BRINGING UP BABY

Retailers are going gaga over the latest baby products. Everything from utensils and training cups to lotions and all-purpose wipes has been overhauled in recent years to better suit tiny tots. Some new items include premium calming ingredients such as green tea and lavender. Others have educational elements that teach colors, numbers and letters or encourage grown-up behaviors like personal hygiene

Retailers are going gaga over the latest baby products.

Everything from utensils and training cups to lotions and all-purpose wipes has been overhauled in recent years to better suit tiny tots. Some new items include premium calming ingredients such as green tea and lavender. Others have educational elements that teach colors, numbers and letters or encourage grown-up behaviors like personal hygiene care.

Licensed products are still popular too, but this year, Dora the Explorer is being replaced by Shrek, Disney Princesses and characters from the movie “Cars,” said Scott Miller, general merchandise category manager for Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.

“Every manufacturer seems to have a licensed product now,” Miller told SN. “They know that if the kids start screaming for something with their favorite character on it, their moms will probably buy it for them.”

Interactive toys are also popular at Big Y. Brightly colored utensils with shapes, numbers and letters are a big hit, as are high chair toys with encapsulated parts that “jiggle,” he said.

Miller has also seen more toddler products popping up in the baby aisles from companies like Playtex and Gerber.

“The idea is to keep moms shopping in the baby aisle for a year or two longer, so a lot of the manufacturers now make things like utensils with longer handles and bigger scoops for kids who can eat more food with each bite,” he said. “At Big Y, we tend to block everything by brand, so we have a block of Gerber baby items next to a block of Playtex baby items and a block of Gerber toddler products next to Playtex toddler products. It creates a succession of age as you move down the aisle.”

PROMOTIONS NEEDED

The chain promotes its assortment of infant items in weekly circulars, featuring a baby section that ties in essentials like diapers and food with pacifiers and baby shampoo. Miller admits that highlighting baby products in ads isn't a big priority for many retailers, and even the manufacturers don't push promotions much.

“This has been a pretty flat category over the years; it isn't heavily promoted by companies like Gerber and Playtex,” he said. “When we put [nonfood baby products] in our weekly ads, they tend to move in droves, with significant sales lifts.”

Indeed, total sales in the baby category declined 3.1%, to $216.3 million, in supermarkets with at least $2 million in sales during the 52 weeks ending Aug. 11, 2007, according to the Nielsen Co., Schaumburg, Ill.

Only one item tracked by Nielsen — baby ointment — showed an increase, up 1% to $30.7 million during the same time period.

Michelle Poris, senior director of quantitative research for Just Kid, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research company, agrees that retailers could do more to boost profits in the category. Putting products in circulars is one way to do this. Cross-merchandising is another method, she said.

“Imagine a small display of plastic snack cups in the snack aisle next to the Cheerios — a favorite baby snack — or next to Goldfish crackers,” she said. “Or bottles of baby sun lotion and the new sun sensors from Huggies mixed into seasonal displays with beach towels, blow-up pools and sand toys.”

Cross-merchandising is a good idea for smaller retailers, or in markets where baby is a modest focus, said Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn.

BABY CENTERS

“In larger stores, cross-merchandising can still play a role, but a complete baby center is typically what retailers prefer in any category where they want to make a statement to their shoppers,” said Taft. He cited Albertsons [prior to its being sold] as a good example of a retailer that created baby centers in its stores.

Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., has been reorganizing its baby aisles in recent years to make them easier for moms to shop, said spokeswoman Maria Brous.

“We have increased signage to designate what products are found in each section, and we have also arranged the aisle according to [life] stages,” she said.

According to Brous, while diapers, wipes and other essentials usually make it onto consumers' grocery lists, toys, utensils, sippy cups and other nonfood items don't, so it's up to the retailer to draw attention to the category. Publix entices its shoppers with coupons and cross-merchandising strategies.

The chain uses secondary displays that tie in products like trainer cups with infant juice, said Brous. She noted that just about any nonfood item can be cross-merchandised.

“We may not always cross-merchandise with food products, but possibly with bath and body products or some other related routine item,” she said.

Publix now has a wealth of new baby products to incorporate into its merchandising strategies, including feeding utensils that offer developmental features or safety features that appeal to the parent, said Brous.

Other products catching her attention these days are Baby Einstein bowls, plasticware and plates, which offer sensory stimulation using colors, shapes, and textures, as well as Munchkin spoons that change color based on their temperature.

“Generally, these items have a modestly higher cost, and as a result carry a modestly higher retail price,” she said.

Poris is impressed with disposable training cups, like those from ZooPals, a line of animal-shaped paper plates and bowls from Pactiv Corp., Lake Forest, Ill. The company's new throwaway sippy cups each have a kid-sized handle and a spillproof lid.

Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., has been committed to adding organics throughout its stores this year, and the baby category is no exception.

Nearly every liquid or blended baby product — lotions, rash creams, shampoos — carried at Price Chopper has an organic alternative, said Mona Golub, spokeswoman for the chain.

“The trend as we see it in terms of new items introduced into the nonfood baby category is mostly related to design, particularly licensing,” said Golub. “We've seen more characters appearing on baby and toddler products, which appeals directly to the young consumers who are tugging at mom's sleeve.

Top-Notch Toiletries

One of the toughest jobs for parents is teaching proper hygiene. Getting youngsters to wash is difficult enough, but getting them to wash well is another thing.

According to Joey Mooring, spokesman for Kimberly-Clark Corp., Dallas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 seconds of washing to kill germs.

With that in mind, Kimberly-Clark created a kid-focused soap dispenser with a built-in timer.

“Earlier this year, we rolled out Henry the Hippo Hand Soap in a dispenser topped with a purple hippo head and a light that blinks for 20 seconds to teach kids how long they need to wash their hands,” said Mooring. “The 9-ounce dispenser has a suggested retail price of $2.99, and there is also a 20-ounce refill that has a suggested price of $3.99.”

The high-tech dispenser joins Kimberly-Clark's other Huggies CleanTeam Toddler Toiletries, which also have an alliterative aspect added for appeal.

The line includes Sammy the Snake Shampoo, Billy the Bison Body Wash, Daphne the Dolphin Detangler, Molly the Mule Wash Mitts (disposable), Carley the Crab Cleansing Cloths (also disposable) and Freddy the Flamingo Flushable Moist Wipes.

Multifunctional products like these are a big trend right now, said Jamie Dunn, spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association, Mount Laurel, N.J.

“Parents are so busy, and there are so many products involved in taking care of baby, they want something that does more than the obvious,” she said. “But parents have different preferences and different priorities in terms of picking products. For instance, if a parent wants a product that soothes the child, they will be willing to pay extra for it, because it is important to them.”

Dining-out kits and to-go anti-germ packs are also very popular right now, said Michelle Poris, senior director of quantitative research for Just Kid, a Stamford, Conn.-based market research company.

“Classy Kid [North Las Vegas, Nev.] has restaurant high chair covers that keep baby away from germs in public places, and the company also makes stage 1 and 2 dining-out kits” for babies of different developmental levels, she said.

Stage 1 dining-out kits contain educational pages and crayons for kids to color with, disposable place mats, disposable bibs, teething toys and wet wipes. Stage 2 kits have color pages and crayons, place mats, wet wipes and anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.

Johnson & Johnson, Skillman, N.J., makes a kit for tiny travelers, aptly named TakeAlong. But instead of food-focused items, the small pack is filled with travel-size baby shampoos, lotions and diaper rash creams.
— K.G.