Hair care is a category of stark contrasts, and is especially challenging to supermarkets that target boomer and senior women.
These consumers can afford and want high-end indulgences in personal grooming, but find supermarket category offerings inconsistent and insufficient to meet their complex needs.
One contrast is in pricing. New-technology formulas that enhance the health and look of hair are extending category price points, and women -- particularly those 40 and older -- seem willing to pay for these benefits. For example, chains report that Pantene Pro-V is one of their leading sellers. Yet promotions are more frequent and deeper, so alert shoppers can still find great deals in a category they replenish often.
A second contrast is in assortment. While shelf space is stagnant, more retailers are finding ways to cut in as many facings as possible for the most popular hair color lines from Clairol, L'Oreal, Garnier and Revlon. They recognize that if they don't compete on assortment against Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other retailers that stock the category fully, they'll suffer further sales erosion.
A third centers on loyalty to long-established brands. For all the innovation in hair care, retailers also see consistent demand for classic value brands such as Suave and VO5 among their older, price-oriented women shoppers.
"Supermarkets have lost share because they've done a poor job of managing these dynamics," said Jeff Manning, president, F&M Merchant Group, Lewisville, Texas, who spent much of his career overseeing nonfoods in sunbelt areas populated by retirees. "As baby boomers age, they don't shampoo their hair nearly as often. They color it instead. This hurts supermarkets because the stores don't treat hair color with the same respect as they treat shampoo. I had some stores where I couldn't sell shampoo or hair color. The women would have their hair colored and set at the salon once a week, and they wouldn't wash their hair. They were, in fact, trading a look for real cleanliness of their hair, but that look is hard to maintain," Manning said.
"The impact was significant. In stores that serviced older clientele, my hair color sales were 30% to 40% less as a percentage of hair care sales compared with stores in younger neighborhoods," he said.
Hair color is "as much fashion as cosmetics is," Manning added. "It's new item-driven with new colors and formulations coming in and out, and it's very price-sensitive because people know specific items. Buyers have to stay on top of it. And chains have to bite the bullet, and devote space to inventorying the leading lines fully."
Sources acknowledge that Kroger and Albertsons merchandise complete varieties well, but lament the widespread category space constraints that force most supermarkets to cull either lines or stockkeeping units, thereby forgoing opportunities to excite women about a category that is frequently replenished and is so central to their daily appearance. However, what Sue Vodika, health and beauty care buyer/category manager at Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., has done recently demonstrates how achievable it is to excite consumers with special events and promotions that make hair care fun in the supermarket.
"We had salon people come in to highlight women's hair with L'Oreal Color Expertise in three of our larger stores on a Saturday from noon to 2 o'clock. We did it in the main lobby where everybody passes. We demonstrated by coloring the hair of Bashas' staff who wanted it done. We did it with foil wraps and without so customers could see the process. We covered every age group, and our customers loved the interaction," Vodika said.
At times, there were over 20 women watching, she reported. "We also had masseuses occupy their husbands with mini-massages, and we gave away samples of shampoos and lotions," she said. "This event was powerful, and we're talking about some future experiences we could provide."
Yet overall, Bashas' treats hair care as a convenience category, Vodika said. For example, she described a hair color set that expanded to eight feet from four feet a year ago. "That's even small. We'll probably go to fewer brands and broader line extensions of the brands that have the customer following. We need the full realm of colors. That's where we'll take our stand," she said.
"People will switch brands before they'll switch colors. But we've had success moving younger customers to matching colors in the brands we do sell," she said.
Despite having a customer base where "60% are 40 or older," Vodika believes "it's not always a good consumer strategy to cater to older clientele in hair care because a high percentage of them still go to beauty salons."
The 137 Bashas' stores do carry brands such as Clairol Nice 'N Easy, L'Oreal Preference and L'Oreal Excellence, which "people over 40 know and trust. But the upcoming
generation wants the new color expertise, such as the new Herbal Essence, Feria and Garnier brands," noted Vodika.
Meanwhile, pent-up customer demand is leading Clemens Markets, the 21-unit chain based in Kulpsville, Pa., to expand hair color to eight feet from four feet.
"We're trying to capitalize on a growing segment," said Larry Schimpf, director, HBC and nonfoods. "We're limited to the best eight to 10 flavors in each brand we sell -- Clairol, Revlon, L'Oreal and Garnier. People want results, and that's taken the focus off of the value segment."
To HBC buyer Theresa Massaro, Dearborn Wholesale Grocers, Chicago, which services about 200 supermarkets, many of which are in inner-city areas populated by older shoppers, "Seniors are brand-loyal and not likely to change, and the hair care brands they prefer are often the lesser ones in the marketplace today. Boomers are more willing to try newer formulas. We don't even carry hair color for our markets."
By contrast, stores that have the space could cultivate a responsive market in boomers and seniors, said Diane Garber, president of the In-Sight Communications consultancy in Buffalo Grove, Ill. "My hunch is that more mature consumers are willing to buy several items at a time to deliver cleanliness, luxury and the specific enhancement they feel they need, and find what works best. They'd be willing to try specialty products," said Garber.