By  on February 18, 1994

NEW YORK -- Too many toes in the tub.

That, say some mass market retailers, is why a number of them are afraid they might have charged too fast and furiously into the bath business.

Based on double-digit sales gains just a couple of years ago, several chains, such as PayLess in Wilsonville, Ore., and Target Stores in Minneapolis, cleared large space from their beauty aisles to make way for bath items.

But now some operators are finding that business is slowing -- and they're blaming, among other things, a proliferation of product. According to Information Resources, a sales tracking service in New York, the bath and body category has lost some momentum.

For the year ended October 10, 1993, total bath product sales were down 3.6 percent in drugstores, to $456 million, while supermarket bath sales were down 1 percent, to $115 million. Discount store sales hit $397 million, but IRI has been tracking that trade class for only a year and could not compare the figures to prior data.

The retailers' only solace is that the precious space they've carved out for bath items can instead be used to house the influx of skin care items that is expected to arrive over the next few years.

"Sales haven't peaked yet," observed Carol Allman, group director of Eckerd Drug Stores in Largo, Fla. "I think what we're really seeing is a category that brings in good sales and holds space while we wait for the skin care boom."

Many merchants feel that an overabundance of products has damaged the bath category. Almost overnight, a flurry of new contenders emerged, and retailers say some items were not high enough in quality to live up to consumers' expectations. The disappointing products have diminished the number of repeat sales.

The bottom line is that bath inventory is turning over more slowly -- only two times per year -- than originally expected. Retailers had hoped to enjoy turns of four or more per year.

Even Target Stores -- a chain with a large bath department -- is taking a closer look at turns, confirmed a spokesman.

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