Clinical-strength antiperspirants are exuding the sweet smell of sales success in supermarkets' health and beauty care departments.
In a category that hasn't experienced much sales momentum in recent years, clinical-strength antiperspirants — those new products that have attractive packaging and pack extra wetness-fighting punch backed by good science — is the shot in the arm the category needs.
“Clinical-strength antiperspirants are doing very, very well,” said Al Jones, senior vice president, procurement and marketing, Imperial Distributors, Auburn, Mass., a supplier to leading grocers. “Some of our customers — supermarkets — were hesitant to jump on board although we were pushing it. But, the category is up, and clinical strength is really driving it.”
Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill., said, “Clinical-strength sales have been positive, and the fact that all of the major manufacturers rolled one out is indicative of that. They are new and exciting, and consumers so far seem to be eager to try them.”
Wisner cited the science behind clinical-strength antiperspirants as not just a marketing angle, but a real performance difference in the product. He believes that when a company introduces something that is noticeable in terms of product performance, it generally will be successful. And these products are no exception.
Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., was an early believer, according to spokeswoman Maria Brous.
“We have been stocking clinical-strength antiperspirants since January 2007, and shoppers have responded well to them,” she said. “Publix had one of the highest initial shares of these types of items, and customers were able to find them on their shelves weeks before other retailers.”
Taking a view of the category as a whole, consumers spent $1.2 billion on deodorants and antiperspirants in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 27, 2008, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The data was for total U.S. sales in supermarkets, drug stores and discount stores (excluding Wal-Mart). Category sales rose 5.3% over the prior year. However, during the same time frame, unit volume for the category in supermarkets decreased 2.6%.
So far, the only clinical-strength brand in the Top 10 sellers was Secret Clinical Strength from Procter & Gamble, in the eighth spot with $46.6 million in sales and 5.6 million unit volume.
P&G put the products' clinical strength claims to the test at a recent meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. The manufacturer presented the results of studies that showed Secret Clinical Strength is as effective as a prescription antiperspirant, but with less skin irritation.
But despite the science, some experts remain cautious.
“For a product whose price differential is exceedingly high, if the discernible difference in performance is not noticeable, then that line will go nowhere,” said a former HBC executive in the grocery industry who wished to remain anonymous. “At two times the cost of a standard antiperspirant, no one is going to give them a second chance if they don't work.”
But if they do work, the former HBC executive believes that they can be “a huge success.” Word of mouth and Internet marketing could even expand from the initial consumer target to younger individuals who may view it as a performance upgrade, she added.
John Hunnicutt, vice president of marketing for the Brut brand (Helen of Troy), said that when the current state of the economy is taken into account, consumers will focus more on value. He believes that antiperspirants such as the one his company offers — those priced less than products with the clinical strength designation, yet just as effective — will fill the gap between performance and budget products. Most clinical-strength brands sell for a suggested retail of $7.99.
“We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a low-price brand, but neither are we asking consumers to make such a significant monetary investment as what you have to make in clinical-strength products,” he said. “Our product, Brut Trimax antiperspirant, has the most-allowed concentration of the active ingredient — it is clinical strength by definition — but you don't have to pay $7 for it.”
With the influx of new products, especially the clinical-strength ones, which are commonly packaged in a box, some existing shelf space will inevitably have to be relinquished.
“The Secret brand was first to launch clinical-strength antiperspirants, and it quickly became popular with our customers,” said Brous of Publix. “And in order to make room for such new formulations, standard products lost some shelf space.”
Jones also confirmed the trend of shrinking standard brands. He said that a basic shift in the category is occurring, resulting in space lost by the base brands only to be gained by clinical strength.
“Speed Stick, Right Guard, Ban — none of these base brands are doing particularly well,” said Jones. “But we've certainly seen positive numbers from the clinical-strength versions of Degree and Secret.”
Experts say demos, promotions and samples are typically a good way for retailers and manufacturers to get consumers to buy their products. “But it would be difficult to demo personal hygiene items,” said Brous. “Therefore, we have relied on weekly and monthly ads as the only vehicles to promote these products.”
According to Hunnicutt, his organization is encouraging its loyal fragrance users to try their “clinically proven” antiperspirants through the use of bundled products.
“We use crossover packs, where we offer either a free sample or a savings vehicle for fragrance users towards the purchase of a deodorant,” he said. “So there's a special pack that features a 7-ounce fragrance with a trial-size Trimax.”
With all the hype surrounding clinical-strength antiperspirants, are they just the next passing trend, or are they a viable business case for years to come?
“They absolutely have a strong future” said Jones. “The way things are going, I suspect you might see the normal cycle of a new area within a category.”
He added that manufacturers are able to enjoy robust sales at a premium price for now, but chances are that they will come down in price, although never at the same level as a standard antiperspirant counterpart.
Hunnicutt is slightly skeptical: “The question is whether or not the consumer eventually figures out that they are paying twice as much for a product that might not work twice as better than the standard.”
He feels that products like the one his company offers, which provide the same degree of wetness protection as clinical strength at a lower price, will become more popular in this struggling economy. If people were “swimming in cash,” he said, then maybe the perception of clinical strength would be enough to carry the continued success of the products.
“But frankly, I am dubious about it,” he concluded.
The former HBC executive, on the other hand, remained optimistic about the chances of the higher-priced clinical-strength antiperspirants.
She believes that although there will be a few pockets of the country where the recession is worse than others, and may therefore affect the category, there will be very decent stability as a whole.
“As far as the economy is concerned, I do not think this area will be hit hard,” she said. “Those types of small, personal indulgences that a consumer can fit in their budget — including clinical-strength antiperspirants — will remain stable.”