NEW YORK — Knowing that the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the peak time consumers sample bath and body products, specialty bath suppliers pulled no punches in presenting the best their portfolios had to offer. And though nationwide retail scan data is still weeks away from being tallied, preliminary sales results showed that bath and body suppliers fared well in their key retail accounts.

John Galantic, president of Coty Beauty, a leading seller of bath and body products, said he is "reasonably pleased" with the sales performance of the company’s two leading brands, The Healing Garden and Calgon. He said they were up against tough competition from the usual major influx of lower-priced Asian imports that can tend to lure consumers away from higher-priced national brands.

Smaller bath brands, such as Sarah Michaels, outperformed company-wide expectations, due mainly to an all-new lineup which was launched to key accounts for the holiday season. Kathy Alaama, vice president of sales and marketing for Sarah Michaels, said the brand’s sell-through rate was more than double that of 2001, though she noted that the assortment comparison was not "apples to apples." Wal-Mart and Albertson’s showed Sarah Michaels’ sell-through was in the 70 percent range, compared with 2001 when roughly 30 percent of Sarah Michaels’ products sold. She added that Sarah Michaels beat category leader Coty by 15 to 20 points in sell-through percentage in the brand’s key accounts.

Wella-owned Yardley, another small bath company, took to filling gaps in key accounts to grow sales. Pat Lupino, vice president of sales for Yardley, credited her boss Stephanie Hayano, divisional vice president of the mass market arm of Wella, for the brand’s aggressive strategy: "She really looked at the business, our sku’s, our customers and evaluated the selling opportunity." Hayano, who joined Yardley in January, took time to look at its Christmas lineup and sensed that the brand’s offerings could be a little stronger. "So they upped the forecast, upped the selling and it sold," Lupino reported. Of the seven gift sets Yardley put out for the season — which ranged from a $11 bath caddy to an $18 vanity box — products registered a 96 to 97 percent sell-through rate. Yardley’s bath program is up 10 percent from 2001.The overall bath fragrance category was down roughly 3 percent for 2002 to $107 million, excluding Wal-Mart, according to data from Information Resources, Inc. So, any help in growing the category is being welcomed.

At least two retailers are doing their part. Galantic pointed to Target as doing a better job in presenting the category by using clear brand statements and separated, differentiated brand shelving.

Fred Meyer’s use of branded floor stands are quite successful, too, Galantic added.

And on the bright side, department stores pose little threat in stealing bath consumers. Alaama said she saw deep promotional events on bath goods in department stores prior to Christmas, an indication of category softness. "Specialty bath in department stores was struggling a bit," Alaama said. "Mass should have benefited from this. Plus, mass price points are still more attractive."

Despite mass retailer efforts, the consensus among manufacturers is that sales growth in bath and body relies on manufacturers through innovation, not retailers through merchandising. Thus, trends are ever emerging.

Within the Coty business, sales patterns during the holiday selling season revealed an increase in sales of spa items, most notably Healing Garden’s Spa Theraphy. Galantic sees this spike as an opportunity for the category as a whole. "This shows that this is a segment that needs innovation."

Noting that fragrance is still very key to bath and body sales, Alaama said several items within Sarah Michaels’ line performed especially well. Products within the Milk & Honey line have been "a huge success," while Jasmine Waterlily’s Getaway ensemble also proved "to be a big hit."

Fragrance aside, Galantic firmly believes Coty and Calgon are the two reasons consumers flock to the category. He cited the company’s national ad campaigns and innovative new product launches as key reasons. "I don’t see anyone else driving awareness or new consumers to the category." Coty’s Healing Garden bath business is "roughly at par" for this holiday season compared with 2001, Galantic said. Calgon yielded mixed results, performing better in certain key accounts than in others.

While specialty bath sales were lackluster for 2002, suppliers are hopeful 2003 could yield stronger results. Yardley’s new Apothecare line hits stores nationwide this quarter. Calgon is planning a tropical spa line for the first half of the year, and there’s the nationwide distribution of Sarah Michael’s new products to help bolster 2003 bath prospects.Galantic warned, however, that bath and body sales growth can’t ever be guaranteed.

"During the holidays, you have the chance to drive trial of a brand and bring new consumers to a category, and if you drive it through an in-and-out product that is not top-notch quality in terms of sensory and lather experience, you run the risk of not having a repeat purchase. The Asian imports are doing this."

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