LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — Supermarkets have always struggled with the balance between selling groceries and grooming.

And with discounters Wal-Mart and Target and club stores such as Costco and B.J.’s taking a bigger bite out of grocery sales, supermarkets are starting to reevaluate departments — including cosmetics.

A newly opened ShopRite store here demonstrates where owner Wakefern Corp. weighs in on the debate. While the store spans 100,000 square feet and has everything from a pharmacy to a huge kosher department and a boulangerie, it has a minuscule cosmetics department.

A broker familiar with ShopRite said the company has studied the productivity of every stockkeeping unit in the store. The result is that ShopRite can achieve optimal cosmetics sales with a tightly edited assortment. It is a vastly different strategy than that of a four-year-old Wegmans across the street, where there is a beauty department rivaling any drugstore chain. Wegmans even merchandises L’Oréal mascara at checkout.

Area customers certainly have a big choice when it comes to food, clothing and beauty needs. The ShopRite and Wegmans here join Target, Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s in this cluster of chain stores located off busy highway Route 1. ShopRite hopes it offers just enough beauty to get its fair share of this competitive market.

ShopRite buyers have selected the fastest-selling items for its beauty assortment, which is located near, but not right next to, the pharmacy. There are two linear feet of Sally Hansen nail products, one foot for Bonne Bell, one foot for Almay, four feet of Maybelline and four feet of Cover Girl. A closer inspection of the choices shows the thinking — Bonne Bell to cover the youth market, Almay for sensitive skin and Maybelline and Cover Girl for consumers who find it convenient to pick up a favorite beauty item on a food store trip.

Many supermarket merchants have long debated the importance of beauty. Although the category delivers tasty margins, it is also space-intensive and slow-turning — an anomaly in the grocery business where inventory is turned at a brisk pace.

According to Information Resources Inc., supermarket sales of cosmetics for the 52-week period ended Feb. 24 were basically flat at $497 million. Food stores produce about 17 percent of the total $2.8 billion mass beauty market, excluding Wal-Mart. Still, for many manufacturers, food chains represent huge growth opportunities. Revlon is rolling out its Revlon Express fixture to help food chains get deeper into the business and companies such as Markwins are also targeting the food channel. Elizabeth Arden has just added its Elizabeth Taylor cosmetics line in Albertson’s.Still, the issue weighs on the potential negative image impact to color cosmetics brands that widely distribute in food stores, not the most glamorous of shopping venues. Revlon which has been developing edited sections of best selling items for supermarkets, essentially to serve as a convenience shop, has hesitated to step into the burgeoning dollar store market.

While he didn’t directly address the image component, earlier this year Revlon executive vice president of sales, Paul Murphy said, “extension into a group of retailers like dollar stores really needs to be thought out. If all you’re doing is cannibalizing your current business with your heritage retailers, then it will probably add less contribution and that wouldn’t necessarily be the best thing to do.”

Supermarkets have certainly realized the dollars in skin, hair and bath. While ShopRite limits cosmetics, the hair and skin care departments are massive. ShopRite has every shampoo imaginable as well as a specialty bath department featuring The Healing Garden, Village Naturals and Yardley.

Within hair care there is an interesting ethnic selection that shows how ShopRite is attempting to reach out to African-American and Hispanic consumers.

A two-foot section is allocated to hard-to-find Hispanic products ranging from Ms. Moya skin creams to a baby line called Para Mi Bebé. Included in the Hispanic planogram are health-promoting teas, Heno de Pravia bath products and colognes popular in Spanish-speaking countries.

Next to that department is another two-foot section with popular ethnic products such as Soft Sheen hair care, Ambi skin care and Dark and Lovely hair color.

ShopRite is using information gleaned from its Price Plus Club customer loyalty program to pinpoint which stores require special ethnic departments. The store here serves a diverse population including a large Jewish, Asian and Hispanic base.

The opening week traffic in the new store, originally slated to be a Costco, was heavy — despite the multitude of nearby competitors. Several shoppers were overheard comparing and contrasting the store to the nearby Wegmans. One summed up what is becoming the driving factor in choosing a store to shop. “It was easier to make a right turn into this center than a left turn to Wegmans,” concluded one customer at ShopRite.Correction: Bare Escentuals retail sales have expanded from $6 million to $200 million in the 10 years since Leslie Blodgett joined the company. The numbers were incorrectly reported in this column on April 30.

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