Although it's still early in the season, West Coast retailers say some of their strongest business is in sun care, with self-tanning products tending to dominate the category.
Bath and body sales are paling in comparison at many stores.
"The sun business is much stronger than bath and body," said Diane Gates, divisional vice president for cosmetics at Seattle-based Bon Marche. "While sun protection is still doing well, and it's a growing business, it's not as hot as the self-tanning category. Self-tanning is still doing over twice the business that protection is doing."
Gates cited Lauder as the number-one brand in sun at her stores, with LancÖme, Elizabeth Arden and Clinique close behind. The sun business "is running 10 to 18 percent ahead," Gates said.
At other area retailers, however, sun protection is driving the business.
"With so many of our stores in tourist locations, sun care is a 12-month business for us," said Al Wines, divisional merchandising manager for Los Angeles-based Carter Hawley Hale.
While Wines said that sun protection is currently a bigger business than self-tanners, he added that self-tanners are beginning to pick up as well. EstÄe Lauder, LancÖme and Clinique are the hot manufacturers overall in the sun care arena at CHH, added Wines, who noted that sales for the category are up in the single-digit percentage range this year.
At Fresno-based Gottchalks, sun sales are also going strong.
"The season has just begun, and we're already up 14 percent," said Bob Wiser, divisional merchandising manager of cosmetics and accessories.
Lauder, LancÖme, Clinique and Arden are the best-selling lines at Gottchalks, according to Wiser.
Sun care manufacturers haven't been resting on their laurels, retailers noted. Instead, they've introduced new variations, particularly in the self-tanning arena, and the retailers are excited about the new items.
"What has become the number-one item in that category is self-tanning sprays," Bon Marche's Gates said. "It was new last year with Lauder, and this year Clinique has one. [Customers] prefer the option of being able to spray it on without getting it on their hands."Gates also cited Lancome's new entry, a sun-free tanner with 15 SPF, as a hot item.
"There's more emphasis on self-tanners with sun protection now," she said.
Gottchalks' Wiser was most enthusiastic about Lauder's latest self-tanner, SuperTan.
"It's been on the counter about three weeks now at $25, and it's been blowing out of the stores," he said. "It gives a very dark color, so it's interesting to see it selling so well this early in the season."
Wiser pointed out that customers have been responding favorably to SuperTan's fragrance.
"It's a much better-smelling self-tanner than most on the market, and the customers have been really reacting to it," he said. "I think that other than the technology -- the product even has some fruit acid in it -- the fragrance has been one of the keys to its selling like crazy."
New products are also being introduced in the area of pure sun protection.
"The new non-alcohol sunblock from Clinique is something we think will do very well," said Wines of CHH.
The greatest challenge to department stores in the sun arena comes from drugstores, though most retailers believe it's impossible to compare the two types of retailers fairly.
"It's a totally different customer," Bon Marche's Gates said. "I think the drugstore customer is really looking for a lot of protection rather than self-tanners, and they're looking towards products for the entire family, so there may be a limit as to how much they're willing to pay."
According to Al Wines, "Competing with drugstores is a major education process. Many consumers are still not even aware that they can buy sun care at the department store cosmetics counter. Beyond that, they must learn how the ingredients differ. What they get from a Lauder product is a lot different from what they'll get from a $2 tanning oil."
Wines said he is committed to a variety of promotional vehicles, such as in-store videos and literature, to educate consumers on what kind of sun care they can get at his stores.
The retailers stressed that they hope the burgeoning sun care business will help boost bath and body lines, which by and large are not doing quite so well.According to Diane Gates, "Body exfoliation is a fast-growing category, which has come about because of the dramatic interest people have in exfoliating their faces. "
Gates, who said bath and body sales are up only slightly and comprise "anywhere from three to five percent of our total business in cosmetics," suggested that the categories are most apt to suffer during periods of economic recession.
"When in a tough economy, customers are going to spend their disposable income taking care of color and sun products first, then maybe their favorite fragrance, and be willing to bypass the bath and body products, which are more of a luxury."
Not surprisingly, then, Gates noted that Arden's Spa Line, which "has a price point at a real good value," is doing strong business at Bon Marche.
"It's a flavor line -- they have a peach, a blue, a green, a pink -- and it almost competes with a Vitabath-type customer, almost a drugstore customer," Gates said.
"We've always done a good body lotion business, since most of our stores are in the desert climates, but I'm not seeing much change in body and bath," said Gottchalks' Wiser. "Body has been a big business, but it's not growing rapidly, and bath is the most famous underdeveloped area there is."
He cited slight single-digit increases in bath and body to date and pointed to Vitabath Naturals and Ben Rickert as his top lines.
At CHH, however, bath and body are ahead of sun, and up in the double digits, according to Wines.
"Bath gels, especially those with treatment aspects, and skin soothers, are becoming big," he said, pointing to Lauder, LancÖme and Clinique as category leaders. He also noted that Christian Dior's anti-cellulite product, Svelte, has been doing quite well.
"We introduced it in Southern California, and it's been tremendous," he said. "Hopefully, it will bring much more awareness to that category of treatment."
Svelte is also doing well at Gottchalks and Bon Marche.
"It's been out of this world, setting an old trend, so to speak, on fire with new claims," said Bon Marche's Gates. "I think it has to do with the fact that the application is different. In the past, these products were in a cream form that you had to really rub in, and this is very light-scented and gel-based, so it's absorbed very quickly."Specialty bath lines, such as H20 Plus and Goodebodies, are another fertile area for department stores to explore, the retailers said.
"We carry Goodebodies in five stores with full shops and a few stores with mini-shops," said Gates of Bon Marche. "They have a really good aromatherapy line, a line that is an opening price point like an H20 Plus or a Body Shop, and it fulfills the customer who wants a product with no animal testing."
While retailers have investigated specialty bath lines or intend to look into them soon, they noted it doesn't appear to be the sort of business a department store can jump into carelessly.
"The whole issue is about devoting the space in the stores and the dollars in merchandising, while making sure that sort of category doesn't get lost among the other goods," said Al Wines. "We're working toward it and look to do our own interpretation."
He said that Gottschalks already investigated the possibility of offering a specialty bath line -- and decided against it.
"We tried our own spa line through our Frederick Atkins buying office, and that did not perform well for us, so while we did look into H20 Plus, Goodebodies, and a few other similar lines, at this point I don't think we're ready for any complete line of that nature. "
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