Babies are staying in their diapers longer, and that's good news for retailers.
Larger diapers for older babies are helping to grow the diaper category, as are consumer demands for disposable diapers with special purposes -- for example, to function as swimming trunks.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Chicago, fewer than one-third of today's American babies are toilet trained by age two. By comparison, in 1961, 90% of all 2-year-olds were toilet trained.
Gerri Ann Genista, a pediatrician in Ann Arbor, Mich., told SN that toilet training is taking longer because "mothers aren't at home hovering over their children." She went on to say that nowadays some children aren't trained until they go to kindergarten.
In societies where mothers live intimately with their children and can read their subtle cues, toilet training occurs a lot more quickly, Genista noted. But today in America, "It's far more convenient [to keep them in diapers], because moms are working, and day care isn't going to hover over the child. It's much easier to line them up and change the diapers.
"[In prior days] we were fanatically worried about toilet training, but nowadays we know that if you wait long enough, they toilet train themselves."
According to Genista, pediatricians today say that the median age for toilet training, excluding after bed time, is age two for girls, and age three or four for boys. Previously, all children were expected to be trained at age two, and girls were expected in some cases to learn even sooner.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble's recent introduction of size 6 Pampers Baby-Dry Stretch diapers for children 35 pounds and up is a sign of the times. The new diaper is a full inch longer and 2 inches wider in circumference than the previous large-size item.
The trend toward larger sizes can also be seen in disposable training pants and overnight items. For example, Kimberly-Clark Corp., Dallas, has added new extra-large sizes of training pants to its Pull-Ups line and underpants to its GoodNites line, for bed-wetting children weighing 85 to 125 pounds.
Retailers interviewed by SN suggested that children are toilet training at later ages because two-career families find it difficult to create the consistency needed for successful toilet training. One retailer ventured a guess that parents are more relaxed about the process and may take cues from the baby to commence training.
"There is a movement to let kids decide when they are ready for toilet training, with their parent's help," said Darrell Sapp, category marketing manager for Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C. "For larger babies some of the sizes just don't fit, and the larger sizes are a blessing."
One retailer on the East Coast who did not wish to be identified agreed. "Moms were telling retailers that they couldn't find diapers to fit their children and were turning to training pants as an alternative. [But] training pants are designed for a different purpose and are not meant to hold a couple of hours of voiding."
Suzie Gregg, grocery buyer for Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, said sales of larger diapers are also growing in her region. "Children are staying in diapers longer, and the larger sizes can now accommodate older children. Also diapers cost less than training pants, so I think there is some usage of the larger sizes for training as well."
One specialty item that was introduced to the disposable diaper category this summer was Kimberly-Clark's Little Swimmers. Prior to last summer's E. coli outbreak in a suburban Atlanta public pool, which was linked to a diaper-clad child, many consumers had been on the lookout for a product that could perform underwater.
Since this item is available only during the summer months, the manufacturer made bins available for operators to merchandise the Swimmers on the floor. Thus, retailers were not forced to reset the shelves. Unused product was also fully returnable at the end of the season.
"There were phenomenal sales over the summer for this item," said Sapp. "It was a great in-and-out item and the manufacturer got behind it in a big way. Supplies were short, so I hope that will be cleared up for next season."
Certified Grocers also found the seasonality of the product easy to incorporate into its smaller stores, with little effect on space, according to Gregg.
"The use of the shipper, not the shelf, made fitting the product into our mix much more simple," said Gregg. "The item was unique. In every store the manufacturer did a great job. They were everywhere."
Picking up any unopened cases was a definite plus for getting the item into stores, according to Chuck Moore, grocery buyer for Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas.
Product proliferation in the diaper category is making it difficult for retailers to find shelf space for every item. For the most part, shelf space is not expanding. In some cases, it is shrinking.
"The diaper section has not grown," said Sally Sanborn, director of marketing at Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. "Performance causes us to reduce stockkeeping units of one item to accommodate another. We deleted SKUs to fit in the diapers for swimming."
At Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., the diaper category is under constant evaluation, said Shana Pritchett, public relations associate.
"Space considerations are determined by our efficient assortment procedure, based upon market performance," she said.
The East Coast retailer said assortment depends on consumer demand. "When there is a need for a meaningful new SKU we look at it. We have to make those hard calls between contributing items and space-zapping SKUs. There are redundancies with today's technologies; [for example], there is no need for separate sex items."
Unisex diapers have enabled retailers to capture precious space. Today consumers do not seem to be as driven by "boy" and "girl" items. As a result, unisex diapers allow retailers to shrink shelf space dedicated to separate boy and girl disposable diapers in several sizes.
Sapp of Harris Teeter agreed. "There has been too much proliferation," he said. "However, for the real need items, like the larger sizes, there is a real consumer demand."
Retailers battling to fit more items in the same space are simply eliminating poor performers. At Minyard, space was gained by merchandising only unisex diapers. SKUs were reduced from 10 to five, according to Moore. Additional space was created by reducing allocations to newborn and smaller sizes.
"The changes we make are based on hard decisions," he said. "The newborn and smaller sizes just don't move as well, and by reducing the space they were getting, we were able to make some gains."
At Harris Teeter, shelf-space adjustments were made in the wipes category to accommodate the new larger sizes and specialty items in a 24-foot set. The set is now arranged by size.
"We were replanogramming the area anyway," said Sapp. "We were able to add a shelf. With the incorporation of the unisex items there was an elimination of a significant number of SKUs."
Sanborn of Save Mart noted that the trend is toward unisex diapers, while Gregg of Certified Grocers told SN that shelves reset in early November eliminate separate-sex diapers from one manufacturer.
Unlike many operators, A&P, Montvale, N.J., has been adding space to the diaper category, expanding its presentation and giving itself the ability to include new products with ease. This shift was made during re-gridding of units, which resulted in a reduction of space allocated to other departments.
"Buyers of disposable diapers are a segment of the market we are looking for," said Rich Perrius, vice president and category manager. "We want to grow this category. We have an obligation to our customers to offer as many of the items to them as we can, especially in the alternate-use type of diaper."
All these shifts in the disposable-diaper category have resulted in sales for retailers.
"We have had some nice lift," said Sapp. "The targeted items help."
Disposable-diaper sales are driven by consumer dynamics, retailers told SN.
"This purchase is made every 17 days," said Gregg. "Behind cereal and baby food, the category ranks third as a destination."
Nonetheless, supermarkets are losing diaper sales to mass merchants and club stores. "Grocery has lost over 12 share points in the 90s [to alternative formats]," Gregg noted. To meet the challenge, retailers are making space for larger size jumbo packs, with large counts and attractive price points.
"These do represent a value," said Gregg. "While over half of Certified's business comes from the convenience pack-size, the value packs [are of interest to consumers]." Gregg explained that most of the stores Certified supplies are smaller units with limited shelf space, which is why they have to carry smaller sizes.
At Minyard, sales of 80-count jumbo packs are up, according to Moore. "Manufacturers are pushing more and we are able to get better pricing. We also include the jumbo packs so our consumers don't have to reshop as often."
"It is an incredible hassle for parents to run out of diapers," said Sapp. "There are so many places parents need to keep diapers and every week those supplies have to be restocked around town. Plus the value is there with the large count."