By  on February 18, 1994

ATLANTA -- The management at Big B drugstores is banking on the idea that Southern women, who account for 75 to 85 percent of the chain's customers, want to buy cosmetics at their own convenience.

"Convenience is the word that keeps coming up in our philosophy," said Bobby Little, vice president of store operations for Big B, which is based in Birmingham, Ala. "We believe women want to be able to drive up, get what they want and leave, rather than having to walk through a mall."

Big B sales for 1993 reached $585 million. An increase to $645 million is projected for this year, when the company plans to open between 10 and 15 new stores.

Cosmetics is expected to account for around 6 percent of total sales this year, or near $39 million. The category is prominently featured in the regional chain's 356 stores, which average 9,000 square feet apiece.

About 50 feet of wall space at the front of the store is devoted to cosmetics, as are separate fragrance counters in most stores.

Upscale fragrance lines, such as Sanofi's Oscar de la Renta, Estee Lauder's Knowing, Liz Claiborne, Yves Saint Laurent's Opium, Giorgio Beverly Hills and Giorgio's Red, are offered at an average price of $35 for 2 ounces.

Designer knockoffs by Parfums de Coeur, called Alternative Designer Fragrances, are advertised as comparable fragrances, but at around $3 each. Other lower-priced fragrance lines include Jontue, Gloria Vanderbilt from L'Oreal and Revlon's Ciara. Many lower-priced fragrance lines are brought in on a promotional, temporary basis and phased out, said Little.

Big B also owns Drugs For Less, a 20-store discount chain inaugurated in 1988, in response to the growing discount market. At Drugs For Less stores, which average 30,000 square feet, fragrance represents 35 percent of total cosmetics business, or around $13.5 million.

The chain stocks a wider selection of designer fragrances, including Chanel, Calvin Klein's Eternity and Obession, Ralph Lauren's Safari and Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds, at an average of $34 for 2 ounces.

In makeup, basic lines such as Cover Girl and Maybelline account for Big B's largest unit sales, while prestige lines such as Max Factor, Almay and L'Oreal are bestsellers in terms of dollar volume, said Little.He mentioned that one best-selling item has been Max Factor's Pan Stick makeup. At the low end, Big B carries cosmetics lines which average between $1 and $2 per item, such as Wet 'n' Wild.

Little believes the convenience factor of Big B, which also carries a fairly large food assortment, draws women who are used to shopping department stores. He added that numerous vendors, such as Max Factor, have improved packaging and presentation to enable the upscale customer to be more comfortable in shopping for beauty products at drug stores.

The company promotes beauty through newspapers and mailouts on a weekly basis, offering an entire line, such as Revlon, at a 30 percent discount.

"We've found promoting an entire line, rather than individual items, bring in a wider variety of customers," said Little.

Treatment, which represents 10 percent of cosmetics, or $4 million, is a growing area for Big B, with products such as Revlon's Results Night Cream and L'Oreal's PlÄnitude. Rather than being in a separate space, treatment products are mixed in with body products.

Makeup targeted to the ethnic market has become a growing area, particularly in the last two years, said Little. "We'd always done well with ethnic hair care products, and we've been steadily adding makeup products," he said.

Products include those offered by big lines, such Maybelline's Shades of You, as well as independant brands, such as Posner and Black Radiance.

Big B, the nation's 17th-largest drugstore chain, began operations in 1968, as a division of Bruno's Inc., a Southeast supermarket chain. In 1981, it was spun off to shareholders.

The company has made huge inroads into the Atlanta market after acquiring 45 Treasury Drug Stores last year, as well as the local Reed Drugs chain in 1989.

"Big B is in a virtual tie with Eckerd as the largest drug chain in a profitable Atlanta market," said John Franzreb, an industry analyst with Value Line, a New York-based investment advisory company. "The trend for two years has been that the consumer is willing to buy pricey items and is more comfortable buying beauty products at drug and discount stores."Drug stores like Big B, that cover a large array of product and carry prestige lines as well, give this customer a reason to shop there," he concluded.

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