By  on April 13, 2007

Circle of Friends is widening its circumference.The Santa Monica, Calif.-based children's hair and bath products company has introduced Little Docs, an all-natural eczema treatment line. The new line allows Circle of Friends, which sells its namesake professional brand mostly to salons and specialty retailers, to reach a broader range of retailers, including 100 Wal-Mart stores in California, 200 H-E-B stores in Texas and 150 Target stores. "One feedback I would get from moms was that their little one has eczema, and they can only use fragrance-free products," said Eleanor Keare, president of Circle of Friends. "The products on the market are really geared more toward adults. There aren't things friendly and fun for kids."Little Docs' development process stretched over three years due to extensive testing of the formulation and packaging. The company secured two sets of chemists to create two different formulas and then sent them to 24 eczema-affected families to try, unaware of the formula they received. Luckily, the results were skewed heavily in favor of one formula. "Especially as an independent small brand, parents need to have the confidence that this is not something I whipped up at my kitchen sink," said Keare. "It is very safe, high quality, dependable and is not going to vary from one time they buy it to the next time."To perfect the labeling, Circle of Friends conducted an online survey of 1,000 mothers of children between the ages of two and 10 that suffer from eczema. Questions covered, for example, how valuable the phrases "dermatologist tested," "tearless," and "allergen free" are to the mothers. All three are used on Little Docs' labels. "In salons, you can rely on the salon people to help sell your product. In the mass market, it was more important to make sure that our products sell themselves," said Keare.To keep Little Docs distinct from its Circle of Friends line, the company avoided putting its name on the front of the bottles. That choice was made to eliminate confusion over the different lines, especially because the namesake line is known for fragrances and colors."Those are two things that are strong selling points for everyday children, but irritating for skin," said Keare, who reported estimates that 20 percent of children under the age of five will have bouts of eczema. A Little Docs 4-oz. calming cream sells for $9.49; an 8-oz. shampoo and body wash sells for $7.99; and an 8-oz. cooling spray lotion retails for $8.99. A trial kit sells for $8.99. All items are merchandised in the baby aisle. From Circle of Friends' research, Keare found that mothers shop for children's remedy lines at mass market retailers and look for them near diaper rash creams or other baby-oriented products. Little Docs' key ingredients include aloe vera, calendula, chamomile and vitamins A and E. The products are free of allergy-inducing ingredients such as synthetic fragrances, dyes, propylene glycol, alcohol, soy, nut oils, gluten, oat and dairy.Keare, who initially came on board to 12-year-old Circle of Friends five years ago and bought a majority share three years ago, has guided the company to 50 percent annual growth in the last few years, a rate she expects to match this year. "We want to make sure our growth is controlled," she said.Circle of Friends is relying primarily on viral marketing encouraged by e-mail blasts to get the word out about Little Docs. Keare said when mothers find effective eczema remedies, they are extremely willing to share the news. She's also placing Little Docs in pediatricians' offices near the stores where it is carried to get it into parents' hands. Next on Little Docs' docket is probably a diaper cream and a sunscreen. But Keare is busy with Circle of Friends' exclusive launch of Lice Free Zone, a lice prevention treatment containing tea tree and peppermint oils, which she noted have been vetted in studies on lice control. "It is very important to me that we develop something that has been scientifically proven, not just folklore," Keare said.

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