

I like to have it on hand, but honestly I never have it. When someone gets sick I have to go to the store to get it. We don’t get sick very often, so I never think to buy it until someone needs it. – Female, 39

I usually try to stock up on it when I see a good sale, especially when there’s a coupon match up. But, a lot of times I’m making a quick run to the store to buy more when we unexpectedly need it and didn’t realize we needed more. – Female, 42

It is something I buy ahead of time. I like to buy certain products online like paper towels and tissue and I usually add medicine so I can get it up to that $35 or $50 mark to get the free shipping…[The] worst thing is to be sick and have to go to the store and get medicine. – Female,35

Implications for Manufacturers and Retailers

Considering the challenges consumers face when arming themselves against cold and flu season, it seems that retailers and manufacturers alike have an opportunity to improve the OTC medicine shopping experience in the following ways:

  • Because consumers feel overwhelmed at the shelf by the selection of cold/flu medicine and sometimes have trouble sorting through which product to use, packaging and communications should clearly address which symptoms a medicine treats in order to alleviate any challenges associated with in-store decision-making.
  • Given that most shoppers weigh cost against effectiveness, differentiation from off-brand products will be key for any new brand name product entering the shelf.
  • Shoppers are drawn to the products and brands of cold/flu medicine they already tend to purchase because they perceive them to be effective. Because of this, highlighting unique claims to effectiveness might draw them towards new or novel products on the shelf.
  • Bright colors, novel package design, and substantial, eye-level shelf presence are factors that may increase the shelf pop of new cold/flu medicine.

Written By

Sarah Welty

Sarah Welty

Manager, Research Operations

Want to stay up to date latest GutCheck blog posts?

Follow us on

Check Out Our Most Recent Blog Posts