AN UPHILL BATTLE

Along with keeping up with diaper-packaging changes, retailers must overcome another hurdle in the diaper category: competing with mass merchants.Many grocers have watched their share of sales in the diaper category slide in response to lower price points offered at the discount merchandisers.But retailers are working to lure customers back to the diaper section -- and the rest of the baby aisle.Meijer,

Along with keeping up with diaper-packaging changes, retailers must overcome another hurdle in the diaper category: competing with mass merchants.

Many grocers have watched their share of sales in the diaper category slide in response to lower price points offered at the discount merchandisers.

But retailers are working to lure customers back to the diaper section -- and the rest of the baby aisle.

Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich., is doing so by heightening awareness of the baby portion of its gift registry. The baby registry is highly popular among Meijer consumers. About 90 of 100 items that customers register for are baby-related, according to Erin Vonpongracz, baby buyer.

To boost membership even further, Meijer may tie in the registry with its baby club, along with store contests and advertising. It also wants to use the consumer data it obtains through the registry for targeted-marketing efforts, like sampling to new mothers, e-mail panels and customer surveys.

"Our primary interest is to attract the new mom. That's one of our target consumers," she said.

Meijer is also considering a registry "completer" program. This means that after a baby shower, parents-to-be can come into a Meijer store and purchase any remaining items on the registry list at a discount.

Along with its gift registry, Meijer uses other types of promotions to boost sales of diapers and other baby products. One strategy is participating in Gerber Product Co.'s annual Baby Week, which ran this year from May 18 to June 1. Gerber is part of the Infant & Baby business unit within the Consumer Health Division of Novartis AG, Basel, Switzerland.

Throughout Baby Week, Gerber runs freestanding insert coupons for its products. Participating retailers support the program with circular ads and in-store displays. About 5,000 stores participated in this year's event, according to Gerber. A second Baby Week is planned for the fall.

Meijer backed the Gerber event with print ads, in-store signage and displays. The retailer included various private-label baby products into Baby Week ads and displays.

"At Meijer, we feel it's important for our stores to tie in with manufacturers and to tie all our stores into one promotion," Vonpongracz cited.

Along with events like Baby Week, retailers are wooing shoppers of baby products in other ways. Take ShopRite, part of the Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J. The retailer has introduced "bigger, better baby bucks." For a 13-week period ending Aug. 9, consumers who spend $75 on baby items can get $10 off their next shopping order of $50 or more. Customers must use their Price Plus loyalty card to get the savings. Retailers typically offer either $10 back in cash or store credit on a $100 purchase, or $20 when they spend $200.

But despite their best intentions, retailers still face an uphill battle when it comes to competing with the discounters.

Diaper margins are so low at Mars Super Markets, Baltimore, that the retailer is practically giving diapers away, said Maryann Cherry, category buyer. But even that hasn't helped it beat prices at discount chains, she said.