While body wash and body soap are taking the lead in personal-soap category sales, the supermarket channel of distribution is lagging behind drug chains and mass merchants in grabbing that piece of the pie.
Over the past year the field has further distanced itself, leaving supermarket operators scrambling to find methods to maintain body-wash sales.
According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, mass merchants have gained 7.4% in unit sales and 10.8% in dollar sales over the past year, and drug chains have gained 2.3% in unit sales and 7.7% in dollar sales. However, supermarkets posted only a 1.1% gain in unit sales and 7.4% in dollar sales for the same period. These IRI statistics point to an emerging trend being led by the supermarket channel: selling fewer units at a higher dollar-sales rate.
This move has come about as operators challenge the competition with bath boutiques and an expanded array of body-wash products in upscale and natural guises, commanding hefty price points. These high-ticket items, retailers are finding, are serving well as the new workhorse of the category.
Data from market research firm ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., concur with this trend. Within the category of personal soaps, bar soap, recovering from a slip of 0.1% last year, posted only a 1.9% change. Liquid soap, which enjoyed a 12.1% increase last year, increased 8.7%. The specialty category, making gains of 9.9% last year, has blossomed 13.8% this year.
These gains are attributed primarily to new products and line extensions offering consumers a variety of scents. More and more, supermarket operators are exploring the body care segment and introducing bath centers at the same time that consumers are looking for more skin-therapy self-treatments across the entire body care segment.
All the while, operators seek to leverage the convenience of the supermarket format, rather than focus on getting the lowest possible price point.
At Wegmans Food Markets unit in West Windsor, N.J., the Rochester, N.Y.-based operator has decided to compete on selection rather than price. The unit strives to carry products other retailers don't within its Bath Shop and Nature's Marketplace store-within-a-store concept. Body gels, lotions and massage tools create a full complement of skin-therapy options, setting this area up as a destination for consumers.
"Anytime a new category comes along, the question involves carving out space or create a special section," says Neil Stern, food-retailing consultant at McMillan/Dolittle, Chicago. "That has been true with the gourmet-food category, the organic category and now [body care]. Lifestyle shops in supermarkets are also a way of introducing consumers to the category, which is in its early stages of development."
Several chains are leaning toward a variety and selection approach to body care, emphasizing upscale and natural items and grouping them together into body care boutiques. As these departments develop, supermarket operators have effectively repositioned the category to one with lifestyle appeal.
Again, retailers have not only employed the convenience aspect of the supermarket format, they have drawn a vital link between fresh foods and natural body care, giving them a leg up on drug chains and mass merchandisers while serving as a destination for shoppers.
Leading operators including H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Edwards Super Food Stores and Ukrop's Super Markets have tapped into that linkage. The Bellingham, Wash.-based Haggen's Top Food format recently unveiled a natural-food section at the unit's front end. Adjacent to this store-within-a-store natural-food section is a bath and body boutique. The presentation takes an upscale turn with warm wood tones and a full complement of bath accessories, all with a decidedly natural flair. Traditional body-wash items, in the value-oriented lines, are merchandised across the store with bar soaps.
Quality Food Centers, Bellevue, Wash., also has grouped its natural food with unique body-wash selections. In the University Village unit, 17 stockkeeping units of naturally oriented body-wash items are grouped in line with other body care items in the operator's natural section. Prices range from $5.99 to $8.95 for 12-ounce and 16-ounce items. Again, bar soaps and traditional brands are found grouped together across the store.
This grouping of like products, particularly with natural and upscale lines, is packing some punch, industry experts say. Rather than positioning everything from shampoo to suncare together in the body care section, operators that cluster body wash from all vendors create an impact area allowing customers to make buying decisions.
Positioning of these boutiques within the store's footprint also plays into setting the ambiance. "Body care sets should flow into other lifestyle items such as candles or teas, not cat food," says Eartha McClelland, sales manager of Mountain Peoples Warehouse, Auburn, Calif.
Indeed, operators have taken that advice. The Albany, Calif.-based Andronico's positioned its upscale body-wash items within the chain's Living Healthy lifestyle section. This section contains vitamins, minerals and supplements, in addition to the operator's bulk-food section. At the back end of this area Andronico's positions natural beauty care items including body wash. Within this section cosmetics, natural skin care items, essential oils, aromatherapy products and bath specialties are grouped. These imported and natural selections offer consumers nutritional care for the outside of their bodies as they complement the vitamins and supplements found in the Living Healthy section.
"We have addressed our customers' interest in vitamins, supplements, homeopathic remedies and premium health and beauty aids, all within our Living Healthy department," says Bill Andronico, president.
Adjacent to the premium body care section and outside the Living Healthy department is the unit's health and beauty care presentation of traditional products. Dry grocery racks and headers are used throughout the unit, denoting to consumers that they have entered a different department of the store; particularly emphasizing that they have left the Living Healthy department.
These higher priced items do carry a lot of impact, industry observers say, however the higher ticket demands more consumer information. Several operators, such as Andronico's, cite that sales support can be instantly gleaned from adjacent service-oriented areas of supplements.
"What operators do with merchandising, service and ambiance is critical to selling these higher priced items," says Stern. "Selling the sizzle is what these products can do."
"We still see bath soaps in the household cleaning aisle," says McClelland. "The category is confusing to consumers already with all the body washes, soaps and gels. Retailers need to help consumers distinguish whether these items are a household item or a bathroom boutique item."
Riding the body-wash trend, even natural-food merchants are focusing a spotlight on body care. "It's hard to walk into a natural-food store and not find a four-foot set of soaps," says McClelland. "This category is not a fad."
Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., positions body wash within its 220-linear-foot Natural Living section at the store's center by the front end. "This creates a sense of boutique," says Karen Lewis, vice president.
"The wood shelving throughout the Natural Living section really helps customers distinguish the area from the remaining departments of the store," she says. Other bath accessories and massage tools complete the bath section of the lifestyle area where dietary supplements, homeopathic remedies, books and magazines are merchandised.
Wild Oats' stockkeeping unit strategy definitely points to employing unique items to create a destination shop for consumers. "We have some overlap, but we strive to offer products other retailers do not," says Lewis.
The chain also applies its ingredient standards to body-wash items as it has to other categories in the store. The standards call for no synthetics, no artificial colors, no mineral oil, along with no animal byproducts in the ingredients. Wild Oats also selects only items that do not use animal testing. "We don't want an unnecessary, lengthy list of ingredients," says Lewis.
The bath-soap and body care explosion took off a few years ago in the natural arena, she says. Because of this, natural-food and body care experts such as Wild Oats are good prototypes for conventional retailers to look at while examining categories like body wash. "We still have the same issues [as the conventional operators]. There are more products than available shelf space," says Lewis.
McMillan/Dolittle's Stern predicts that as body-wash items become more mainstream they will eventually be integrated into regular sets. "It will take several years," he says. "Then retailers will decide what is lasting, what is a trend and what is a fad."
Other operators, industry experts report, have already taken that approach to grouping body-wash items within traditional grocery shelving runs. Rather than creating a separate boutique store-within-a-store, they are employing traditional merchandising techniques to create a bath section.
Colored shelf strips and shelf extenders successfully break up shelf runs, visually creating a boutique-style presentation. Positioning bath accessories, such as loofahs, adjacent to body wash further punctuates the category.
"These techniques mimic the type of environment where customers do spend more money," says McClelland. "Anything that gives customers more of an experience and separates luxury items from more day-to-day will help boost sales."
As the category continues to give supermarket operators inroads into lost sales the segment will shift. Industry experts report that traditional industrywide marketing techniques may be the key to further differentiate operators from the competition within and without the supermarket channel.
ShopRite Supermarkets, Edison, N.J., reportedly is experimentally employing private label in its bath line, offering products with natural ingredients.