RODEO DRIVE

SAN ANTONIO -- Price, variety and convenience in the baby aisle are what retailers in this Southern part of the Lone Star State target when roping in young families as customers.Although H.E. Butt Grocery Co. here has tied down almost 70% of the market, the remaining supermarket challengers have found other ways to effectively buck the competition and win some baby sales of their own, SN found during

SAN ANTONIO -- Price, variety and convenience in the baby aisle are what retailers in this Southern part of the Lone Star State target when roping in young families as customers.

Although H.E. Butt Grocery Co. here has tied down almost 70% of the market, the remaining supermarket challengers have found other ways to effectively buck the competition and win some baby sales of their own, SN found during store visits.

Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's places second in the overall competition. It encourages shoppers to compare its prices with those of the other dominant retailers in the area, namely H-E-B, Handy Andy Supermarkets and Super Kmart.

During SN's visit, Albertson's merchandised Huggies gender-specific diapers on an endcap. A 24-count package of Huggies for boys weighing 22 to 37 pounds was promoted at $5.99, which the retailer noted was less than H-E-B's $6.88 retail.

Albertson's and H-E-B carry similar types of products. Both stock Heinz and Gerber baby food products, merchandise the same brands of baby formula and heavily promote their private-label baby items.

The largest variety is found at Super Kmart, which has the space to display food, formula, diapers, wipes and baby needs, in addition to cribs, strollers and baby carriers. Though the supercenter is perceived to have discounted prices, SN noted that area supermarkets had comparable, and sometimes lower, prices in several areas.

For example, a 4-ounce jar of Gerber strained carrots cost the same price -- 27 cents -- at Super Kmart and H-E-B, and a 6-ounce jar of Heinz bananas with tapioca was 10 cents higher at Super Kmart than at H-E-B.

Handy Andy has 21 locations in and near San Antonio. The chain caters primarily to Hispanics, but also acts as a secondary retailer for shoppers who need to make additional purchases of staple items such as baby food and diapers during the week.

To bring in more variety -- though in the stores SN toured only Gerber baby food products were merchandised -- Handy Andy has begun to hand-stack its strained baby foods.

Hand-stacking has saved some stores 25% more shelf space, Robert Morales, space management and grocery merchandising coordinator, told SN. Other area competitors primarily display baby food in wire baskets.

The chain is also in the process of resetting its stores. Baby products have been moved closer to health and beauty care categories like feminine hygiene to provide a more convenient shopping experience for mothers. They previously were located near bar soap.

Whole Foods Market, Austin, has one store in San Antonio, where it has been for the last three and a half years. The store integrates baby food with food and nonfood, rather than with diapers and baby wipes. Baby formula and needs are unavailable.

For parents who are concerned with feeding and teaching their infants and children about healthy food choices, Whole Foods has the necessary tools. Earth's Best from Heinz is the only strained baby food merchandised. Its store-brand diapers, Tushies, are gel-free and, again, are the only brand carried. Chemical-free baby wipes are also part of the mix.

The store also sponsors workshops and events for the community. For instance, it recently hosted a doctor who spoke about hyperactivity and ways for parents to help their children holistically, rather than with the use of prescription drugs, according to Marji Walser, associate store team leader.

SN analyzed the San Antonio market because a fair share index calculated by ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., indicated that the city's consumers were spending more money on baby products than expected.

The retailers and wholesalers SN interviewed agreed that the large Hispanic population contributes to the deviation. Children are highly valued within the Hispanic culture, so their parents are more willing to spend money on them, retailers said.

In addition, the unemployment rate here has dropped significantly over the past year from as much as 8% to 4.5%, retailers said.

Following are summaries of how the leading chains are merchandising baby items.

Price Showdown

Albertson's may boast about its low prices but, in most cases, H-E-B and Super Kmart have the most competitively priced baby foods and products, according to SN price checks.*

H-E-B Albertson's Handy Andy Whole Foods Super Kmart Randalls

Gerber $0.27 4 for $1.00 $0.29 N/A $0.27 $0.29

4-ounce

carrot

Heinz

bananas

w/tapioca

6-ounce jar $0.45 $0.23 N/A N/A $0.55 $0.27

Gerber Graduates

Au Gratin Potatoes $0.96 $0.99 $0.99 N/A $0.96 N/A

w/Ham

Six-pack Gerber

rubber nipples $1.67 $2.49 N/A N/A $1.69 N/A

Johnson & Johnson

Stage 1 Healthflow $1.99 $2.99 N/A N/A $1.99 $3.49

Nipples

Private-label diapers $7.99 $5.49 $3.69 N/A $7.99 $5.99

for 22- to 35-pound babies -- unisex40-count pack 20-count pack16-count pack 40-count pack20-count pack

Price checks were conducted on Saturday, Sept. 28, and Monday, Sept. 30, at the following stores in greater San Antonio: H-E-B, 9900 Wurzbach Rd.; Albertson's, 10103 Wurzbach Rd.; Handy Andy, 4400 Fredericksburg Rd.; Whole Foods, 3715 Colony Dr.; Super Kmart, 12300 San Pedro Ave., and Randall's, 200 W. Hopkins Rd. Six-ounce jars were not available, so these prices reflect the cost of the 4.25-ounce jars.