NEW YORK — Merry Christmas. How about an at-home hot stone massage?

There may be fragrances packed to the ceilings at the nation’s mass market stores, but many buyers are putting their dollars behind pampering products — at-home spa items, bath and body gift sets and color blockbuster kits.

"Consumer expectation levels are very high at the mass market," said Candace Corlett, a principal in WSL Strategic Retail. "People are doing more to pamper themselves at home."

A trip to a few mass market stores days after Thanksgiving bears that out. Ulta is advertising a hot stone massage machine from Conair. Wal-Mart touts a Lavender Luxury bath gift set for $34.62 while Eckerd has a Color Workshop makeup case for less than $20.

Beauty products are even on display at nontraditional beauty retailers. Costco, one of the first to sell fragrances in clamshells, has taken that concept to the spa. On display at a Bridgewater, N.J., outpost of the wholesale club is a Jacqua Girls Spa Party Kit priced for less than $20. Since it is a self-service store and consumers can’t be presented with all of the items, the Jacqua Girls simply pulled everything out of the paint can and displayed the items in a shrink wrap. If purchased as a gift, consumers can open the plastic and put the items into the paint can. Sara Jacqua of the Jacqua Girls said wholesale clubs have been an area of growth for the company.

Although some merchants expect to see a positive blip on the traditional mass market fragrance business, many have shifted more dollars into nonfragrance gift ideas for the holidays. Space once devoted to fragrance gift sets is now adorned with bath gift sets and color cosmetics promotions. At a CVS in Las Vegas, promotional displays were packed with color themes such as Revlon’s Bond promotion. The store, located on Las Vegas’ famed strip, was packed with consumers snapping up lipsticks or mascara to replace what they left at home.

Creating an at-home spa is a huge mass market trend, retailers said. "We have been seeing increased interest in products for the home such as massage products and yoga," said Lyn Kirby, president of Ulta. Ulta, in fact, devotes space at the front of its stores to paraffin dips, stone massages, yoga products and other at-home spa items.And, for those not into the spa scene, color cosmetics have become more "giftable." According to Bill George of Markwins, value kits priced for less than $20 are having an early sales spurt. "We have a few items that are just blowing out and started doing so even before Thanksgiving."

An Eckerd drugstore in Princeton, N.J., decked for the holidays, features an entire endcap devoted to Markwins’ Color Workshop. Among the kits is one containing everything needed for an at-home nail salon, priced at $14.99.

Products aimed at young girls continue to be mass market mainstays for the holidays. Ernie Lippman, vice president of sales and marketing at Caboodles said both the makeup cases and bath products under the Caboodles logo have had a brisk start this holiday season.

One reason mass market retailers believe bath and spa items are their ticket to success this year is that these items aren’t considered "mass market." For example, certain fragrances that are only sold at drugstores are not considered suitable gifts for some shoppers. However, bath and body products and spa items transcend the image of the retail channel. "A nice looking color cosmetics gift from Kohl’s is considered as nice as from Lord & Taylor," said Suzanne Goldsmith, a New Jersey shopper grabbing several gift items from a new Kohl’s in Hillsborough, N.J., a few days after Thanksgiving.

Retailers, especially drugstores, could use the boost in beauty this Yule. Overall cosmetics sales have limped along during the year. Hardest hit: drugstores that have lost their cachet in beauty. "What they’ve done this year is just pack the stores with merchandise. It all gets a bit lost. They better hope for a good year," said Allan Mottus, an industry consultant who had toured several Manhattan drugstores.

Corlett, who made some drugstore visits, pointed out that drugstores have let beauty take a backseat to general merchandise. "There are some great gift ideas in drugstores, but they aren’t in beauty. There’s a Sensor razor gift set and some great candy items," she observed. The beauty kits she did see on shelves left her uninspired. "They weren’t from the brands I expected to find, like Revlon," she said. Revlon had created the mass blockbuster business many years ago.Mass marketers are faring somewhat better. "Discounters will have a great year. They’ve made great strides in beauty," said Corlett.

One shopper on the Target boat, docked off of Manhattan for a few weeks, finally got to see the Sonia Kashuk cosmetics line he had heard so much about. Currently, there are no Target stores in Manhattan. "This is a quality line," he added. Back on terra firma, Target stores are decked for the holidays. Hello Kitty gift beauty items are even housed at checkouts for last-minute stocking stuffers. Rarely have beauty items ever controlled entire checkstand displays.

Overall, retailers were pleased with sales the day after Thanksgiving. CVS reported sales at stores open at least a year rose 10.2 percent in November from a year earlier. And, Wal-Mart had its biggest one-day sales ever on the Friday after Thanksgiving — $1.43 billion.

However, working against retailers is a shortened holiday shopping period and the fact that much of those gains were at the expense of profits. Retailers slashed prices on key items to lure shoppers to their doors. Beauty has more competition than ever thanks to the allure of high-technology gifts ranging from DVD players to the hard-to-find Fur Real Friends Cat, a plush cat that meows and has pranced out of just about every retail door.

Some drugstore retailers, however, are not stressed yet. "Drugstore beauty items are always a last-minute purchase," concluded Alan Levin, chairman of Happy Harry’s in Newark, Del.

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