Supermarkets are helping keep babies wet -- on the inside, at least. The category is oral electrolyte solutions to fight against dehydration in babies, and while doctors and manufacturers are promoting it to young mothers, supermarkets are making room alongside baby food and formula to sell it.
"Mothers are becoming more aware of the availability and use of these products through manufacturer advertising and doctors' advice," said Paul Banicki, a buyer at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif. Electrolyte solutions, for use when diarrhea and vomiting put young children at risk of dehydration, are relatively new to supermarket shelves. They were previously carried only in pharmacies, often behind the counter.
Supermarket sales of the products are not yet tracked by industry scanning data houses Nielsen Marketing Research and Information Resources Inc. However, an industry insider contacted by SN predicted category sales would top $100 million this year, a 35% increase from last year. The source said that follows
annual increases averaging 11% from 1990 to 1993.
Although the category is growing almost as fast as the children for whom the products are intended, so far it typically is allotted only 2 to 4 linear feet in most supermarkets, according to the retailers.
That footage is gradually increasing. However, retailers also said the category does not lend itself to extensive merchandising, unlike some other parts of the baby aisle.
"I don't think the category is going to peak soon, but we'll probably soon hit the level of shelf space we're going to need," said a buyer at the Western regional office of a major chain.
"I think once we reach that space, the turns will continue to increase, because more mothers are becoming aware of these products. But this is not an impulse item. People are going to pick it up only when they need it, or maybe they'll keep one container in the house all the time. They only need it when the kids are pretty sick, and hopefully that's not too often."
That sort of thinking was common among those merchandisers.
"There's no sales or marketing techniques for the category," said Lisa Sykes, spokeswoman for Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City. "It's very price-competitive, so it's very low-margin. It's there as more of a service than anything else."
"There's not much we can do to merchandise it," said a buyer with a Mid-Atlantic retailer. "We've never advertised it and I don't think it would pay to. I won't be surprised to see space increase for it, but most of the demand is going to come from doctor referrals.
"It's a good item to have because it fills an important need, but it's not a high-volume product," she continued. "My nephew is nearly 18 months and he's only needed the stuff once. My sister doesn't even keep it in the house. If he gets sick again, she'll run out and pick it up. From what I hear, that's typical of what most people do."
Retailers reported that electrolyte sales appear to be seasonally oriented, with most of the action occurring when the weather begins to turn colder.
"It's sort of a seasonal thing with a push during cold and flu season," said Rick Roehrman, a buyer at Dillon Stores, Hutchinson, Kan., a division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati. "I have seen nothing as far as advertising done on our part, or very little even on a large-scale basis. So I'm assuming it's probably being driven by doctors," he said of the increase in the category's sales.
Cheryl Robertson, a spokeswoman for Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., agreed cold and flu season means more electrolyte solution sales.
She said that although Dominick's has occasional price reductions, "promotions do not have a strong effect on sales. Consumer education is the most important thing."
As with all the retailers contacted by SN, Dominick's merchandises its electrolyte solutions within the baby food section. "We give the category about 2 linear feet, and that has increased," she said, adding that the chain carries two brands and six SKUs of electrolyte solutions.
Rick Crosson, a buyer for Super Fresh Food Markets, Florence, N.J., a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J., said he's seen a steady rise in electrolyte sales and expects another jump soon.
"It's a seasonal-type of item," he said. "Once the flu season and cold season hits is when they really start using it. The new flavors that have been added have also added to the category."
Wanda Bartlett, a buyer for Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark., said electrolyte solutions are selling well currently, but not like they did last winter.
"During the cold season last year, it was, I mean, tripled, week after week," she said. "It's a really big thing for children. I wish they had all this stuff around when my kids were small. They always said to give them clear liquids or 7-Up. But what if your kid doesn't like 7-Up?"
Bartlett and other retailers welcome the addition of new flavors, saying it gives customers more options and opportunities to help nurse their sick children back to health. "The bubble gum came around last year and it's really a good seller," Bartlett said.
Those familiar with the category report Pedialyte, made by Ross Laboratories, brings in about 80% of the category's sales. Mead Johnson's Infalyte (formerly called Ricelyte) and UBI Corp.'s Naturalyte are said to account for most of what's left.
Harvest Foods carries Infalyte, three flavors of Pedialyte, and the two flavors of a private-label brand. "It's [electrolytes] been around for a while, but it was a real slow seller back years and years ago. But now it's the thing and the doctors are just really pushing it," Bartlett said.
Super Fresh's Crosson said he carries Pedialyte in the fruit-flavored, regular and bubble gum flavors. He also carries Infalyte.
"It doesn't set the world on fire, I'll tell you that much. But [the category] is out there for a particular reason.
"The bubble gum flavor is fairly new and we're going to give it a couple more months," he added. "It really didn't cut back on any other flavors when they brought it in. It's brought additional sales to the category. The bubble gum and fruit-flavored do really well."
Hughes' Banicki said new product introductions, mostly in the form of new flavors, have led to the expansion of the category to 3 to 4 linear feet in his stores. He carries three brands of electrolytes, but only four SKUs.
As with many things, finding space for the electrolytes has been a problem, Bartlett of Harvest Foods said.
"What we've done is taken on two new flavors through private label, so we really don't have room because it's inside the baby formula section itself and there's never enough room. There's too many people out there chopping away trying to get in. "Right now I just took on two new items and they said I would have to get rid of two more. I just can't do that. It's kind of like, 'Don't make me get rid of anything, because I can't.' We just have to cut back on facings. We've got things like Pediasure coming in. We've got three new flavors of that. That's really the rage right now for sick children."