Private-label introductions, merchandising and promotion are taming the mass merchandising beast and allowing supermarkets to hold their own in the baby wipes category.
While little ground has been lost to the roaring category killers, grocers admit they're having to react quickly to protect their margins.
Baby wipes are important to retailers because they help offset potential losses on diapers, already an aggressive supermarket vs. mass battlefield. Often, these baby items are merchandised near each other in the hope that the wipes will become the impulse purchase accompanying the necessary diapers.
"The diaper category is like the baby food category. It's carried as a convenience to the customer. We don't make any money on either one of them," said Chuck Jones, senior buyer at Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev.
Because of the poor margins on national-brand diapers and baby food, supermarkets are turning to private label as a means to improve overall profitability in the baby aisle.
Baby wipes are one of the more promising products, perhaps because shoppers tend to be more value- than brand-conscious when making this purchase.
Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, stresses the high quality of its moist towelettes.
"As a general rule, we make them as good, if not better than, the leading national brand," said Jenny Enochson, media relations coordinator for the chain.
She added that the private-label wipes have been moving well since their introduction. "We're confident that when customers try one of our products, they'll think it's just as good as the leader -- with a savings," Enochson added.
Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., is planning to add a private-label refill size to its line of wipes, in addition to narrowing current product offerings, according to Jane Jansch, category manager at the independent. "We've always been pretty lean on baby wipes, but we probably will get a little bit leaner [after] the category management review," Jansch added.
Private label seems to assure retailers a higher margin on baby wipes, as well as competitive pricing with the mass merchandisers.
"Private-label has created a better margin," said Al Young, category manager at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., with regard to how baby wipes have fared during the last year.
Scolari's Jones noted that as mass merchandisers sell more diapers, baby wipes sales will also increase. He noted that when he last checked, mass retailers were taking small margins on diapers and larger ones on baby wipes.
Supermarkets can combat mass formats with competitive pricing on nationally branded items, and make a higher margin by merchandising private label. "The retail margin increases by selling more private label," said Scolari's Jones.
"One of the things we have done is move into private label. That preserves margins," said Tim Carter, vice president of public affairs at the Oshawa Group, Etobicoke, Ontario.
He added that wipes are an important category to feature in advertising and promotion. "We find we can use it as a traffic generator when it's in an ad," Carter said.
Heavy promotion can draw customers to his stores and away from competitors. Ads are run in newspapers and in the company's circulars, which are distributed at division levels.
In addition, baby wipes are merchandised in Oshawa's "baby care area." Stores stock about 10 to 15 stockkeeping units, close to the diapers, Carter added.
Carter has seen category growth in baby wipes and other baby care items in Calgary, Alberta, and Vancouver, British Columbia, he said.
Danny Langley, buyer and pricing coordinator at Byrd Food Stores, Burlington, N.C., said it's important to make a sale quickly so that consumers don't have a chance to shop alternative formats.
"Don't be out of stock. You can't have a hole on the shelf; it's important to have it when they want it," he said.
Byrd's strives to offer the larger-count packages of baby wipes to compete with the mass merchandisers.
"A lot of grocery stores have been large-packing, too," Langley noted.
Stocking 96-, 120- and 200-count refills and pack sizes has been a successful strategy for keeping competitors at bay.
Other retailers said they aren't concerned with mass merchandiser discounts on baby wipes.
"We watch the other grocery chains as far as their pricing structure, but we haven't been under a lot of pressure to meet mass pricing," said Doug Daniels, general merchandise merchandiser at Abco Foods, Phoenix.
Daniels said Abco has worked hard to integrate wipes with diapers in merchandising efforts. His stores typically carry 25 to 28 SKUs of wipes.
New styles, sizes and formulations of baby wipes are popping up in supermarkets.
Private-label wipes are augmenting the category, with large-pack refills and eye-catching graphics. For example, one private-label wipes manufacturer is using Jim Henson's Muppet Babies to differentiate its product from competitors.
In Canada, premium wipes -- those touted as being thicker, more absorbent, able to stretch more, hypoallergenic, alcohol-free, PH-balanced and/or unscented -- are moving onto supermarket shelves, said Tim Carter, vice president of public affairs at Oshawa Group, Etobicoke, Ontario.
Other U.S. grocers said they've noticed a trend toward natural products; for example, wipes containing aloe. Doug Daniels, general merchandise merchandiser at Abco Foods, Phoenix, said one vendor is introducing a wipe with oatmeal extract.
Another discernible trend is a change in package size. Some manufacturers are reducing the number of sheets per package, while others are increasing them. Huggies introduced a 160-count refill pack that is selling well at Copps Corp., said Jane Jansch, category manager at the Stevens Point, Wis.-based independent.
Total supermarket sales for premoistened towelettes have jumped 5% from $251.4 million to $263.9 million for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 7, 1996, according to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill.
Some of this increase may be due to consumers using baby wipes on more than just infants. Wipes can be used by adults for personal cleansing, said Chuck Jones, senior buyer at Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev.
"Our private-label [baby wipe] is merchandised in two places: with the diapers and in the toilet tissue/personal cleansing section," Jones noted.