Just how much promotional support should be devoted to the baby aisle, and what kind?
A lot of supermarket baby aisle managers are asking themselves that question as they look ahead in 1995.
It is an increasingly important question, because getting people to shop in the supermarket baby aisle is getting more difficult all the time as competition from other classes of trade continues to bear down.
And what makes supermarkets' promotional decisions trickier is the fact that the major baby categories -- diapers and jarred food -- are currently low-margin or no-margin items.
Retailers contacted by SN said they'll tackle the issue in several ways, including:
Focusing on the more profit-oriented accessories category.
Doing more cross-merchandising within the aisle.
Relying on continuity incentive programs, a growing trend.
Still, others may trim back promotions this year due the no-win status of the loss-leader categories.
"The diaper category could not get more competitive than it currently is," said Ned Meara, corporate grocery merchandising manager at Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J. "It's perhaps one of the most competitive categories around in the supermarket.
"And, it seems, every conceivable type of promotion has been used by Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and private-label manufacturers, from in-ad coupons, to coupons given to parents leaving the hospital with newborns, to reduced price features.
"There's no other way that I can think of to promote diapers, other than what we consider the traditional ways that have been effective," said Meara.
One handy tool for Grand Union is an in-ad coupon for private-label diapers in the regular weekly ad. "That has been extremely effective," he said. "We ran it six times a year, and we'll do that again once every two months in 1995."
A&P's New Orleans division will look for attractive prices to lure customers down the baby aisle this year.
"We are a high-low operator," said Ed Buddy, a buyer for the division. "We like heavy allowances and things like that to knock the price point down. And coupons are a good vehicle to help stimulate sales."
"The best way to sell baby items," according to Ron O'Brien, general buyer and supervisor at Goodner's Super Markets, Duncan, Okla., "is to sell them through features and displays."
That's the best way to make consumers happy. But for retailers, he sighed, "you don't make anything of off it." Diapers are a troublesome category for retailers to make progress on through promotions, said Danny Peters, paper goods buyer at Affiliated Foods, Amarillo, Texas.
"The problem for retailers is they've got to keep pushing diapers, and give them away, if they want to keep selling groceries," he said.
Thus, for some operators the answer is to stay quiet about diapers. "As far as the diaper category goes, we've lost margin on that because of the mass merchants picking it up. So, as far as advertising goes, the least possible promotions we can do on that category, the better off we are," said Patty Lamphier, a grocery buyer at Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash.
Still, Lamphier agreed that retailers have to keep the baby products as competitive as possible with the hopes of making up the losses in other grocery categories and store departments.
Currently, Tidyman's is looking at a continuity program, using its front-end scanner program called Visions. For example, said Lamphier, "we're looking at merchandising baby food with an 'If you buy 10, you'll get the 11th one free.' Even though we'll lose money on it, we want our customer to have it, because we want them in our store."
Lamphier also said the program could work with cross-merchandising within the baby aisle. For instance, customers who buy a bib will get a jar of baby food.
In fact, some retailers will concentrate on bibs and bottles and other more margin-friendly accessories to dilute their woes about food, formula and diapers.
"One thing we did last year that worked well for us is in the area of novelty accessories," said Wyman Butler, nonfood merchandiser at Harvey's Supermarkets, Nashville, Ga. "So we'll probably concentrate on novelties more in 1995, more so than the standard, everyday items."
Butler said by playing on the initial and impulsive need of parents and grandparents to give their children everything, items like novelty bottles are a sure winner.
Currently, Butler is talking with two manufacturers about the promotional possibilities available. With tight space restraints, he said he wants to make sure that the power panels and shippers of novelty accessories are going to sell.
"We are getting a lot of manufacturer support," he said. "Like with every other company out there, [baby product suppliers] are willing to give you support if you display their merchandise.
Because of the in-and-out nature of baby aisle novelties, "I want to be able to put it on the floor for two weeks and pull it off," he said added.
Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., will be working with two manufacturers this year when it teams up with Gerber and Scott Paper for a baby week promotion.
"That's a week in May," explained Jane Jansch, general merchandise and HBC buyer. During that week, Copps will promote the companies' baby wipe and accessory items.
Jansch said Copps also plans on moving all the baby sectors under one category manager. This way, in 1996, the chain will be able to produce a more concerted and cohesive promotional strategy for the entire baby aisle.
Lou Mullins, HBC supervisor at Thrifty Food Stores, Burlington, Wash., has already developed a strategy for his section. This year, when it comes to featuring baby products, he will turn first to baby wipes, then powders and shampoos.
"That's what I focus on when I run an ad to draw the consumer into the store," he explained, noting he works with both national brand and private-label manufacturers on these promotions. "I'll probably do that four times a quarter."
Otherwise, Mullins said retailers are somewhat limited as far as promoting baby supplies. Other than the products in the aisle, cross-merchandising opportunities are sparse.
Affiliated Foods' Peters noted that cross-merchandising higher-margin accessories within the baby aisle can't hurt operations. "Retailers can make some money and increase the overall profit," he said.
However, because of the ever-expanding diaper selection, room for cross-merchandising other items is becoming quite tight, he noted.
"Some of our stores are smaller. Fifteen years ago there were maybe 20 SKUs of diapers on the shelves; now there's about 70," said Peters.