By  on February 4, 1994

NEW YORK -- For the last 20 years, retailers and some of their vendors have relied on blockbusters -- those bargain-priced boxes of beauty products -- as a surefire way of sparking Christmas business. But this past year, the fuse got damp.

Although the blockbusters appear to have been a virtual sellout -- as in years past -- it took longer in December to sell through the beauty kits. That was true even for Estee Lauder, which had pioneered the concept in 1971 with the introduction of an eye color collection for $8.50.

In addition, Elizabeth Arden, Lauder's major competitor in the annual holiday blockbuster wars, was forced to mark down some of its $29.50 kits by $10 to sell out stocks.

This past season, Arden offered two blockbusters -- one keyed on its

four-year-old Red Door fragrance, the other featuring the Sunflowers scent that had been launched in the spring.

Arden's blockbuster business showed a single-digit increase, but it wasn't easy to achieve, said Mark Loomis, vice president of retail marketing at Arden.

The two kits, which went on counter Nov. 1, were equally priced, with an original price tag of $29.50 with a $15 qualifying purchase, but the Sunflowers version took off "like a rocket ship," while Red Door sputtered, Loomis said. Both sets had a claimed value of $435.

Unfortunately for Arden, the slower-moving model made up three quarters of the blockbuster assortment.

"If we had to do it over again, we certainly would have done a lot more Sunflowers," Loomis said.

In prior years, Arden had sold out by Dec. 10. Last season, executives estimated that a sellout would not occur until Christmas, so the company decided to take the markdown, sparking a sell-through by Dec. 18.

"Customers were buying five and 10 of them," Loomis said. "At Macy's Herald Square in New York, we went from selling 20 a day to 100 a day."

The sluggishness appears to have been caused by heightened competition from a proliferation of new or improved promotional vehicles on fragrance bars -- more sharply priced gift and value sets and the growing popularity of collections of fragrance miniatures.

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