VIRUS BOOSTS INSECT REPELLENT SALES

Supermarkets are seeing a steep sales increase in mosquito repellents and other bug-control products in the wake of heightened consumer awareness of the mosquito-born West Nile virus.Retailers are scrambling to keep mosquito-fighting products on store shelves, they said."We're trying to keep up stock as best we can," said Lou Ann Wester, grocery buyer, Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas. "We're

Supermarkets are seeing a steep sales increase in mosquito repellents and other bug-control products in the wake of heightened consumer awareness of the mosquito-born West Nile virus.

Retailers are scrambling to keep mosquito-fighting products on store shelves, they said.

"We're trying to keep up stock as best we can," said Lou Ann Wester, grocery buyer, Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas. "We're having trouble keeping up with demand." Supply has been especially scarce in the retailer's 24 Louisiana stores. Wester said some Brookshire stores in Louisiana are experiencing empty pockets in their four-foot, bug-control sections.

Most people who become infected show no symptoms or mild ones, but in rare incidences the virus can develop into West Nile encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can be deadly. In Louisiana, eight deaths have been reported stemming from the West Nile virus this year.

Approximately 253 human cases of West Nile virus have been confirmed in 12 states this year, according to the most recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, a jump from 66 human cases reported in 10 states in 2001. The virus first appeared in the United States in 1999.

As a result of increased awareness, Handy Andy Supermarkets, San Antonio, is experiencing 50% sales spikes in mosquito-fighting sprays and other insecticides since reports increased about the West Nile cases, said Joel Maldonado, grocery buyer for the retailer.

"We've oversold, and we're contacting [manufacturing] companies about the situation," he said. The recent heavy rains and resulting floods in the area promoted the growth of mosquitoes and water bugs, which also propelled sales of insect repellents, he added. Bug-control products offered in stores provide a 18% to 30% range in sales margins, he said. Price tags for the products span $2.79 to $3.99.

Charlotte, N.C.-area Food Lion stores have seen a "noticeable jump" in bug-control products after several birds tested positive for the virus in Charlotte, said Jeff Lowrance, spokesman, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C.

He added, "But where the big scare is in Louisiana, it has not affected us."

The deaths in Louisiana "really brought attention to the virus," said Mark Newberg, director of corporate affairs, Wellmark International, Schaumburg, Ill., manufacturer of Zodiac brand flea-and-tick products and Yard and Garden insect spray. The company is rolling out a preventative mosquito-control product, Prestrike, next February to kill mosquitoes before they become fully formed adults. The one-pound shaker container consists of granules that can be sprinkled in stagnant water areas, instant breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Newberg said. Prices for the products range from $11 to $20, he said.

Newberg suggested that retailers position insecticides on endcaps to create more visibility for consumers.

Meanwhile, a source at SC Johnson & Son, Racine, Wis., manufacturer of OFF! insect repellent, declined to comment on West Nile virus-related sales jumps. However, she said that there has been sales growth because of hot summer weather conditions.

"Mosquito season has picked up due to the weather in the late summer season, and we see increased sales because of it," she said.

Al Jones, senior vice president, procurement and marketing, Imperial Distributors, Auburn, Mass., said retailers ordered larger quantities of bug-repelling citronella candles last year to prepare for this year's spring and summer seasons since virus cases were reported last summer.

"It's just going to get bigger," he said.