Supermarkets are testing the waters in the world of bath and body gift sets.
With the prospect of a chilly economic climate this gift-giving season, retailers are hoping that the products will spark some impulse sales and generate some holiday excitement in their health and beauty care sections.
Nancy Landry, category manager, D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., said D&W is experimenting with bath and body sets in a few stores that have expanded bath sections. "I want to test the sets to see how they do," she said. "Fragrance sets used to do well. Now [that] people are going into more bath and body shops, we're trying to get that type of customer."
The 25-store retailer merchandises bath and body gift sets by Earth Therapeutics, Manhasset, N.Y., and the Healing Garden, a brand produced by Coty, New York.
A health and beauty care buyer at one East Coast retailer, who asked not to be identified, said the stores put out an assorted offering of gift sets each year in a prepacked display. But, he pointed out, the supermarket channel is not a destination for kits containing fluffy bath sponges and shimmering body lotions.
"If you get it out there at a good price, you'll do OK with it," he said. "We can't compete with the mass merchants and Bath and Body [Works] type places. We're just trying to get a little share of it and capture that impulse purchase."
Some retailers took proactive approaches in displaying bath and body gift sets this year. Al Hubers, HBC buyer, Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn., said the retailer does not have as many gift packs from the manufacturers as it would like to have, so employees at a few stores have pulled single bath and body stockkeeping units off shelves and packaged them as gift sets ranging from $5 to $15.
Hubers said Coborn's tested the store-made packaging concept last year in one or two units. This year, he said, "We're going to run with it."
The gift sets the stores do not sell during the holiday season will be unwrapped and placed back on the shelves as separate items again after the holidays.
Michael Ferrara, senior vice president, customer marketing for Coty U.S., New York, said supermarkets have the opportunity to gain incremental sales with bath and body gift sets because they are unplanned impulse purchases with a high margin and a high dollar ring.
"There's tremendous volume being done in the bath and body category outside of the three classes of trade," he said, referring to the popularity of specialty shops like Bath and Body Works, a division of Intimate Brands, Columbus, Ohio. "It creates a tremendous conversion opportunity. [Supermarkets] who can properly merchandise and present these products have incremental sales opportunity, particularly at holidays like Christmas."
Ferrara pointed out that retailers like Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y., have been bullish on creating an elegant "boutique" feel in their bath sections.
"Wegmans has beautiful presentation, colors, signage, that invite the customer to come in and browse," he said.
He said Coty, which also manufactures the Calgon brand, is "cautiously optimistic" this holiday season. In light of the ongoing war and terrorist attacks, Ferrara said he predicted that "consumers are looking to buy gifts more for the home, more for comfort, which lends itself to bath and body sets."
Kathy Alaama, director of marketing for Sarah Michaels, a bath and body brand under the Dial Corp., Scottsdale, Ariz., concurred about the retail shift this year toward "thoughtful, not extravagant" gifts.
"In light of tight economic pressures and a heightened fear of the impact of terrorism in our homeland, consumers are refocusing themselves on a renewed appreciation for the importance of love, family and friends," she said. "Holiday will represent a time for expressing this refound focus."
Alaama noted that gift offerings at mass are an affordable way for consumers to give a high-quality present.
While supermarkets are expanding their assortments to include products like shower gel and body lotion packs, the channel lags far behind its drug store and mass merchant competition.
During a 52-week period that ended Aug. 12, women's gift packs in the food class of trade racked up $17 million in sales, a 1.9% dip from the previous year, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Comparatively, the drug channel tallied $72.25 million in sales, while the mass channel dominated sales decisively with $225.6 million.
"The category is pretty flat. I don't think any one of us knows what to expect this holiday season," said Cheryl Livesay, health and beauty care buyer, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.
Manufacturers have been preparing for the season with some new items and creative gift ideas. Within the last six months, Coty introduced Junipertherapy and Zzztherapy to its healing garden line, while Calgon debuted new scents like fresh sorbet and cool sunshower.
For a more festive presentation for the holidays, Solar Cosmetics teams up gift items like picture frames, potpourri or candles with their Body & Earth bath and body products in gold or silver reusable wire baskets, according to Marisa Krop, marketing director for the Miami-based beauty supplier.
"We try to give consumers the same upscale elegant look but more value-priced [price point]," she said.
While supermarkets are not lathering up in bath and body gift set sales, manufacturers said supermarkets are primed to bolster impulse sales.
"Supermarkets are very convenient, which is the food retailer's No. 1 asset," said Greg Morris, regional sales director for J.B. Williams' San Francisco Soap Co., Glen Rock, N.J., which produces top-sellers like the Simply Be Well line. "Supermarkets have the traffic. It's their responsibility to make it exciting."