The pursuit of whiter teeth holds the potential for explosive sales at supermarkets.
Tooth-whitening products, which until now have been a small specialty niche, are about to get a boost from a major entry that could catapult the segment into the same meteoric rise that retailers enjoyed with baking soda toothpastes several years ago.
Almost all food retailers polled by SN agreed the horizon for the emerging category appears to be a positive one. The segment is characterized by strong margins, rapid sales growth and increased consumer awareness. At present, tooth whiteners appear not to be affected by competition from mass merchandisers
Tooth-whitening pastes still represent a small portion of oral care in supermarket health and beauty care departments, but their sales have been steadily rising of late.
A.C. Nielsen, Chicago, reports sales of tooth whiteners rose 78.8% to $16.7 million at food retailers in 1993. And the upcoming launch of Colgate's Platinum tooth-whitening toothpaste should grow the category even further, retailers said.
"Tooth-whitening pastes are one of the biggest growing segments of oral hygiene today," said Michele Arnault, national merchandise manager of health and beauty care for McKesson Service Merchandising, San Francisco.
"Absolutely the 78% [growth reported by Nielsen] seems right," added David Assayag, executive vice president of Westward Ho, a seven-store chain in Van Nuys, Calif.
But Dennis Owen, buyer-merchandiser-supervisor of HBC at Morgan's Holiday Markets, a 31-store chain in Cottonwood, Calif., disagreed, saying, "I don't think its quite grown 78%. Maybe there's been a 30% increase."
Other food retailers said tooth whiteners hadn't grown at all in their stores.
"I haven't seen any sales growth [in the tooth-whitener category]," said James Robertson Jr., group buyer for the three-store Fairway Foods chain in Dolton, Ill.
"They're overpriced," explained Bob McFarland, HBC coordinator at Hollywood Supermarkets, Troy, Mich. "I had the expensive ones for a while, but at $7 a tube it's too much money.
"You only sell [tooth-whitening pastes] in very affluent neighborhoods, because the average person doesn't want to pay $6 to $7 for a 3- or 4-ounce tube of toothpaste when they can buy Crest Baking Soda or whatever for $1.99 for 6.4-ounces," he contended.
"I don't consider them too expensive," argued Owen of Morgan's, "because the product category itself is kind of unique."
Even the category's skeptics agreed, however, the new Colgate launch should pour some excitement into the category, enough to encourage them to expand the space they provide for tooth-whitening pastes.
"Oh sure, we'll probably add some then," said McFarland. "And I think the prices will drop when new products come out."
"Considering there might be some Freestanding Inserts dropping, I'd probably stock [Colgate Platinum]," Robertson said. He added that while his stores' sales results for tooth whiteners have been weak, the presence of a major player like Colgate will be enough to entice him into the category once again.
If Colgate Platinum succeeds, food retailers said they'll expect a geyser of new tooth-whitening pastes to spring forth from competing manufacturers.
"Usually, when you have a successful item, there's a proliferation of that category. We just haven't seen it for whiteners, not for retail stores anyway," said Assayag. "Right now there's room in the category. It's definitely not saturated yet."
"Any time you have a major company like that coming out with a specific niche item, definitely, the category will be growing," agreed McKesson's Arnault. She said the explosion of baking-soda toothpastes in the oral care category could be a road map for the future growth of tooth-whitening pastes.
"Definitely [whiteners could grow like baking soda] because of the price points involved. Almost every major manufacturer has come out with a baking-soda toothpaste, and that has grown that business," Arnault continued. "The manufacturers all seem to take stock of what the other guys are doing and what's growing. And I'm sure the bigger manufacturers of oral hygiene
will have something in research and development for tooth whiteners or will definitely take a look at that category."
Even without the new product splash, however, the tooth-whitening paste category is rippling with competitors showing solid sales.
The leading brands are all engaged in a fierce battle for limited category shelf space. "Whiteners aren't really [a significant chunk of the oral care category]. Right now we're seeing some popularity with Rembrandt, but that seems to be the only big gun as far as supermarket shelves are concerned," commented Assayag.
"Pearl Drops, Topol, all of those items were the initial tooth-whitening products," Arnault of McKesson said. "But when Rembrandt came out with their products, that really was the force in the category that really started everything."
Owen said he gives tooth whiteners a "little space" and stocks Plus + White, Rembrandt and Pearl Drops.
"Tooth whiteners will remain a smaller part of the retail category because it's a specialized segment of the market," he predicted.
Regardless of which brands move best in which areas, retailers said they have discovered certain tactics that work best in the category -- especially advertising and promotions.
"The manufacturers have prepack displays," said Owen, in describing some of the promotional methods he has seen in the category. "We see a 20% to 25% increase in sales on promotions."
Arnault said the high price of tooth whiteners will not deter consumers because of the nature of the people who shop for them.
"It definitely appeals to a certain clientele. And what drove the business of whiteners was the yuppie mentality. It's a single- or dual-income, no-children type product, because on ad its $5.99, but it could be $7.99 or $9.99 every day," she said. "Even Colgate Platinum will not be inexpensive."
Advertising the products regularly is critical to their success, she added.
"It's really important in this type of category to continually drive the business to keep the consumer aware and give the consumer a value because it's such a high price point," Arnault explained. And recognizing the consumers' need for value can keep them from throwing down their anchor at mass merchandise outlets.
"[Mass merchandisers] definitely are making us do our homework. It's not easy to compete with these guys," said Owen. "The best way [to combat them] is probably advertising, displays and proper allocation of space."
Others said food retailers needn't worry about mass merchandisers in the tooth-whitening paste category.
"On an item like that, I don't think there's really a lot of competition, because it really is an impulse buy," said Robertson.
Other retailers said they still felt mass merchandisers were a factor in the tooth-whitening equation.
"It's tough to compete with mass merchandisers on anything we carry, and tooth whiteners go right along with it," said Assayag of Westward Ho. "You just have to make sure you have a good selection, because a lot of those sales tend to be impulse sales. Indeed, tooth-whitening paste sales can prove lucrative waters for food retailers.
"There are much better margins on tooth-whitening pastes [than in the rest of the toothpaste category]. Retailers can get about 40%," Arnault said.
"I think the margins are right in with the toothpaste category, around a 20% to 25% gross margin range. It's not too bad, but not great," Assayag contested.
Whether or not tooth-whitening pastes can expand the overall oral care category remains a question. But for now, food retailers can continue to focus on improving sales and taking advantage of the fleet of new products that will soon sail onto their shelves.