NEW YORK — Beauty merchandising — art or science?

Some players in the mass market business fear pressures to make beauty more productive have supplanted creativity. The number crunching is especially challenging in color cosmetics where so many stockkeeping units are needed to make a statement.

"The business used to be 80 percent fact and 20 percent gut," said Rich Landers, president of Landers & Associates in Worthington, Ohio. Landers, a manufacturer's representative and former drugstore buyer, added that many retailers are too afraid to take a chance in today’s climate.

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that buyers today often have to get approval from top management or buying committees to take on a new item or vendor. "It is very cookie-cutter and horrible what a new company has to go through to get an item or line into a major account," said one former buyer who also sells products into retailers.

Thanks to technology, retailers have mounds of data to use for category management and other productivity solutions. That same technology, which gives proof of product performance, has also been blamed for taking the art out of merchandising.

However, there are those who believe the information has empowered them to be even better merchants. "Just because there are different demands today doesn’t mean you can’t still display merchandise in an aesthetically appealing way with correct adjacencies," explained one seasoned buyer for a major chain. "Today, we have many more tools to make informed decisions, but also restraints because of this."

The buyer thinks some memories of the good old days of merchandising could be hazy. "We could not measure success in sales as quantitatively. ‘It is blowing out’ was what salespeople used to tell us. Now we have POS [point-of-sale] data almost on the spot and they can’t tell us fish tales anymore."

With buyers armed with data to dispel myths, the retail side of the equation has seized greater power. To that end, merchants are asking for more concessions. Among the demands today are slotting allowances, additional advertising and payment upon scan. "An item that looks good or has a chance doesn’t have a chance of getting in unless it is from a favored supplier or is from someone really willing to play ball with the account," said one source.Although armed with data, suppliers lamented that buyers are skittish about new items — a fact exacerbated by the high percentage of failures of new products. Manufacturers believe it is harder for retailers to take a chance on what could be a breakthrough product.

And making matters worse is that some of the industry’s true merchandising innovators are not part of the retail side of the business anymore. Cynthia Henry, the former category manager for Long’s Drug Stores, left the chain earlier this year. Now she is in the flip side of the business as a consultant for a category management company called Delta Associates. Karen Durham is also taking her merchandising talents to the consulting business. Vern Brunner, the long-time king of building new brands, left Walgreens a few years ago and also consults. Brunner is often mentioned as one of the industry’s true merchants. "He could see an ‘item in the rough,’" one source said.

Even with the constraints of making beauty payoff, industry sources said there are some retailers with a passion for merchandising. "Jim Mastrian [Rite Aid] is a good example and what Walgreens does to find young companies and help mold them shows there are merchants left in the business," Landers said. Others singled out Judy Wray, also of Rite Aid, who was named category manager of the year by her company.

Some merchandising wizards are at new posts. Sherry Saffert, formerly of Kmart, is now infusing excitement into CVS. Larry Zigerelli, formerly of CVS, joined Meijers early this month as vice president of marketing and advertising.

With sales languishing, many industry watchers think merchants need to reemerge and put the zest back into beauty presentations in mass market stores.

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Once considered fringe, natural beauty products are getting more attention at mass.

"Consumers are more interested in self-medicating and beauty products that are good for them and even products for your health ‘inside’ that make you look good on the outside," said Roy White, vice president of Education for the GDMC.

Linking these products to a whole health department in stores can lead to higher sales, according to a study called "Introducing and Merchandising New OTC Whole Health Products," published by the General Merchandise Distributors Council. The research, conducted by Willard Bishop Consulting Ltd. of Barrington, Ill., detailed successful strategies for implementing natural beauty items and aromatherapy. It was found that placing the items near a whole health department, as well as distributing educational literature on the shelf, could boost sales.Free samples and trial sizes were also voted by consumers as instrumental vehicles for prompting purchases of new products. "Some 59 percent of those surveyed felt strongly that a trial size would prompt a purchase of a new product and 65 percent said free samples would tempt them," White said.

Jewel-Osco, a 280-store division of Albertson’s, has implemented a whole health area in its store, including signage and educational materials. The department is near its health and beauty care area. Included in the area is a large aromatherapy section featuring candles, bath oils and other related merchandise. According to a chain spokesman, sales of the natural beauty items are doing well.

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