By  on January 4, 2002

NEW YORK -- Thunderbirds are back, so are fishnets and big hair.

Not surprisingly, the retro craze has crept into the beauty business, too. Retailers report that after Sept. 11, consumers have been flocking to merchandise that makes them feel more comfortable.

"People are nesting and buying items that make them feel good," said Mark Griffin, president and chief executive officer of Lewis Drugs Inc.

Feeling good, it appears, means remembering youth.

That explains why buyers saw a surge in sales in the last four months of 2001 of items such as Caboodles organizers, Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, Love's Baby Soft fragrance and the venerable Old Spice cologne.

Parents, intent on reliving their youth, are either buying the products for themselves or their offspring.

Bonne Bell's Lip Smackers is a perfect case in point. The lip-smacking Strawberry scent first hit the market in 1973 and spawned an entire line of Smackers, which young girls collect and trade. Although Lip Smackers traditionally sell well, Bonne Bell executives noticed a spike in sales in 2001. Several chains such as Kmart constructed huge Bonne Bell displays for the holiday.

According to Julie Shlepr, director of marketing for Bonne Bell, Holiday 2001 was "very successful." She said Smackers now has a brand equity that reaches three generations of girls. "And, given the tragedy of Sept. 11, girls of all ages are looking for reminders of simpler, happier times. Smackers is great in that role. It is an affordable luxury, something that girls and Moms can feel good about saying 'yes' to."

Another blast from the past -- Caboodles. Caboodles organizers emerged in the late Eighties as an item every girl had to have. The idea was borrowed from fishing tackle boxes and soon became de rigueur for every young girl to tote her beauty supplies. Sales of the plastic cases dwindled in the Nineties only to soar again in 2001. Retailers are building up displays of Caboodles boxes and the corresponding Caboodles cosmetics products.

Markwins International Corporation is another company benefiting from a return to styles made popular when boomers were young. "We had many retro Sixties' styles that did well and we'll continue with those looks," said Bill George, vice president of sales for the City of Industry, Calif.-based firm.According to Bunky Mar, marketing and design manager for Markwins, colors and designs for 2002 ACT collections for teens and tweens will be inspired by the Seventies and eighties. "Back-to-school is a throwback and we've added some graffiti with positive messages such as Girls are Best. Since many parents grew up with these styles, kids have their parents' approval to buy them," said Mar.

The nostalgia gripping the country bodes well for drug chains which evoke memories of soda fountains and cheap scents. Tony Wesley, chief operating officer of New Dana Perfums Co. has seen renewed interest in the scent that was many contemporary mothers' first fragrance -- Love's Baby Soft. "I remember buying my first bottle of Love's," said Karen Harris, a 40something mother. "Now my daughter is wearing it."

New Dana discovered just how valuable old formulas are to consumers. The company decided to update the package and scent for Heaven Scent. Customers immediately wrote letters complaining about the tampering of the juice. New Dana has responded by deciding to change the formula back to the original. Those who gripe about the new juice get bottles of the original scent.

No matter how many new contenders have come along, Old Spice remains the leading men's cologne with sales of almost $30 million and a 7.4 percent share of the $402 million business, according to Information Resources Inc. statistics for the 52-week period ended November 4, 2001.

While many retailers only squeezed out low single-digit gains for the month of December, Walgreen Co. reported a 14.4 percent increase versus December 2000.

December sales hit $2.8 billion, up from $2.4 billion across all stores. Comparable store sales rose a healthy 8 percent. Walgreens, according to suppliers, had a strong Christmas, especially in the beauty category where it had recently installed new value pricing. "Last spring we lowered prices on thousands of cosmetics items. The response has been very good," said David Bernauer, president of the 3,623-store chain.

The merchandise mix at Walgreens is also credited with keeping the chain on the positive growth track. "The nature of our business -- selling basic goods that everyone needs -- gives us the chance to perform well despite the current recession and tough retail environment," said Chairman Dan Jorndt in a release.

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