NEW YORK -- Retailers here acknowledged that sales of bath, body and sun care products were still dwarfed by other areas of the beauty business.
Still, they were quick to point out many bright spots within the categories.
"There are a lot of new and unique items that are driving the business," said Rita Burke, senior vice president for cosmetics and fragrances at Macy's East. "These are small categories, but they're growing nicely. Bath and body in particular is still very new to department stores."
Burke said bath, body and sun sales had each been trending ahead in the "double-digit" percentage range.
Ed Burstell, cosmetics and fragrance buyer at Henri Bendel, said bath and body sales were "ahead in the aggressive double digits," while sun products were gaining at a slower pace, in the single-digit range.
"Newness in the assortment, combined with new and improved formulations, is still the key to this business," he said.
Burstell said sun, bath and body items made up a small portion of beauty sales at Bendel's, but he added that the categories had potential.
"When we're in the peak selling months, sun could be as high as 12 percent of the total," he said. "Bath and body is about 8 percent now, but we've targeted the category, and we'd like to bring it up to around 12 percent, as well."
Jane Scott, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Bloomingdale's, also said newness was essential to maintaining the growth stores are enjoying.
"New entries are making these businesses more visible," Scott said, noting that although sun products account for only about 4 percent of Bloomingdale's beauty business, she was "bullish on the category."
"All of our self-tanners continue to grow nicely," she said. "The newest ones are all doing well. They're a bigger business than protection products year to date, but during the summer, this may reverse.
"Advances in technology have been key to this market," Scott continued. "Technology has made [self-tanners] much more efficient and easy to use. The oil-free products that have been developed are also making a mark; consumers like the actual feel of the products."Scott said Bloomingdale's was holding an expansive in-store promotion this month called Sun Week in an attempt to boost its sun business. The event will be featured in the store's summer catalog, and will include a straw hat giveaway and other activities with "all the major brands," Scott noted.
"We're hoping to make this a key category, and to do that, we want to make sure it's out in front of the customers," she said. "We'll be offering education about SPF's and other aspects.
"Of course, from a business standpoint, we want to establish use-up and re-purchasing," Scott added.
As for the body and bath business, Scott said Christian Dior's anti-cellulite cream Dior Svelte continued to surpass expectations.
"Svelte has been unbelievable -- just fantastic," she said. "We're just coming into our second round of [promotional] activity. It's the standout of the season in the body classification."
Scott also noted that fragrance-extension products were getting newfound attention from shoppers.
"Consumers do like to buy different kinds of products, like lotions, along with the fragrance," she said. "And a lot of companies seem to be coming out with unique products. Donna Karan has been highly successful with the bath line, and it actually carries a different scent altogether from the main fragrance. [Ralph Lauren's] Polo Sport has also done exceptionally well."
At Bloomingdale's, Scott said, a wide selection of bath lines were sharing the bulk of the sales.
"For us, specialty bath lines on the whole continue to grow," she said. "Basically, there are so many entries that newness keeps driving it along. There aren't any standouts; sales are spread out over a bunch of different lines."
Macy's Burke also said that many contenders were divvying up sales in the bath category.
"This is still an impulse business, and people like to browse around in the open-sell fixtures," she said. "It's also a strong gift category -- a lot of lines are offering affordable items that make for great gifts."
Burke listed H2O Plus, the Vitabath lines and VitaSpa, the Elizabeth Arden Spa line and Caswell-Massey as among the strongest-selling bath lines at Macy's.She also noted that Dior Svelte was doing well.
"It's flying," she said. "Consumer reaction has been great. The visual impact of the advertising is enormous; it's really creating a lot of interest.
"This product is really jump-starting the [anti-cellulite] category by itself," she added. "It was hot a few years ago, but then it died out. But now we might see some other companies get back in."
In the sun category, Burke said self-tanners continued to lead the business.
"They're definitely the hot item," she said. "The products themselves have improved. They've come a long way from turning your skin orange."
Burke noted that Estee Lauder's new SuperTan had "a great reaction," and the company's original Self-Action items continued to grow, as well.
In combating competition for sun business from drugstores, Burke said "advertising is the key." She said, "The stronger the claim, the better chance someone will be convinced to come to a department store. Beauty advisers can also do their part to explain the differences and play up the quality of the products."
At Bendel's, Burstell listed Chanel's Active Body Moisturizer with alpha-hydroxy acid, Lancome's new self-tanner and Shiseido's Body Contouring Complex, Exfoliating Scrub and new self-tanning gel as top-selling items.
"We've had a lot of interest in these products on the part of consumers," he said. "They want to know what's new in the way of sophisticated products."
In the bath category, Burstell said a wide variety of "unknowns" were leading the way, among them HerbÄ, Essential Elements and En Fleur.
"It's our usual group of unheralded brands," he said. "But for a specialty product like this, something unique is what our consumers are looking for."
Other than the new self-tanners from Shiseido and Lancome, Burstell said Clarins and Chanel were the top-selling brands overall in the sun category.
"It's pretty much split down the middle between self-tanning and protection," he said, noting that he expected Chanel's new oil-free self-tanner to do well. "A sizable portion of customers are still taking the sun."And for those sun-happy customers, Burstell stressed that the kind of service a store like Bendel's can offer was a crucial selling point.
"People know they're going to get talked to about everything if they come here," he said. "Self-service is a disservice when it comes to sun. We strive for constant education and try to keep people abreast of new developments."
While department stores seek ways to keep customers from the mass market, Scott of Bloomingdale's also noted that a few product categories could still open up to become important new growth areas.
"Aromatherapy can be big, and we're also seeing more and more natural products," she said. "There's a real healthy consumer interest in these areas."
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