There aren't any firm numbers showing sales activity in the specialty soap category, but anyone closing their eyes and inhaling deeply will know something special is in the air.
“Our best-sellers are Frankincense and Myrrh, Lavender-Mint, Oatmeal-Mint and Sandlewood-Citrus,” said Sally Crabb, spokeswoman for Indigo Wild, makers of the Zum bar soaps and skin care products found at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Safeway and other retailers. The Kansas City, Mo.-based company is one of a growing number of vendors entering the mainstream supermarket channel with handcrafted lines that emphasize naturally occurring fats and glycerins over hard-milled, pure-soap products.
There are several drivers behind the trend, according to observers, including the sheer number of age-defying boomers and younger people who are attuned to sustainability issues, as well as increases in the number of people with allergy problems. All three of these soap constituencies are woven together with a thread of indulgence.
“It's less pure functional need, and more of an emotional connection, in terms of taking care of yourself,” said consultant Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Chicago. “You're not just buying soap, you're getting into an extension of your personality and life philosophy.”
There's certainly a lot of personality at Lush, a quirky body care company that opened its first U.S. store in late 2002 and now has some 35 scent-filled showrooms across the country. Here, shoppers find not just bars cut to order, but face masks that contain only fresh, perishable ingredients and require special care; soaps that jiggle like gelatin; and butter creme concoctions that smell good enough to eat. Indeed, Lush operates much like a conventional supermarket on several levels.
“Soaps are sliced for you like a deli would slice meat, and there are refrigeration units for our fresh face and foot masks,” said Ali Fillmore, North American product trainer for Lush, headquartered in Great Britain. “The whole deli approach is important because it means freshness to our customers.”
So it might not seem extraordinary for shoppers to get a pint of the Brazened Honey mask to go with their quarter-pound slice of Gratuitous Violet soap.
“It's a totally different spin on everything,” Fillmore said, adding that 95% of Lush's customers are women, with the bull's-eye centered on 25- to 29-year-olds. The majority of the customers purchase products every two to four months, she said.
While older supermarkets may not have the space or the right environment to start offering premium natural body care products, newer and more modern footprints are appropriate venues for such items, particularly those stores that have a health and wellness section, Wisner said.
“Some product lines, like Burt's Bees and Kiss My Face, started out niche-y, but have become pretty mainstream now,” he said.
Operators who've offered these types of so-called bridge brands might be well positioned to experiment with boutique or handcrafted items.
“The idea is to aim ahead of the trend, and this is one that's going to continue to develop,” Wisner said.