SPLISH SPLASH

Whether it's an entire boutique-style department or simply a few feet in a skin care aisle, supermarkets are doing whatever it takes to make room for high-margin specialty bath products.Many of the new bath/body sections feature softer lighting, upscale fixturing and price points to match. While they may never become destinations to rival chains like the hugely successful Bath and Body Works, these

Whether it's an entire boutique-style department or simply a few feet in a skin care aisle, supermarkets are doing whatever it takes to make room for high-margin specialty bath products.

Many of the new bath/body sections feature softer lighting, upscale fixturing and price points to match. While they may never become destinations to rival chains like the hugely successful Bath and Body Works, these departments are evidence that supermarket retailers see a market big enough to accommodate themselves, provided they can somehow catch the shopper's eye.

"It's a continuation of the trend of targeting solutions and the category-killer competition," said Don Stuart, a partner in the consulting firm Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. "It's similar to what we've seen in the baby, pet-food and other sections of the center store."

Bath and Body Works, a division of Intimate Brands, Columbus, Ohio, has fast become the giant in the field. Now with 921 stores -- 171 added in 1997 alone -- the company recorded sales of $1.1 billion last year, a 40% increase from its 1996 total.

"The bath and body shops in town and at malls seem to be doing very well, and there's good potential for grocery stores," said Mike Van Cleef, health and beauty care buyer for URM Stores, Spokane, Wash. "Retailers must promote the fact that they have these products, taking an aggressive posture with this category as they do building an image for photoprocessing, batteries and plasticware."

"This is a category that offers a big opportunity for the food class of trade," said a New York-area broker, who asked not to be identified. "But the presentation has to be done to attract that consumer who heretofore was buying at stores like Bath and Body Works, and you can't do it with one or two shelves in skin care."

ShopRite, Elizabeth, N.J., is one retailer that has "embraced the idea of full-presentation bath/body departments," the broker said, noting that the chain has installed these departments in about 40 of its stores. The sections are 4 feet long, within skin care, and have wooden shelving provided by manufacturers like Yardley, San Francisco Soap, Sarah Michaels and Nature's Family.

Retail prices, he said, are not exceptionally high -- under $5 for individual items, $10 maximum for gift sets.

"[Bath] gift sets are a big opportunity year-round, not just for the holidays," he said. "ShopRite has incorporated gift sets into their everyday presentation, which has led to strong incremental sales."

Pricey, gift-oriented items have been solid sellers for the DLM Spa Store, a freestanding, 1,200-square-foot store devoted to bath/body and nutritional supplements that was spun off from Dorothy Lane Market,

Dayton, Ohio, last May. Soaps, for example, can run as high as $15, said Scott Lindsay, manager of the DLM Spa Store. An 8-ounce body lotion retailing for $17.50 did especially well at Christmas, he said.

Everyday best sellers, he added, are items in the $6 neighborhood from Kiss My Face, Nature's Gate and Shikai.

Bath products $6 and under sell best at URM Stores, said Van Cleef.

URM will be making over its bath/body sections over the next three to four months, Van Cleef said, "to fine-tune the category with a lot better mix."

Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., is another retailer putting an emphasis on bath and body. The chain is installing upscale bath departments in all of its newer, bigger stores, which are 60,000 square feet and up, according to an industry source familiar with the rollout. Ukrop's is also resetting its skin care assortments in older stores to make room for smaller bath/body sections, he said, adding that about 12 stores now have new or revamped bath sections.

The new Ukrop's bath/body sections are between 16 and 20 linear feet, with each supplier getting its own 3- or 4-foot section. There is a total of as many as 400 stockkeeping units, he said, and between 15% and 20% of the mix is devoted to sponges and other accessories.

Ukrop's, he noted, is trying to stimulate impulse sales by carrying products unlikely to be found at a nearby drug store or mass merchant. "They're trying to get items in there where you can't make a direct comparison on price."

Of the new sections' look, the source said, "It's defined and attention is drawn to it. It's a very shoppable space, very decorative." Ukrop's uses a drop ceiling, as well as soft lighting and unconventional, manufacturer-provided display devices like baskets to highlight the product, he said.

"For that kind of product, you really need something like that to make it work. You can't just put it on a regular grocery shelf."

"It is a way to access some fashion within HBC," said Bill Mansfield, HBC director at Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, which will be testing bath departments in a few stores this summer. "We wanted to add a little entertainment, something fun for the customer. We feel this category does that without too much risk."

In addition to a fashionable presentation, HBC managers say, smart positioning is essential if supermarkets are to arrest those most likely to browse bath/body departments -- their female customers.

Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa., now has separate 4-foot bath/body departments in some stores, cutting bath/body products into personal care in others. For new stores opening this year, however, the retailer plans departments integrating cosmetics and bath/body, with increased assortments and better flow between the two, according to Sandra Sage, HBC category manager.

"We don't have cosmetics in many of our stores, but we think creating a women's section with displays of cosmetics flowing into a bath and body area is important," she said.

Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., which is increasing the number of its bath/body "shops" from 62 to 94 this year, already positions the departments near cosmetics and hosiery, according to a store executive.

Another way to build traffic, sources say, is to move soap out of the center-store area and into bath/body. URM Stores' Van Cleef said the retailer had recently done just that, bringing greater focus in the process by whittling down the number of bar- and liquid-soap SKUs it stocks.

"Moving bar soaps next to skin care can enhance sales in bath and body," said the New York-area broker, who cited Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., as an example.