BABY COMFORTS

In a high-tech world, baby products are moving more toward the basics of soothing and calming.With many parents working and not being able to spend as much time with their infants, manufacturers are leveraging this as an opportunity to market quality time between parent and baby through products said to be more pacifying."There's been a real spark in the personal care category for infants and toddlers

In a high-tech world, baby products are moving more toward the basics of soothing and calming.

With many parents working and not being able to spend as much time with their infants, manufacturers are leveraging this as an opportunity to market quality time between parent and baby through products said to be more pacifying.

"There's been a real spark in the personal care category for infants and toddlers lately as many new products have been developed especially for these young children's needs," said Laurie Klein, vice president of Just Kid, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research company that develops new product concepts and advises food companies on product lines.

This is a departure for some supermarket baby sets that, besides the usual feeding accessories and cleaning items, emphasize products that stimulate, educate and entertain, industry observers noted.

"The new trend in this category is to create products that delight a child, and [for example], Gerber has recently evolved these products and re-branded them as Grins and Giggles," Klein said. "What mom wouldn't want that for her child?"

Grins and Giggles is a line of bath and skin care products that includes natural ingredients such as lavender, aloe vera and oatmeal. Other branded baby care products designed to delight include bedtime lotions and soothing natural lotion.

Innovation in baby care products is a growing trend, not only in national brands, but also in store brands, said Tony Harrington, business manager, health and beauty care, Topco Associates, a cooperative private-label supplier based in Skokie, Ill.

"The real opportunity for expansion and growth, and where I think much of the brand activity has

been, is expanding from those base SKUs with different varieties or different added attributes," Harrington told SN.

Harrington said much of the activity is in store-brand products within the baby care category that claim to soothe and calm.

"There's been a lot of sales growth," he said, "even some at the expense of regular [items], what we would think of as the traditional baby product mix."

Mothers look for baby care products that contain ingredients with which they are familiar, such as shea butter, mango and vitamin E, according Mark Cammarota, marketing director for baby brand activation, Kimberly-Clark, Dallas.

Kimberly-Clark last year introduced a shea butter product in its wipes and toiletries line, and more recently, a product with mango, coconut and vitamin E.

"Consumers are looking for that something extra and a lot of the sensory type of benefits are really appealing to moms, products that have extra-special ingredients and fragrances in them," Cammarota said. "There's a trend that you see in baby products with those ingredients that mom knows, and is used to buying in adult cosmetics, and it's starting to migrate down into the baby market."

At McMaken's Supermarkets, Brookville, Ohio, baby category employee Donna Brooks believes consumers there are also buying into the soothing and calming theme.

"Soothing and calming baby care products are showing up in the store," she said. "Almost all of the national brands make a powder or lotion or wash with a soothing theme. As far as the customers' reaction to them, I think they buy into the new packaging because it is attractive, brighter, and comes in a variety of different scents and combinations."

Natural and organic baby travel packs with items such as lotions and rash cream do very well at Giant Eagle, according to Dan Donovan, spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based retailer.

Not only do scents and special ingredients have the potential to delight a child, but the design of an accessory also carries that potential.

"A major trend you're seeing on the accessory side is [an emphasis on] fashion, color, shape and materials used," said Andrew Keimach, chairman of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, Mt. Laurel, N.J. "Fashion is becoming a part of all products, where in the past the issue has been more on function until you got into the soft goods."

BABY DESTINATION

While supermarkets are trying to stay on top with products in the baby aisle, mass merchandisers are still eating away at sales. Supermarkets have, however, experienced a slight increase in sales in baby care with the overall baby needs category up 2.6% to $163 million for the latest 52 weeks ending April 16, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

"Supermarket operators have a unique opportunity, because of the frequency of visits, to deliver the ongoing message that they are the destination for baby products, so as customers come into the baby category, that's the reference point for them," Harrington said. "They begin to think of the supermarket as the full-service answer to their baby needs."

Other retailers agreed that the parents are ultimately interested in a one-stop shop.

"We view the baby category as a strategic area for growth," Donovan said. "We have found that this is an area where a retailer can build trust with consumers. If parents come to rely on you for their baby's needs, then there's a good chance they will rely on you for the needs of their entire family."

Another way for retailers to stay on top of their product assortment is to maintain a strong relationship with manufacturers.

"It is very much a set of categories that grows based on innovation," Keimach said. "Like other categories, there's always going to be a constant battle for market share, and space is tough to come by. Those two forces are making for a more competitive market. But I still believe, more so than in the last three to five years, the supermarket industry's really starting to understand how powerful these categories can be."

PRIVATE LABEL

Although some parents readily go for private-label products for their baby, there is still the ongoing debate about quality vs. national products.

"When we look at the baby category, we do see that parents may be a little more brand-centric with baby products," Harrington said. "That has a tendency to occur more with the first child than subsequent children."

Topco sees a much higher purchase rate of store brands among parents with multiple children than parents with just one child, Harrington told SN. As parents have more children and gain more experience and confidence, they recognize the value and the high quality of store brands, he added.

Keimach said the baby product category is not price-sensitive and parents equate national brands with quality.

"I think private label has always been around and will continue to be around as an option, but in the juvenile products category, what consistently wins out all the time is quality and value equations, so it's not just a price issue," Keimach said.

"The value is always going to go to the product that works the best and is the most reliable, especially when it comes to children," he said. "This segment is value-driven - what's it going to do for me, how is it going to make my life easier, how is it going to make my child's life better?"

Quality and value are important, agreed Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., but private label is doing fairly well within this category, and does not necessarily carry the inferior stigma some associate with store-brand products.

"We certainly see private-label products selling better in some baby categories than others," Brous told SN. "While there are a variety of specific reasons for these variations, it has become apparent that parents are willing to accept the store brands across the store as comparable to national brands. As with any brand, the success or failure of private label in a specific category is determined by how well it meets the needs of the customers compared to the other brands on the shelf."

Harrington said items like private-label wipes might be purchased more often because they are highly consumable products.

"In many cases, the consumer has become so well educated that they understand that many of the store-brand products available are produced at the same or greater quality levels than many of the brands they may have purchased," Harrington said.

Trendy Toddlers

Another trend developing in the baby category addresses the lack of products designed for toddlers. Toddlers are in a unique position, as they're not babies anymore and are just learning to be self-sufficient.

"One area being noticed more and more by manufacturers is the toddler segment, especially in toiletries. Numerous manufacturers are seeing this as an area for growth, especially in products such as hand soaps and shampoo," Dan Donovan, spokesman for Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, told SN.

After the age of 1, much of this segment starts growing more hair, pushing parents to buy shampoo products as opposed to baby washes, which are more for infants, according to the November 2005 Mintel Executive Summary report.

"More and more manufacturers are targeting the age of children who are being potty trained," said Preston Phillips, nonfood manager, Day's Market Place, Heber City, Utah.

Laurie Klein, vice president of Just Kid, a Stamford, Conn.-based market-research company, agreed that toddler-targeted products are a trend on the horizon.

"There is a group of consumers that is largely underserved in the marketplace," she said. "We call them 'big kids' - 2 to 6 years old - who can proudly claim that they are not babies anymore since they can feed and dress themselves. There is a real void in the marketplace for products specifically tailored to the needs of this audience and their mothers."

AMY SUNG