It's a health issue that strikes heavily at supermarkets' core shoppers -- women.
Urinary incontinence is an embarrassing condition that sufferers are reluctant to talk about. Therefore, estimates of those who have the condition vary widely, from 13 million to 30 million people. Of those with the condition, 85% are women.
Those numbers will only grow given the aging baby-boom population, said retailers interviewed by SN. The category is up, 10.4%, across all three channels of trade to $541.2 million for the 52-week period ended March 28, 1999, according to sales figures from Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The growth can be partly attributed to product improvements among the three big players -- Kimberly Clark's Depend and Poise brands, Johnson & Johnson's Serenity and Procter & Gamble's Attends.
Product refinements over the past several years have included lighter-weight, less-bulky items. "When they first came out, they were bulky and cumbersome. Now they have Velcro fasteners. They are more convenient and much better products," said Ralph Blanchard, merchandising coordinator at Macey's Food & Drug, Sandy, Utah.
While sales through all three channels of trade are up, supermarket buyers said the category has not yet demonstrated a lot of movement. Pat Martineau, a buyer for C&S Wholesalers, Brattleboro, Vt., hasn't seen any really dramatic sales growth, and said the category has been basically flat. Blanchard observed the same. "We haven't seen a whole lot of exciting things happening there. Perhaps, it has become mainly a drug-store item," he said.
Indeed, drug stores represent 47% of category sales. The drug-store channel was up about 6% to $251.8 million for the same 52-week period. Meanwhile, the fastest growth is coming from mass merchandisers, who captured about a third of category sales. Sales through the mass discount channel shot up 17.2% to $170.1 million. At a 22% share, supermarkets are currently under-performing both drug and mass even though dollar volume at food stores rose 11% to $119.3 million.
"The aging population is driving category sales," according to Judy Lane, health and beauty care buyer at Camellia Food Stores, Norfolk, Va.
Camellia displays all national-brand incontinence products at diapers or health and beauty care departments. "Older shoppers with urinary problems don't want the world to know it," the buyer declared.
Lane sees a need, if space permitted, to arrange the incontinence mix by lifestyle with products merchandised according to their end-use. "Products for more active lifestyles would be displayed like vitamins according to customer need such as by gender, senior citizens, sports and athletes and so forth," Lane said.
The aging population "is definitely driving incontinence-product sales," for Angeli Foods, Menominee, Mich., stressed Polly Smith, nonfood coordinator.
With people living longer and enjoying more active lifestyles, "the industry has improved incontinence products with designs that better meet different needs," said Smith.
Some buyers pointed out that while urinary retention can be a problem for women at almost any age, the increasing life expectancy for males is also fueling demand. For males, the embarrassment issue may be even more acute. Merchandising incontinence products at feminine hygiene or diapers creates a stigma for some men, some retailers said.
So to help its male customers feel comfortable about shopping for incontinence items, Angeli shifted its 4-foot set to the paper-goods aisle about two years ago. "The new location made a lot of elderly people feel more comfortable about shopping for these products," Smith said. "It's a category with a lot of competition from Wal-Mart and Kmart," Smith added.
She would like to try to incorporate incontinence in more of a whole-health format, along with vitamins and supplements targeted to older customers.
Lane of Camellia agreed, saying supermarkets can improve their image for incontinence products by presenting the products within a whole-health area.
"All age groups use these products, although it is a product area for which the industry has not yet had an awakening. It's not merchandised or promoted as an occurrence of life," she said.