BRISTLING MOVEMENT

(FNS) -- The toothbrush category is demonstrating how innovation and design drive retail sales and boost margins.Even before Gillette Co.'s Oral-B subsidiary debuted its CrossAction toothbrush earlier this year, high demand for a perfect, most-efficient cleaning tool propelled the category and price points upward.Oral care manufacturers' research and development teams are working overtime on high-tech

(FNS) -- The toothbrush category is demonstrating how innovation and design drive retail sales and boost margins.

Even before Gillette Co.'s Oral-B subsidiary debuted its CrossAction toothbrush earlier this year, high demand for a perfect, most-efficient cleaning tool propelled the category and price points upward.

Oral care manufacturers' research and development teams are working overtime on high-tech designs that can attract the attention of the professional dental community.

For the year ended Jan. 3, 1999, sales of toothbrushes and dental accessories hit $1.2 billion, a 13.7% increase over the previous year, according to the latest figures from Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The shift in demand to the higher-priced premium brush is evidenced by declining unit sales, which slipped 3.5% to 628.3 million units overall.

No one is complaining about the 30% to 35% profits being made on the higher ring products with retails, in some cases, breaking the $5 barrier and topping out at $6.99.

Dan Dailey, senior buyer for general merchandise at Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska, voiced sentiments echoed by others in food retailing. "When the cost of brushes went up, and they got to be better for consumers, it became an all-around good commodity for us," he said. Carr's profits on toothbrushes shot up 57% in the past year, while unit movement only rose 5%, said Dailey.

Consumers appear to be accepting the higher prices. "So far, there doesn't seem to be much resistance to the $4.99 ring [average retail price for Oral B's CrossAction]," said Bill Swartz, senior vice president at MAI-Alper, Framingham, Mass. "We've come a long way since the 10 for $1 brushes," he said.

Indeed, retailers note less shopper interest in "value" and private-label brushes. According to IRI, private-label toothbrushes represented just 5.2% of the total $391 million in toothbrush sales generated within the food channel for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, 1998.

"Our private-label movement probably represents only 9% of unit movement and probably contributes 12% to total profit [for brushes]," Dailey said.

"Most manufacturers have introduced dramatically improved products," said Ray Wallace, director of health and beauty care and general merchandise at Cub Foods, Lithia Springs, Ga.

Some of the recent entries have specially shaped bristles to reduce plaque and clean under the gum line, colored indicators that signal it's time to change to a new brush and rubberized handles for a better grip. The toothbrushes come in the hottest colors and models are named appropriately, such as Reach's The Plaque Blaster from Johnson & Johnson, which is targeted to kids.

Consumers' increasing awareness of the importance of oral hygiene and manufacturers' efforts to educate dentists are other reasons the category is growing robustly.

"Our customer base is more knowledgeable. They realize they need a different product than low-end to get the job done," said Wallace of Cub Foods.

"Baby boomers do not need to be as concerned about tooth decay as much as gum diseases. And a lot of folks are just aware that quality matters and are taking care of their teeth," he added.

Tammy Roe, supervisor for nonfood at Wade's Supermarket, Christianburg, Va., said media attention also has done much to drive consumer awareness of proper oral hygiene and has boosted the frequency of toothbrush purchases.

"In the past year, consumers are more aware of the importance of changing toothbrushes, because of media attention. Now they want to change their toothbrush more often," said Roe.

In response to these trends, Wade's expanded its space for toothbrushes from 1 linear foot to 8 linear feet. In some of its stores, toothbrushes are merchandised in three to four locations, including placement of two or three brushes at the checkouts.

Manufacturers are also communicating better to dentists, both before and after product development, said supermarket executives. This is critical because dentists pass on samples and information to their patients.

"The industry is detailing dentists and keeping them more informed, because that information is getting to the user. Before, they [end-users] didn't get it," Wallace said.

Carr Gottstein also boosted toothbrush selection in aisles, endcaps and power panels by 20% last year.

Manufacturers said that retailers are putting more emphasis on new product launches than they have in the past, and supermarket operators are more effectively merchandising brushes.

Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., for example, is quick to support launches with newspaper ads and displays, and has higher early sales than most other chains, according to one manufacturer, who did not want to be named.

Most retailers are placing at least one freestanding display of brushes in the HBC area. Manufacturers continue to stress the importance of multiple displays, including at the front end.