THE ART OF BATH & BODY

Taking a cue from upscale specialty stores, supermarkets are pampering customers with upscale sets and selections of bath and body products.Chains like Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; and Giant Food, Landover, Md., are rolling out inviting presentations in their bath and body care aisles that encourage shoppers to pamper themselves with the trendy products merchandised

Taking a cue from upscale specialty stores, supermarkets are pampering customers with upscale sets and selections of bath and body products.

Chains like Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; and Giant Food, Landover, Md., are rolling out inviting presentations in their bath and body care aisles that encourage shoppers to pamper themselves with the trendy products merchandised there. For example, the "Relax, Renew, Revive" motif at Giant has recently been adopted by another Ahold USA chain, Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., Quincy, Mass.

Meanwhile, Giant Eagle, Wegmans and Publix, Lakeland, Fla., are using attractive fixtures to help capture higher-end sales in this category.

The bath and body care segment exploded in the 1990s as specialized chains like Bath and Body Works, Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and Bed, Bath and Beyond, Union, N.J., established a consumer niche, according to industry analysts.

"Attempts to put up fixtures and create their own brands is a proactive defense to combat the bath and body stores," said Carol Lauer, executive consultant, EURO RSCG Meridian, Westport, Conn. "It has some of the glamour and fashion appeal that you see in a mall, and it's a way to differentiate themselves."

Lauer noted the initiatives that retailers like Stop & Shop have taken in their new prototype stores represent "a vast improvement from the traditional HBC aisle."

The segment has grown from simple bar soaps to body washes and creams, salt and sugar scrubs, and moisturizing lotions to enhance bathing as a "spa-like" experience.

"It's a huge category that we need to be capitalizing on," said Jan Coyne, health and beauty care category manager, Associated Grocers, Seattle. "If supermarkets can find a way to develop a specialized section, it would be worthwhile."

Bath category sales in food, drug and mass channels (excluding Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.) totaled $105 million in a 52-week period ending Feb. 23, up 6% in dollar sales during the same period a year ago, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Supermarkets lathered up $36 million in sales in the total bath products category. Bath and body scrubbers and massagers garnered $16 million is food channel sales. Hand and body lotions racked up $269 million in supermarket channel sales.

The total soap category, including deodorant and non-deodorant bar soaps, hand sanitizers, liquid hand soaps and body soaps, totaled $1.6 billion in food, drug and mass channels, according to IRI during the same 52-week period ending Feb. 23. The food channel accounted for $957 million of those sales, compared to $307 million in drug stores.

In Kline & Co.'s recent 2002 Beauty Retailing Report, the Little Falls, N.J., consulting firm surveyed 100 food, drug and mass retailers in each channel to rate the importance of health and beauty care products in 19 different categories. On a scale of 1 to 5, supermarkets gave bath products an average 3.4 rating, ranking it as the 10th most important HBC category on the list. Shampoos, toothpastes and deodorants were the top three categories, said Carrie Bonner, project manager.

The big hurdles to succeeding in this category are space, price and visibility, several sources told SN.

"In general, there's not enough space devoted to the category," Bonner said. "Supermarkets are more focused on bar soaps and other commodities."

"Space is the biggest problem," said Pete Sutton, president, Sutton Consulting Group, Orange Park, Fla. "The business is there, but it's primarily in department stores and specialty stores."

Higher price points compared to bar soaps are another hurdle to overcome in supermarkets, said Catherine Lair, director of marketing, Nivea body and bath care and Nivea for Men, a brand under Beiersdorf, Westport, Conn.

"Customers are proud to display these products in the shower. We need to educate the consumer to get over the hurdle of price, and educate the retailers at the same time so they will dedicate the space to the category," she said.

Sales of upscale bath and body products are linked to fragrance trends, which presents another obstacle for supermarkets, sources said. The trends are so fast-paced that it's difficult for buyers to keep track, they said.

"Fragrances are trendy, so [the category] has to be continually changing, and that's a challenge for grocery," said Coyne of AG Seattle.

"Supermarkets can't get ahead of the curve quickly to keep up with the trends," said Michael Piff, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Minnetonka Brands, Chaska, Minn., the maker of Village Naturals bath and body products.

About 7% of the lotion category is sold on fragrance alone, said Michelle Goldberg, marketing manager, St. Ives, a brand under Alberto-Culver USA, Melrose Park, Ill. The direction of fragrances is trending toward mixtures of floral, fruity and fresh, she said. St. Ives is launching its Whipped Silk body wash in the light floral Soft Petal Breeze scent this July, based on the success of St. Ives' Whipped Silk body lotions.

While there are perennial space problems in supermarkets, some innovative retailers make the most of the space to create impressive bath and body sets away from the bar soaps in the grocery aisles.

"Optimize limited space and devote a mix of products with the fastest turns," noted Piff. "Putting in [bath products] as a separate section will have the most probability of success."

Publix, Wegmans and Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, are recognized as retailers that "devote the space necessary and segment the section as opposed to creating a blur of products with the soap," Piff said.

Giant Eagle installed wooden fixtures, decorative bath gift sets, and topped off its sections with a mirror hanging overhead to create a visible presence in some of the company's newer stores.

For example, the Giant Eagle store in Ravenna, Ohio, opened two years ago with this elaborate set. Although the 30-foot section took off slowly, the HBC manager at the store said, "People are taking care of their skin better."

Company sources told SN that Giant Eagle will remodel its entire HBC area later this year, including enhanced bath and body presentations.

Sampling is also important, said Sutton, and customers should be allowed to try the products on the shelves. Whether with wooden or molded plastic fixtures, retailers "must capture the department store look to give the customer an enhanced shopping experience."