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."For a while last year, we were afraid we might have moved too slowly," said a buyer for Pontiac, Mich.-based Perry Drug Stores, which maintains a 4-foot-long bath section. "Now we're glad we didn't rush into it."Perry is putting its emphasis behind those manufacturers who are giving their bath products support. Few bath firms, however, have been spending for national advertising behind the category and retailers think this has held back sales."What you really have to do is find the four or five lines that do well for your stores," said Gina Russo, buyer for The Rx Place in New York.For now, Russo said she is testing several lines and letting them "shake themselves out."At I Got It at Gary's in Eagleville, Pa., the bath category is still robust, said buyer Susan Swartz. Dollar sales were up about 25 percent, while unit sales increased about 20 percent. Still, the deep discount drug chain plans to fine-tune the mix this year."In general, the market support in this category is weaker than we would like it to be," she said. "We have some lines that we will be 'clearancing out' and not restocking."Based on current market support in the category, Swartz believes a big consumer products company could shake up the market."If a company with a big marketing budget decides it wants to make a splash here, I don't think it would have much of a problem."A handful of companies that market bath products have been enjoying growth. According to a report by Towne-Oller & Associates, the fastest growing bath line is Yardley Bath Shoppe, which posted a sales gain of 493 percent for the period between Dec. 1, 1992 and Nov. 30, 1993.Other strong performers included Cashmere Bouquet, which rose 204 percent; Naturistics from Del Laboratories, up 63 percent; Nivea, up 55 percent; Sarah Michaels, up 41 percent; Fruit of the Earth, up 19 percent; Vaseline Intensive Care, up 15 percent, and Neutrogena, up 12 percent. Private label brands inched up 3 percent.Even with these gains, retailers concurred that the real battle of the mass market beauty powers will soon be fought in the skin care market. Stores are already making room for the growing ranks of new alpha-hydroxy acid products, such as Revlon's Results and L'OrÄal's PlÄnitude Excell-A3.Retailers say L'Oreal is late out of the gates with an AHA -- it hits the shelves in May -- but it brings the proven power of the Plenitude name and a big budget of $20 million in advertising.Among the other new skin care contenders are:A line of items from Sherwood Skincare, based in Radnor, Pa., featuring all natural ingredients, no chemical additives and no animal testing.Maybelline's Revitalizing skin care line, which is targeted at women over 35. Maybelline is requesting that retailers integrate skin care into the pegged wall near other Revitalizing makeup items.A new line from a French skin care company called Roc SA. The firm makes Europe's leading brand of hypo-allergenic lotions, with sales of $125 million in 1992. Instead of trying to outspend the other skin care competitors, Roc is targeting pharmacists and dermatologists it hopes will recommend the line, which will be marketed under the Dermik Laboratories name.A number of drug chains, including Rite Aid Corp. in Camp Hill, Pa., Walgreen Co. in Deerfield, Ill., and CVS Stores in Woonsocket, R.I., are testing the lines.Although retailers say it is an interesting approach, they are quick to point out that Almay's Prescribed Care line was slated to be promoted at the pharmacy. The strategy didn't work."Pharmacists have too much to do, let alone talk skin care," said one buyer.Add Hook SupeRx, based in Cincinnati, to the list of chains putting a greater emphasis on beauty. The store is testing a variety of department prototypes. In a remodeled unit in Providence, R.I., there is a service cosmetics department in an alcove setting, complete with prestige fragrances and skin care.
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