CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Child safety awareness has come a long way from the days when little yellow "Baby On Board" signs were being stuck onto the back windows of cars all over America.
The market for items related to keeping baby safe, comfortable and properly fed has broadened considerably, and can offer supermarket operators profitable opportunities as part of their baby aisle merchandising, said Robert Gardner, vice president of sales for Safety 1st, a manufacturer of infant safety, feeding and travel items based here.
"Child safety awareness right now is at an all-time high," Gardner said in an interview about the category with SN. "And the reason for that is today's parents are a little bit older, they're having children later in life, and they're having fewer children.
"They're also spending less and less time with their children because, to make ends meet, they have to have two-income families. Therefore, the safety of their children is their No. 1 concern -- not just in the home, but in the school, in the playground. Parents really need to have that safety issue covered."
Besides safety devices such as door stops, cabinet locks and outlet plugs, the baby section is expanding to include feeding and teething aids and other nonfood items. Merchandising these accessories next to diapers, baby food and formula in one aisle can spur point-of-sale buying decisions and also improve the overall baby care profit margins for retailers, said Gardner.
"There's definitely an advantage to merchandising all baby items together. And the successful retailers are not only putting their diapers and formulas in the same aisle, but they're taking the peggable accessories and arranging them by manufacturer, which makes a nice statement," said Gardner.
"The supermarket trade has finally come around to expanding, not only in safety, but in other categories and products in their infant section -- products that parents are demanding. And now a growing number of leaders in the category are reviewing baby on a yearly basis, and updating their planograms," said Gardner.
Manufacturers are also looking at their lines again with fresh eyes. To snag passerby parents, some manufacturers are attempting to make their packaging more eye-catching, with colorful graphics, Gardner said.
"It's an impulse category. Mom or dad is up and down that aisle a couple times a week," he said. "More and more manufacturers are upgrading their packaging."
Starting with the once ubiquitous "Baby On Board" car sign in 1981, Safety 1st has seen its sales grow to $28.5 million in 1993. "And we expect to do about $40 million this year," Gardner told SN.
Much of that growth, he said, is coming from the supermarket trade. "More grocery retailers are realizing that parents want and demand high-quality products that are unique."
Gardner said Safety 1st products are merchandised in about 50% of the country's top 25 retail chains, typically in the aisle with diapers and food, with some retailers devoting as much as 3 feet of peg space for safety items alone.
Safety 1st markets 250 items, half of which are related to safety. "The dollars break out the same. I think 46% of our total sales are in the safety category," said Gardner. "So we've crossed the bridge, so to speak; we're not just known as a safety vendor anymore."
For retailers still standing on the corner waiting to hop on the baby accessory bus, Safety 1st actually suggests "safety second" when deciding what items to carry.
"For the grocery trade, we recommend a feeding and teething section first. Then add safety products, followed by travel items and bath items related to safety," said Gardner.
But the main thing that retailers need, he noted, "are items that aren't going to stay on the pegs."
As the market grows inside supermarkets, Gardner said he expects manufacturers to step up with service support for labor-starved retailers.
"The trend in the 1990s is more vendor-sponsored service because stores are cutting personnel. Grocery is a pretty competitive arena and that comes right down to employees in the store. So they're asking more and more of their vendors for in-store service participation, for help with resets and the like," he said.
When asked if the baby accessory manufacturers will respond to these retailer requests, Gardner said, "We have to; it's not an option. If you want to be in the category, you have to play the game, along with the people who make the rules."
For retailers with limited space, merchandising tools such as shippers will be a strong factor, he added. "They're very important for high-turn items like bottles." Freestanding shippers also play a larger role during peak baby care promotion opportunities, he said.
"September is Child Safety Month, and a lot of people run a floor display of child safety products then just to take advantage," Gardner explained. He noted that late March, April and May are big baby months as well. "During that time, retailers have either a baby week or baby month. That's when the category is really promoted; baby products generally aren't given as Christmas gifts."
For the time being, price is likely to remain a strong factor in sales of baby accessories in supermarkets, Gardner said. Such an emphasis would seem hard to avoid, given the powerful price message of the category's big cousins, baby food and diapers. More broadly, manufacturers such as Safety 1st will need to continue to bring something new to retailers to keep the category interesting. "Cute," for example, is still a very important consideration when dealing with products parents buy for their babies.