Natural health and beauty care isn't just for enthusiasts anymore.The trend is mainstreaming, especially in skin, hair, bath/shower and oral categories, where people increasingly want purer, chemical-free formulas, earthier scents, and greater efficacy from plant-based ingredients."People are becoming much more aware of what they put on their bodies. They realize that the skin is their largest organ

Natural health and beauty care isn't just for enthusiasts anymore.

The trend is mainstreaming, especially in skin, hair, bath/shower and oral categories, where people increasingly want purer, chemical-free formulas, earthier scents, and greater efficacy from plant-based ingredients.

"People are becoming much more aware of what they put on their bodies. They realize that the skin is their largest organ and what they apply goes right into their bloodstream," said Debbie Leland, natural and specialty foods buyer at Kowalski's, St. Paul, Minn. "They don't just want their food as pure as possible. It's part of a larger move to clean everything up, even their house environments, which affect the quality of air they breathe."

At Lunds and Byerly's in the Twin Cities area, the story is equally pure. "Natural HBC is starting to dominate in terms of customer demand," said Bea James, whole health manager for the 20 stores of Lunds Food Holdings, Edina, Minn. "People are looking out for themselves and their children. They express concerns about ingredients such as sodium laurelth sulfate, a chemical foaming agent used in many bubble baths and shampoos, but also in commercial and floor cleaners."

She forecast that consumers will be seeking HBC packages with SLF-free claims in 2003. James also expects introductions this year of sun care products with natural SPFs (sun protection factors), facial cleansers made of oatmeal and buttermilk, and olive and apricot oils for direct application to the skin. Meanwhile, in oral care, natural toothpastes that use herbal combinations with licorice as a natural sweetener and therapeutic agent for gums, rather than some major branded pastes that are made with sugar or artificial sweeteners, are gaining some favor, James said.

There's also demand for natural eye and ear drops for children as part of a back-to-basics movement by parents, said Linda Schmidt, health and beauty care category manager at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.

"With natural HBC, people feel it's all good," noted Norman Mayne, president and chief executive officer, Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio. "There's no stigma at all, as some skeptics feel might exist with herbs." Mayne said he disagrees with these skeptics.

James shares Mayne's enthusiasm about natural HBC. "People understand that anything could be harmful if misused. But herbal remedies are often the basis of medications, and they serve as good augments when a body needs an extra boost to reach a balanced state of health.

"However, it could be a shock if a person has never tried a natural toothpaste before. For instance, Burt's Bees brand has a pink color, and it doesn't foam," she said. "There's no magic pill for anything. There's no shampoo that gives a bald person a full head of hair, and no lotion that gives you a face lift."

Nonetheless, many natural brands -- both niche and classic -- are expanding their presence in category shelf sets, retailers said. Among them: Procter & Gamble's Herbal Essences shampoo, Estee Lauder's Aveda salon hair care, Almay foundation with kinetin, Tom's of Maine toothpaste, Aveeno facial treatments with soy extracts, Zum Bar soaps, Probiotics digestive restoration products, and expansive toiletries lines from Kiss My Face, Nature's Gate, Avalon, Jason's Naturals and Burt's Bees brands.

Natural HBC is the first logical rollout beyond natural foods, said Scott Van Winkle, principal, Adams, Harkness & Hill, an investment firm in Boston. "Ubiquity is as good a marketing driver as any. When you see it everywhere, you gain confidence in it. Particularly for supermarkets, natural HBC is still a way to differentiate from Wal-Mart, and they're getting more sophisticated in knowing how to market it."

While Van Winkle lacks confidence in numbers that claim to define the size of the market because of their wide variances, he said, "this market is absolutely growing in natural stores and traditional food retailers. There's a lot of interest by private equity to invest in this space."

That's likely because consumers seem so motivated to stay healthy.

"Women baby boomers are on top of their game. They'll take care of themselves as they age. They don't depend anymore on manufacturers telling them what they need. They're taking charge of their golden years. They're going to store shelves and reading for themselves," noted Big Y's Schmidt.

"They're driven to not age," said Carrie Bonner, project manager of consumer products for the Kline & Co. consultancy, Little Falls, N.J. "They're incorporating wellness, yoga and improved quality of life+. And they're willing to pay more for the products they believe in."

That's the case at Dorothy Lane, Mayne said. "People who use them are prepared to pay more than for the mainstream brands. We're seeing an ever-so-slow migration to these products."

To stimulate sales that produce high gross profits, chains are beginning to showcase these natural HBC brands. They are using merchandising vehicles as direct as shelf-talkers that point out their benefits, or as broad as whole health areas devoted to wellness. Many efforts were inspired by the innovations of the Bath & Body Works specialty chain, said Bonner.

Big Y Foods, for instance, uses "Natural Solutions" shelf-talkers to identify natural vitamins and natural beauty care segments in the majority of its 48 stores. "Customers like the signs because they direct them and save time," said Schmidt.

A handful of Big Y stores now have sets of 12 to 16 feet of natural vitamins and shampoos. "As we expand in appropriate, upscale demographic areas, we'll place natural sets in those stores as well," she said.

By contrast, seven of the Lunds and Byerly's stores have Living Wise lifestyle centers positioned near HBC. The centers range from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet, and are set apart from the rest of the store by distinctive signage, bright track lighting, a maple floor and maple laminate fixtures. Living Wise specialists, who wear tan organic cotton shirts, guide customers to products or educational support, such as a Healthnotes kiosk.

The environment promotes consumer confidence in natural HBC. The center's outer displays invite shoppers with scents such as lavender or patchouli from Zum Bar soaps, or testers of natural skin lotions and aromatherapy sprays. They also use artsy, bold package graphics to attract shoppers. One example is Burt's Bees brand, which has a picture of a man with a beard on a woman's powder product.

In the three stores that have pharmacy and a Living Wise center, James "always tries to have refrigerated Probiotics available. They're natural digestive restoration products that contain acidophilus and counter the effects of antibiotics or other medicines that might throw off a person's flora balance or kill good bacteria and cause upset."

At Kowalski's, the Woodbury, Minn., store points to the future direction of the eight-store chain. Natural Path signage conveys its Whole Health initiative, and a freestanding four-sided kiosk in the traffic mainstream, near the traditional HBC, houses the natural HBC assortments. It blends in well with the store's upscale appeal. "Many of the suppliers we use have been around for 15 years. They're not newcomers...they're very creative. The biggest opportunities I see are in hair, skin, bath and shower gels, toothpaste and deodorants," Leland said.

At Dorothy Lane, natural HBC has its own Healthy Alternatives section adjacent to the home categories displays. Perhaps equally pivotal to the category's success is its inclusion in the chain's monthly newsletter to frequent shoppers. "Some of the messages are promotional, and others are institutional," Mayne said. "It's all about credibility. If I have it, they believe what I'm saying."