Men's HBC on Pause

Men’s grooming once offered great promise, but retailers are seeing washouts in some segments, with little overall growth lately

Despite high expectations, the growth of men's health and beauty care products has stalled.

While changes in style and the recent economic decline have hit men's grooming sales, particular segments still demonstrate growth, and the stage seems set for private-label expansion.

Men's grooming grew significantly in the early part of the current decade, but never became the juggernaut some had hoped would emerge.

“We had high expectations once that men's grooming might come into its own, but as a general statement, it isn't growing by leaps and bounds,” said Al Jones, senior vice president of procurement and marketing for Imperial Distributors, Auburn, Mass.

The current economy has hurt, but Jones said a decline in men's grooming has been evident for several years.

Statistics from the Nielsen Co., Schaumburg, Ill., bear out that observation. At supermarkets, sales growth of the men's shaving needs and men's toiletries categories had flattened as of four years ago and began to decline two years back. In the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1, shaving needs sales declined by 2.5% to $734.4 million at supermarkets, and men's toiletries sales slid 6.2% to $60.3 million.

Hair care, encompassing all products, has seen essentially flat average numbers over the past four years, declining by 3% in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1. However, men's hair coloring was an exception, up 1.9% to $35.5 million, while men's hair preparations were up 5.1% to $17.8 million.

Age seems to be an emerging factor in men's grooming. The gains in men's hair coloring may be attributable to older consumers. Yet, young people seem most locked into grooming issues, and restless youth has brought volatility to trends.

“Look at TV, at the movies,” Jones said. “These young males stars don't shave. The clean-cut shaven-smooth look doesn't seem to be what appeals to people these days.”

Jones said that some consumers continue to invest in meticulous grooming, but a significant proportion of those are not price-sensitive and can shop at spas and online. Many other men seem to be deliberately defying the fashion of just a few years go.

‘RETROSEXUALS’

In a report on men's shaving and hair removal trends published in May, Mintel, a London-based market research company, noted that two distinct categories have emerged in the men's market. While some fashion-forward men look for grooming products to enhance facial hairstyles, an emerging group, the so-called retrosexuals, look for products that expedite the grooming process.

According to Mintel research, consumers 12 to 24 and those 25 to 34 are the most likely to be clean-shaven, with 46% in both groups reporting that they like the smooth look. However, they also are the most likely to maintain a stubbly look, with 20% and 14% in those respective age brackets reporting that they do so.

Young men are driving the men's grooming category, said Iovanne Goodwin, HBC category manager for Earth Fare, a 15-unit natural and healthy food supermarket chain headquartered in Fletcher, N.C., but even the lovers of organics and healthy living are taking a more manly stand today.

“Organic Bath Co. makes a men's line, and we have three SKUs that are doing very well for us,” she said. “Herban Cowboy Organic Grooming has seen a jump in sales. Burt's Bees is doing really well, and City Rhythms men's care from Aubrey. But it's the more musky colognes. The products have to have masculine packaging also, not unisex.”

Young men have been responsible for the establishment of the newest segment in men's grooming, body sprays, said Goodwin, who noted that Gillette's Tag line had done well at Earth Fare.

Tag and Axe, a division of Unilever, have gone a long way to establishing a whole new segment in men's grooming, and Axe currently is launching a hair care line that may give men's grooming a lift.

“I'm debating on the placement of the new Axe shampoos and styling items,” said Kimberly Fultz, category manager, health, beauty and wellness, K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va., “but I am predicting they will perform well whether in the shampoo or grooming section.”

Still, don't expect the Axe introduction to shift men's grooming back into high gear, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, New York. True differentiation has been hard to establish in men's grooming, Passikoff noted, and even where it is, rivals engage in one-upmanship in developing similar products, as occurred with the addition of three, four and five blades to shaving systems. Even the promotions that drive men's grooming products have limited utility.

“The pattern has been for a biggish introduction with the idea behind it, ‘If we do enough, we can sell it into the supermarkets.’ Then they stop when the introduction is made,” Passikoff said.

That said, some products have been able to establish enough credibility with consumers to stake a claim on shelf space.

A category manager with a Southeastern food retailer, who asked not to be named, said men's grooming had gotten a “moderately warm response” as of late, “with better results showing up in larger markets than in rural locations.”

The jury is still out on luxury products at the company's stores, but shoppers at least have embraced some of the products that have crossed over from the women's side of the grooming category, including Nivea for Men. Imperial's Jones also said Nivea for Men had managed to gain considerable acceptance among mainstream consumers. And while Earth Fare has seen growth in natural items in its specialized store environment, the Southeastern category manager noted that natural products are gaining in his more conventional supermarkets.

PRIVATE LABEL

Supermarket operators have seen different responses to private-label alternatives in men's grooming. Despite consumers' current price sensitivity, Jones said he hasn't yet seen a big move to private label.

Indeed, retailers have broadly different experiences of private label in men's grooming, with some saying it has never been a factor and others reporting that earlier initiatives had peaked and faded. A West Coast retailer, who asked not to be named, has seen private-label products pick up, but he also remains cautious about their potential. “As the quality of these products improves, sales are increasing,” he said. “The economic conditions might help to encourage this trend, but probably not as quickly as other types of HBC products.”

Similarly, K-VA-T's Fultz qualifies her observations about the growth of private label. “I am seeing an increase in private-label sales. I'm not sure if that is due only to the economy or due to our Fuel Bucks promotion, which gives the customers dollars off of gas based on private-label purchases,” she said.

Past recessions have proven advantageous to private-label products, and the situation may enliven opportunities in men's grooming.

Tony Harrington, business manager of Topco, Skokie, Ill., insisted, that the movement toward private-label men's grooming products has begun to gain traction, and consumers are likely to give store brands a second look in the down economy. Topco is a privately held procurement cooperative widely known for its private-label programs.

“The activity in the first half of the decade has created a lot of awareness and acceptance,” he said. “Those do lend themselves to the development of private brands.”

Topco already offers an extensive shaving products offering, including systems and blades.

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Success in shaving systems has prompted Topco to develop and explore other segments. “We see an opportunity to expand, and we've expanded into a men's hair coloring program and young men's personal care products, including more young men's deodorant and body sprays. Another area we're evaluating is men's facial care and toiletry, such as aftershaves, facial cleansing products and moisturizers.”

The economy will only make private-label men's grooming more attractive to consumers, Harrington said. “The economy has become a large factor in helping motivate consumers to try private label, and it's not the first time.”

2.5%
Drop in sales of shaving needs in 52 weeks ending Nov. 1; sales of men's toiletries fell 6.2%

Source: Nielsen Co.