By  on March 11, 2011

NEW YORK — With consumers returning to the beauty category, retailers and manufacturers think it’s time to dip their toes back into bath.

For example, during its fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday, Ulta revealed plans to launch a revamped version of its bath line hitting stores Sunday. Ulta chief executive officer Chuck Rubin said of the launch, “Looking at our competitors in this, [bath has] been a good business of late.”

Several factors are pointing to bath and spa heating up after more than five years of lukewarm sales. Consumers stocked up on bath, spa and body products years ago only to find many of those bottles gathered dust on bathroom counters. But now, with at-home spa remedies a hot trend, coupled with a demand for natural products, there’s renewed interest in the category. This time chains are determined to do it right without an overproliferation of products, value pricing and natural offerings.

“During the recession, women dug out products from the back of their drawers that maybe weren’t their favorite scent. Now they have gone through them and are ready to purchase again,” said Alida Stevens, president of Smith & Vandiver, a pioneer in the aromatherapy category.

But, she cautioned, the “same old six flavors” won’t cut it with consumers this time. They want products that save time by providing benefits along with the shower or bathing regimen. Shoppers are also more educated about natural products and are looking for those with certified ingredients.

Sales statistics from SymphonyIRI Group substantiate the interest. Body wash dollar sales expanded 18.3 percent to $280 million for the 52-week period ended Jan. 23, according to the data, which includes food, drug and mass but not Wal-Mart volume. Sales of bath products for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 23, expanded 1.5 percent to more than $57 million and the body/scrubber/massager portion of bath sales in the mass market jumped 10.5 percent to $61 million.

Manufacturers in the category have shaken out over the past decade with brands, with former leaders The Healing Garden and Sarah Michaels disappearing. An easy-to-understand natural positioning appears to be one demand retailers have as they relaunch bath planograms.

Smith & Vandiver, for example, has doffed a moniker it developed solely for the mass market called Sinclair & Valentine and adopted the original name that Stevens said had an “amazing recall” with consumers in focus groups. The company is in the process of shipping a complete revamp of its Aromatherapaes’ bath and body line. Each product is 99 percent to 100 percent natural, certified by the Natural Products Association and formulated to meet the Whole Foods Premium standard. Fresh packaging hammers home the benefit of each item. Some stockkeeping units have been culled from the assortment while others added, such as a new Aromatherapaes Moisture Balm.

Targeting specific body parts is also emerging in bath and body care as witnessed by new items from Freeman Beauty Labs. Currently shipping into stores are items such as a Bare Hands Lavender & Mint Nourishing Hand and Cuticle Cream, and a Bare Foot Repair for Pain Relief. To take advantage of consumer hunger for product knowledge, Freeman has relaunched its Web site. The site includes an ingredient list for every product.

Some marketers are aiming products at consumers favoring showers over baths. But The Village Bath Company is also trying to help merchants rebuild sales via those who love to luxuriate in the bath. The company commissioned a third-party research firm to help find out how to get consumers to take more baths. Learnings from the study identified five subsegments of bathers. Three of these segments account for one-third of all bathers, but two-thirds of all purchases. Village has dubbed them Indulgent Divas, Solutions Seekers and Hybrids. Subsequently, Village Bath has a new line called Village Natural Aromatherapy which provides consumers with added benefits in bath items such as aromatherapy. The line is currently a major part of Target’s department.

Retailers hope to offer shoppers branded programs, while also presenting value via private labels. Last month, CVS launched Just the Basics, a selection of items ranging from household to personal care at value prices without added bells and whistles. Rite Aid has revamped its Pure Spring bath and body line with new packaging and a tighter assortment, which launches to stores nationwide in June. And then there’s Ulta’s relaunch, which includes new packaging and flavors.

A final push in bath and spa is to make the category giftable around several key seasons. Instead of just holiday, for example, the Karmin Group is creating clever bath gift sets for college dorms, said Mitch Takefman, vice president health and beauty for the company.

Merchandising of bath is being scrutinized by chains, who are now creating special natural sets, such as Target, or blocking all bath manufacturers together to encourage multiple sales.

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