BACK INTO THE FOLD

What used to be an incomplete puzzle for retailers is fitting together as diaper manufacturers simplify their product offerings. Until now, retailers have been confronted with complicated ordering systems and cramped shelf space because of the number and variety of products offered by diaper vendors. But leading diaper companies are now streamlining their lines -- with several introducing unisex products.Retailers

What used to be an incomplete puzzle for retailers is fitting together as diaper manufacturers simplify their product offerings. Until now, retailers have been confronted with complicated ordering systems and cramped shelf space because of the number and variety of products offered by diaper vendors. But leading diaper companies are now streamlining their lines -- with several introducing unisex products.

Retailers and wholesalers polled by SN said the new efforts will help consolidate the number of stockkeeping units offered and rid the industry of gender-specific diapers.

Charles Jones, senior buyer at Scolari's Food & Drug Co., Sparks, Nev., said shoppers have had trouble finding the size and style of the particular brand of diaper to which they had become loyal. He said the problems arose because diaper manufacturers revamped their lines so frequently. Now, all that's changing.

"Everybody's going to unisex diapers, which is a good idea," said Steve Scarpa, grocery buyer at Jax Markets, Anaheim, Calif. "It helps us out as a retailer because we don't have to carry as many different varieties and brands."

The consolidation also will help Jax Markets plan its sections better, order more efficiently and allocate more room to diapers that sell well, said Scarpa. Confab, King of Prussia, Pa., a manufacturer of private-label personal care products that just began selling diapers, also is seeing the trend toward unisex products, said Abbie Simon, senior vice president of corporate communications.

"Many of the retailers are relieved to hear [about unisex] because it's going to make a big difference in terms of managing that category and making it easier to shop it," Simon said. "It will allow more meaningful innovations as opposed to those that are really cosmetic."

Scolari's Jones said he likes the idea of moving away from gender-specific products. In addition, manufacturers are streamlining the number of size packs and making count-packs more consistent, he said. Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, is scheduled to roll out its overhauled diaper line next week. As part of the initiative, it is converting to a unisex version of its "Pampers Stretch" and is introducing a full range of large-count packs. "Retailers and consumers are telling us they want a greater availability of large-count packs in more sizes," said Mark Leaf, spokesman for Procter & Gamble.

While the overhaul won't significantly change the number of SKUs P&G offers, it will make the diaper section easier to shop, Leaf said.

"Essentially what we have done is make the category a lot simpler because we've given people the levels of choice they need to choose the size pack that best meets their convenience and value needs.

"We think this is the way the category will go," Leaf added.

Terry Tognietti, co-chief executive officer and president of Drypers North America at Drypers Corp., Houston, agreed. "The move to the larger size packs is a real one," he said.

The trend over the past few years has been smaller packs. Though this strategy helps keep price points in check, it got to the point where consumers were buying less than a week's use, Tognietti said. "That was traditionally the break point," he said.

He said emphasis on the larger packs will help the retailers, and ultimately the industry.

For Magruder Inc., Rockville, Md., the larger count packs and deletion of SKUs will help make better use of space, said Mark Polsky, senior vice president.

Meanwhile, manufacturers also have simplified the category by replacing existing products with new, improved ones. Drypers, for example, is adding baking soda to its line. Instead of creating an extension to its existing products, the company is replacing items.

"We're not going to try and use it as an excuse to increase our SKU offering," said Tognietti of Drypers. "We're going to replace current Drypers with Drypers with Baking Soda and that's it. That's a practical example of how we continue to be friendly to the retailer and simplify the category," he said.

Retailers are supplementing manufacturers' efforts to simplify the diaper shopping experience with some of their own ideas.

Because Scolari's devotes 24 feet to the section, it merchandises several selections from different manufacturers, said Jones.

Polsky said Magruder's has just cleaned up the section. "We've gotten rid of all the gender items and now we're packing everything," he said.

Kimberly-Clark Corp., Dallas, maker of the current leading diaper, could not be reached for comment. Industry sources told SN the diaper company has revealed no plans to abandon its gender-specific items.