Getting Personal

Changes are afoot at PCC Natural Markets, but they're not happening organically. More than a year after the Seattle-based natural food cooperative told its personal care product suppliers that they'd need to comply with the Natural Products Association's Natural Standard by January or risk delisting, it's ridding its shelves of items that don't jibe. We are giving more scrutiny to companies that have

Changes are afoot at PCC Natural Markets, but they're not happening organically.

More than a year after the Seattle-based natural food cooperative told its personal care product suppliers that they'd need to comply with the Natural Products Association's Natural Standard by January or risk delisting, it's ridding its shelves of items that don't jibe.

“We are giving more scrutiny to companies that have not responded and, as we are able to find replacement products that meet our standards, we are replacing their product lines,” Wendy McLain, health and beauty aids merchandiser for PCC, told SN.

With its mandate, PCC isn't just holding products to its signature higher standards of health and sustainability. It's picking up where government has left off.

Because there have never been federal regulations relating to use of the “natural” descriptor on personal care products, PCC has adopted a uniform way to weed out imposters.

“Manufacturers have been able to claim that products containing potentially harmful synthetic or petroleum-derived ingredients are natural,” according to PCC.

What's more is that the lack of government oversight is news to most consumers who trust claims identifying personal care product as natural and therefore don't feel the need to read ingredient lists.

More than three in four American women may fall into the category since 78% think natural personal care is currently regulated or don't know if it is, according to Yankelovich research commissioned by the NPA, Washington.

PCC aims to present shoppers with a clearer view by requiring personal care products contain at least 95% truly natural ingredients; ingredients that come from a purposeful source found in nature; processes that are minimal and don't use synthetic chemicals; no ingredients with suspected human health risk; and non-natural ingredients only when viable natural alternatives are unavailable.

Its efforts come as PCC shoppers are showing greater interest in natural cosmetics, facial care and body care products, especially those sourced locally. Sales in the segments are up 2% compared with last year, according to McLain. Brands posting double-digit gains include Ballard Organics, Mychelle, Canocare, Allafia Sustainable Skin Care and Goddess Garden.

Elsewhere, interest in natural and organic personal care products remains flat.

According to the Natural Marketing Institute's 2009 LOHAS Consumer Database, one in 10 U.S. consumers over 18 said that they or someone in their household purchased or used natural/organic body care products in the past six months — holding steady from the same period the previous year.

Likewise, the same number in 2008 and 2009 — 7% — indicated that they or someone in their household purchased or used natural/organic cosmetic products in the past six months.

The categories could receive new life as retailers move not only to educate consumers about natural personal care products, but provide choices at a number of price points.

Last year, Whole Foods Market introduced reformulated versions of its 365 Everyday Value shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and shower gels. Each product meets the retailer's proprietary Premium Body Care Quality Standard, which goes beyond considering whether ingredients are natural to examine ingredient safety, efficacy and impact on the environment.

“Products with the seal have to abide by pretty rigorous standards that really raise the bar for product safety,” said Stacy Malkin, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups working to encourage the beauty industry to phase out toxic chemicals.

Despite new premium ingredients, Whole Foods maintained the price of the reformulated store-brand products in mint, citrus, grapefruit, lavender and unscented varieties. A 16-ounce bottle retails for $2.99; 32-ounce, $4.99.

Whole Foods is working to have all of its Whole Body products adhere to the standard. Qualifying items do not contain parabens, polypropylene and polyethylene glycols, sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates.

“Shoppers who see the Premium Body Care logo on a product should know that all of the research and investigation on that product has been done for them,” said Jeremiah McElwee, senior body care purchasing coordinator for Whole Foods, Austin, Texas. “We've taken every product and every ingredient from our shelves, looked at every single component and tried to make a determination about what is the best source of a given ingredient or class of ingredients, so the work is done for the customer.”

Personal care product manufacturers, meanwhile, are having a harder time meeting higher retailer expectations.

PCC's suppliers have reported challenges with ingredient sourcing and concerns about product integrity, not to mention managing the added expense, noted McLain.

Some have been unable to meet PCC's mandate within the allotted 12 months. But those who've indicated in writing their intentions to move in the right direction have gained leniency from the retailer.

“We have worked with the NPA in providing manufacturers with more information in support of their efforts and have been pleased that some have taken initiative to contact the NPA directly for ingredient guidance,” said McLain.

Even with enhanced products, new consumers may be hard won given scaled-down spending.

A new Mintel study on the beauty and personal care consumer reports that at least half of those surveyed purchased the same name brand of body soap/shower gels, hand soap and body/hand lotion in the past six months that they historically purchased.

Significant numbers are trading down to either a less expensive national brand, private-label item or have not made a purchase in the category.

Take body/hand lotions, for instance. Fifty percent said they still buy the same brand-name product; 8% have switched to another brand name that is more expensive; 11% to a brand name that is less expensive; 6% to a private label; 4% have always purchased private label; 7% haven't purchased in the last six months; and 14% do not purchase.

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, El Segundo, Calif., made its private-label foray into the personal care market in September.

The introduction of its seven-item Retreat line came in response to shopper demand for expanded HBC offerings that meet the same high standards as Fresh & Easy-brand foods. “One thing we heard pretty early on was that people were looking for more,” noted spokesman Brendan Wonnacott. “Items that are as natural as possible is something customers are increasingly looking for, not just in food, but in health and beauty.”

The Retreat line comprises personal care products made with natural botanicals. They have no artificial colors, parabens, mineral oils or harsh SLS detergents.

Raspberry & Pomegranate Exfoliating Salt Scrub, Lemon Verbena & California Sea Salt body polish, Bergamot & Lavender Relaxing bath soak and other items in the line are priced under $5.

Sales are outpacing other private labels sold at Fresh & Easy.

“Across the board, we've seen quite a bit of interest in private labels but this one in particular since it offers something that is quite new,” Wonnacott said.