FAMILY FORMULA

Expecting moms do everything but wait.They scan the Internet and parenting magazines, and talk to doctors, families and friends to find out the best ways to care for their newborns.Increasingly, their sources of information are referring them to natural baby products, such as food with fewer preservatives, and natural and organic body care products that are easy on their infants' sensitive skin. Most

Expecting moms do everything but wait.

They scan the Internet and parenting magazines, and talk to doctors, families and friends to find out the best ways to care for their newborns.

Increasingly, their sources of information are referring them to natural baby products, such as food with fewer preservatives, and natural and organic body care products that are easy on their infants' sensitive skin. Most supermarkets now have an extensive selection of organic and natural baby food, as well as natural diapers and organic skin care lines.

Many are missing an opportunity, however, to educate parents about the health benefits of these products and how other departments of the store, such as pharmacy, over-the-counter medications and even dairy, can help parents with the overall health of their children.

"If there ever was a category to cross promote, baby products are ideal. Whether it's the medicine aisle or the baby food aisle, that is the same consumer and all those products are relevant in their world," said Laurie Klein, vice president of Just Kid, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research firm.

It's no secret that conventional supermarkets have been losing baby aisle customers to other channels. Incentives like baby clubs and discount programs have a mixed track record. But industry observers suggest retailers won't win back anyone until they start looking beyond the product, to the end user.

"It's about a healthy lifestyle and -- by the way -- food," said Rosemary Maxfield, vice president of J. Brown Agency, a promotional agency also in Stamford. "Babies also need vitamins; there are breastfeeding needs, baby massage and baby lotion."

Whole Foods Market does the best job of tying in the health of infants and their nutritional needs with the rest of the store, Maxfield said. However, the natural food chain "can't really deliver across all the categories, like Albertsons and others can, because they're so geared toward organic."

Smart retailers can address the overall needs of the baby shopper with endcaps of "baby solutions," and other displays grouping all baby needs together, Maxfield said.

"Young families with children spend more and have a bigger basket size. The way to keep them happy is 'baby solutions,' not them having to run over here and get Onesies, then run over there and get flu medicine," she said.

Klein of Just Kid agreed that more supermarkets should gather the various types of baby needs together in one area. This class of shoppers is also desperate for time, so organized displays are a big bonus, regardless of the store's format.

"Who is more harried in the store than a new mother, who just wants to run in and out? How wonderful it would be to put all that together," she said.

Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, already groups all baby solutions together, including food, diapers, medications, bibs and skin care. In an Albertsons store in Apopka, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, the baby section is hard to miss, with an oversized, multicolored "Baby Care" sign hanging above the section. Medications such as Symtec Children's Teething and Mylicon Gas Relief are included in an 8-foot section of health and beauty care products containing shampoos, lotions and diaper rash ointments. Here, organic baby food selections are integrated, not segregated.

Grouping all baby products together by age is another merchandising idea of the future that mothers will appreciate. "If you're a mom with an infant, you don't really care about toddlers' [products]," Maxfield said.

All of this is designed to help parents cope with one of life's biggest surprises. Indeed, having a baby is the event that triggers most consumers to try organic food in the first place, according to research from The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.

The first categories of products that shoppers new to organic buy are: produce, dairy -- and baby food. In addition, parents -- particularly new parents -- are not as price sensitive as other shoppers because concerns with quality and safety trump price points.

"In those first tender months, a parent is even more concerned about giving them the best-quality products," Klein said.

And the growing sales in the natural and organic baby food category show that parents are becoming more interested in caring for their children naturally. Organic baby food sales across food, drug and mass stores jumped to nearly $90 million for the year ending Oct. 8, 2005, up from $76 million last year, according to ACNielsen. Sales of baby food labeled "natural" also nearly doubled to $27.6 million. This compares to the overall baby food category, which had flat sales of $3.6 billion over the past year, Nielsen numbers show.

"Over the last couple of years, we have been adding an array of natural and organic baby products, including organic baby food, snacks and homeopathic remedies, as well as baby-friendly laundry products and diapers. Prior to that, we had no space devoted to this area," said Randy Deschaine, director of grocery for Sweetbay and Kash n' Karry Supermarkets, Tampa, Fla.

Other retailers report similar moves. "More and more people are switching to organic food all around. There are very few stores that we do not put organic baby food in," said Jane Pryor, natural food manager for Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn.

Growth in the supermarket channel can potentially accelerate with education and cross promotion in the healthy baby category. Some retailers are stepping up to the task, offering services and education that let parents know they care about the health of their children.

For example, Save Mart, Modesto, Calif., recently made the baby aisle a destination in two of its stores by installing a baby weighing station and a children's height measurement chart.

Extra touches like the scale make the shopping experience more personal and interactive for mothers, and demonstrate a level of thoughtfulness not always shown by conventional retailers, experts said.

Smooth Selling

Growing at a much faster pace than organic and natural baby food sales is the natural baby body care category, which realized a 23% increase to $22.6 million in sales for the year ending August 2005, according to SPINS, a San Francisco-based natural product research firm.

Burt's Bees Baby, Tom's of Maine and California Baby are some of the more popular natural lines in supermarkets. More mainstream products are coming on board, such as Johnson's Soothing Naturals skin care line with plant-derived ingredients.

"Our objective was to bring the efficacy of natural-based products to consumers in an appealing manner, and price points accessible to most consumers," said Debra Bass, group product director for Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J.

Still, most of the body care sales increase came from natural supermarkets, such as Whole Foods Market, not grocery stores, SPINS found.

It's liable to stay that way, too, since there seems to be a schism between what parents will spend for food and what they'll spend on body care. While Burt's Bees and other natural products have grown in popularity, there are not enough affordable price points to justify an entire natural baby care section in stores, sources said.

"There is a body-care price point that shoppers don't want to go over. They do need to be more reasonably priced," said Jane Pryor, natural foods manager for Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn.

Good Advice

Group baby products together by age or type, so parents can more quickly find products they need. All types of baby products, including medication, may be included.

In promotions and ads, place less emphasis on whether a product is labeled organic or natural, and more on the overall health and well-being of infants.

Look for more cross-merchandising opportunities in the store, including pharmacy, in-store clinics, and frozen food and dairy (which includes organic milk and refrigerated yogurt products for kids such as YoBaby made by Stonyfield Farm).

Add elements to draw shoppers into the baby aisle, but let them make their own decisions and comparisons between conventional and natural/organic baby products.