Digital Marketing Redux   //   February 5, 2024

How health tech brands are entering mainstream retail

Oura Ring launched in 2013, offering a discreet way to track sleep habits and biometric activity. At that time, companies like Fitbit and Jawbone were leading the market share for wearable technology; the Apple Watch had yet to launch. But as wellness spending balloons and and people are looking for new ways to mind their health, brands like Oura are showing up in more places.

Oura made its first mainstream retail appearance in April, landing in 850 Best Buy locations across the United States as the electronics retailer looks to grow beauty and wellness categories. That expansion helped propel Oura to its best-ever quarter during the holiday shopping season, said chief commercial officer Dorothy Kilroy, fueled by word-of-mouth referrals and gifting.

“That just blew it out of the water for us at the end of year,” Kilroy said. “It was a ton of gifting, a ton of users buying it for each other.”

The intersection between health and retail is growing at a time when American confidence in the U.S. medical system is the lowest it’s been in a decade, according to Gallup. People are also tired of the high costs, with nearly half of insured Americans saying it’s very or somewhat difficult to afford care. And nearly a quarter say they avoid going to the doctor to find care because of the cost.

Despite — or perhaps because of — these challenges, health and personal care spending saw 8.5% year-over-year growth in 2023, the biggest jump in any category other than food service. There are also new ways to pay, with financial firms like Affirm and Klarna are getting into health and wellness verticals, and more businesses enabling people to pay for eligible products with an FSA.

Retailers and entrepreneurs are taking note — not just with digital health services like Amazon’s One Medical, but from a product standpoint. Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said during it most recent earnings that the brand now carries more than 5,000 health and wellness products and considers it a growing category. It also has its growing Best Buy Health division focused on at-home care. Sephora now carries LED masks meant to help with acne and skincare, tapping into a growing light therapy trend that has been used by dermatologists. This year, Target is adding 1,000 new wellness products to its lineup, including putting together a new “Health and Wellbeing” landing page. Among the categories are “smart tech devices,” and “Apple Wellness,” which includes Apple Watch and the Fitness+ service. 

Kilroy said that there could be more retail opportunities for Oura in the future — it already launched in Best Buy Canada locations, and has experimented with partnerships with Therabody retail stores and a collaboration with Gucci. Kilroy attributes the rise in interest to people seeking out “proactive health care,” or wanting to learn more about what their body is doing and why.

“I think it’s really consumer-led right now… A lot of that demand is coming from the consumer saying, ‘Well, wait a second, what are these data points in my life? And how are they changing based on what I do?’“ Kilroy said.

But staying relevant also means keeping up with discoveries in science. Oura’s product has gotten more advanced since its launch, with one recent update of a daytime stress monitoring measure. There’s also a feature for sharing health data with other users. Oura has also expanded its product line with different aesthetics, like rose gold, and prices raining from $299 to $549.

Kilroy said that as science advances and investment grows, Oura will continue to update its product. “We’re still in the early days of where wellness wearable technology is going to go, because the more of these medical grade components that you add to it and the more investments that pour in, that just really changes what these sort of sensors can do and how they’re going to help more people,” Kilroy said.

Despite the high interest in wellness, getting new devices on shelves is a long road — both from a research standpoint, and adoption. Lumaflex is one company looking to ride the wave of red light therapy. The technology has been growing in popularity for skincare benefits as well as pain relief. Lumaflex CEO John Graham Harper developed the product to specifically focus on pain management and joint health.

But it took about two years of research and development before he could begin sales in late 2023. Harper also had to ensure that the device passed FDA approval as a Class II device, as the agency has a three-tiered system for medical devices that requires certain testing, guidelines and labeling.

Lumaflex is currently sold online in the United States, though Harper is angling for wholesale distribution and looking to get the product in retail environments. Harper also launched a smaller and lower-priced version of the product priced at $399 instead of $649, a decision made after feedback from customers. He also brought the device to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the year, hoping to get it into the hands of potential adopters and wholesalers. But the biggest challenge so far, he said, is education in getting people to understand red light therapy and its uses.

Pointing to health and wellness podcasters like Andrew Huberman and Peter Attia who have sung the benefits of light therapy, Harper sees potential for the fringe product to become more mainstream as people become more aware.

“That is really helpful, to have these influencers out there that are very much ahead of the curve when it comes to functional medicine,” he said. “If we were to launch Lumaflex seven to 10 years earlier, it would’ve been a lot tougher, but we are at a stage now where information is readily available.”

From the investment side, the health space saw a drop in funding in 2023, according to Pitchbook. Venture funding for digital health companies in the third quarter hit a new low of $800 million. But the space is hardly dormant, with partnerships started to tick back up. “Convergence between consumer retail and digital health is a theme to watch given the desire of retail players to find sustainable markets with growing opportunities,” Pitchbook’s third-quarter report said.

Ron Gutman, CEO and co-founder of health tech company Intrivo, also sees collaborations and acquisitions as the future to growing the intersection between health and retail. Intrivo owns On/Go, an app-based Covid-19 test that was among the first to get an emergency use authorization from the FDA. Gutman has spent about 30 years working with and investing in health tech companies, and said that integrating devices with digital platforms is one of the key areas where the space can grow, citing Apple Health and Oura as examples.

“Health care needs to have programs and platforms that know how to integrate all the way,” he said. “Things from a digital scale up to a medical device like continuous glucose monitoring … AI can play an extremely important role in collecting this device data and giving you insights.” 

Gutman is also bullish on the ability of the private sector to innovate in the health space. Entrepreneurs, he said, are well-positioned to come up with meaningful health tech inventions as they aren’t hampered by the same large systems and processes that legacy health companies might have. But with that comes the need for careful examination and caution from investors that products are sound and science-backed. He said devices must need to solve a real problem, rather than use technology for its own flashy sake.

“The Hippocratic oath that every doctor needs to take — and I think health-care entrepreneurs need to make as well — is first and foremost do no harm,” Gutman said.