High-quality products and technological advances continue to drive growth in the oral care category. Flossing equipment, whitening products and power toothbrushes have been reinvented over the past year, and sales are reflecting those changes."Innovation is a key factor to the strength of the category," said Larry Ishii, general manager, GM/HBC, Unified Western Grocers, Commerce, Calif. "There's innovation

High-quality products and technological advances continue to drive growth in the oral care category. Flossing equipment, whitening products and power toothbrushes have been reinvented over the past year, and sales are reflecting those changes.

"Innovation is a key factor to the strength of the category," said Larry Ishii, general manager, GM/HBC, Unified Western Grocers, Commerce, Calif. "There's innovation in the floss category and continued innovation with dentifrice and the whitening type products." Ishii, along with other wholesale and retail executives, were interviewed during the recent General Merchandise Marketing Conference of the General Merchandise Distributors Council, Colorado Springs, Colo.

One of the newest developments to hit the oral care market recently was Brush-Ups from Oral B. The Brush-Up fits over a finger to allow consumers to brush without water or toothpaste. The portability and convenience of this product are reminiscent of the Listerine Pocket Pak, said David Lowe, director of HBC/GM, K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va.

"As consumers are on the go more than they were before, and yet still remember that they should brush and floss after every meal, that becomes more and more difficult to do," said Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. "Consumers are out and about. Particularly as you have all these baby boomers who are now dealing with the onset of gum disease, the importance of oral care starts to become even more critical. It's this on-the-go kind of care."

The largest technological advance in the category came from new flossing products, including the Reach Access daily flosser, a handheld product that looks like a

toothbrush. The Reach Access has been heavily promoted through television and print ads, and a free sample is available on the Reach Web site.

"Flossing is starting to gain momentum and that's good news because the dentifrice-mouthwash part of the business, which is proportionally speaking the heavy volume in the category, isn't always the more profitable part of the category," Ishii said. "Now we're seeing activity along with what's been happening with toothbrushes that adds some profitability back in the category."

While the overall sale of dental floss has dropped a little more than 6% in the 52 weeks ending June 13, 2004, the high-end flosses have experienced growth, according to John McIndoe, spokesman, Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Glide Comfort Plus Dental Floss had a 278% growth over the same period.

Wisner credits the rise in consumers using floss to a general increase in health awareness. "When you start to do population studies and find out what are behavioral characteristics of people that lead to an increased lifespan, one of the more intriguing ones is that people who floss live longer," Wisner said. "There are a lot of other disease states that might be perpetuated or augmented or may be more difficult to deal with if your oral care isn't up to snuff."

Retailers are responding to the increased number of people using high-end dental floss by promoting a number of oral care products together, as an oral care regimen. One advertisement focuses on the category as a whole by combining toothbrushes, toothpaste, whiteners and floss.

"You take the whole category, or different segments of it, whether it is mouthwash, whitening strips and toothpaste, and advertise it all together -- beginning to end," said Gordon Thompson, general merchandise and HABA buyer/merchandiser, Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash. "You need flossers, you need whitening, you need mouthwash, and you need to promote the whole thing."

"There's just simply a much better awareness of oral health," said Wisner. "It used to be, 50 years ago, everyone worried about cavities. The focus now is on gum disease, particularly with an aging population. People also understand that gum disease is something that can be thwarted and dealt with much earlier in life."

Healthy teeth and gums aren't everything, however. Consumers are also looking for value, which doesn't always translate into offering them the least expensive merchandise. They are looking for the product that will give them the best results for their money, said Charles Yahn, vice president, merchandising, Associated Wholesalers, York, Pa.

As a result of looking for the best value, retailers report that high-end electric toothbrushes have continued to grow in the last year. While some retailers have drastically reduced their prices, Yahn thinks that consumers will buy the products that work the best, even if they cost more.

IRI reports that power toothbrushes experienced a 3.25% growth in the 52 weeks ending June 13. More importantly, higher-end toothbrushes, such as products from Braun Oral B and Sonicare, have experienced dramatic growth.

"People are realizing that they can buy a cheap [toothbrush] for $6.95, but if they really want to do this right, they have to pay the money and get a good one," Yahn said. "The consumers prefer brands and seek value, but value at a higher level [beyond price]."

The same holds true for whiteners, said Al Jones, senior vice president, procurement and merchandising, Imperial Distributors, Auburn, Mass. While there are less expensive products on the market, consumers have realized that to see results, they might have to pay more for the best products. New innovative products are driving the whitening segment as well, with IRI reporting that Crest Night Effects experienced a 286% growth in the 52 weeks ending June 13. Meanwhile, private-label versions are starting to have an impact in the market, with IRI reporting that store-brand whitening products grew over 2,000%, from a small base, for the 52 weeks ending June 13.

"I don't think whitening is going to have the explosive growth that it's had over the last two years," Jones said. "I think it's reached its peak and will maintain and will continue to add dollars in the category, but I don't think it's going to be the driver looking forward."

Jones agreed that whiteners and other new oral care items could be likened to over-the-counter switch products in that they are used first in a professional environment, then find their way onto retail shelves, only the oral care products never required a prescription. Also, like OTC products, they sell at high price points some people thought wouldn't work in supermarkets, yet they have been very successful. "Who knows what the next advance could be -- instant is good, whiter is better. I don't know what's in the dentist's office at this point. I'm sure it has to come from there," he said.

K-VA-T's Lowe credits the success of high-end oral care products to the fast-paced lifestyle consumers are living. "Like everything else in life, they want it fast and they want it now, and they're willing to pay for it," he said.

Retailers, analyst and wholesalers agree that in the next year, new products, improvements on old products, and inventive marketing strategies are going to continue to be the driving forces in oral care.

"It's going to be up to manufacturers how the category goes in the future, but in the past, it's the manufacturers that have always come out with innovation, whether it's delivery systems or cleaning systems," said Jeff Manning, managing partner, F&M Merchant Group, Lewisville, Texas. "As long as the manufacturers keep the innovation coming, that category will continue to be a great one."

To continue to be successful in oral care, Wisner said retailers have to look into new approaches in category management instead of relying on past experiences to guide them. "White Strips didn't exist five years ago, and retailers don't have a history to project from. What you need to do is define history by looking out to the future and asking, 'Where is the category growing and going? What new areas am I going to have to accommodate?' Plan by looking forward rather than adjust looking backwards."