With the summer behind us, we have officially entered the cold and flu season. In the U.S., flu season typically spans from October to May, and peaks between December and February. However, we have experienced a very atypical cold & flu season over the last couple of years. During the 2020-2021 winter, Covid-19 mitigation measures reduced the spread of cold and flu. According to the CDC, the positivity rate for influenza in the U.S. was only 0.2% from August 2020 to May 2021 (compared to 26.2%-30.3% during peak flu season in the three years prior to the pandemic). During winter 2021-2022, as Covid cases spiked again, the flu season remained mild. However, with increased vaccinations and eased Covid restrictions this past spring, we then experienced an unseasonal, delayed flu season in March-May 2022.
The outlook for the 2022-2023 cold and flu season is quite different. This year’s flu season is expected to be even more severe and potentially peak earlier than pre-pandemic averages. Public health experts reported that Australia, where the flu season just ended, experienced the worst flu season in five years with cases peaking two months earlier than usual. Given that the Southern hemisphere flu pattern is often predictive of the Northern hemisphere’s, experts are expecting a severe peak flu season in the US in October-December (rather than typical peak months of December-February). While we do not know for certain if this prediction is accurate, we are advised to be prepared.
The irregular pattern of cold and flu over the past couple of years has strained the Cough & Cold category. As we have experienced throughout the run of pandemic-related supply chain challenges, manufacturers prioritized SKUs in order to keep up with unexpected demand during unseasonal peak months of cold and flu. Retailers and distributors turned to alternative brands and simplified assortments of cough drops and cough/cold medicine to fill holes on shelves.
The category continues to face supply chain challenges, and this season’s outlook for seasonal illness could exacerbate them. Manufactures of children’s cough and cold medicine have reported production strain due to shortages of components and ingredients in these products. Heightened demand due to increases in children’s respiratory illnesses this season— including Covid, cold and flu—are projected to further constrict the availability of cough and cold products. In addition, price consciousness of today’s consumer puts particular demand pressure on private label substitutes for national branded products in this category.
To best prepare for this coming cold & flu season in store, we recommend a diversified assortment of cough & cold products to enhance flexibility on the shelf in response to product availability. Stocking shelves early in the season with a mix of primary national brand, private-label and alternative options, like natural product brands, will support shoppers and their families throughout the cough & cold season.