NEW YORK — Retailers are soaking up sales with SpongeBob SquarePants.

While some licensed bath and personal care items are sinking in sales, the SpongeBob character, made popular by the hit Nickelodeon cartoon show, is selling cleanly at chains such as Wal-Mart, Rite Aid and Target.

Marketed by MZB Personal Care, a division of MZ Berger & Co., the SpongeBob personal care collection consists of four items — two bubble baths, a shampoo and a lip balm. Flavors are inspired by the show, such as Jelly Berry bubble bath and Oceanfruit shampoo. There will also be gift and toothbrush sets for the holidays. Prices range from $3.50 to about $8.

"SpongeBob is blowing out and selling even better than expected," said Debbie Baker, president of MZB Personal Care.

SpongeBob is the number-one TV show for broadcast or cable for children 2 to 11, according to MZB. More than 48 million viewers tune in each month to see SpongeBob and his pals. SpongeBob merchandise — ranging from T-shirts to macaroni and cheese — account for sales exceeding $600 million, according to industry estimates. A SpongeBob film is also in the works for 2004.

SpongeBob is just that — a sponge who lives in a "pineapple under the sea" in a town called Bikini Bottom where he works at the Krusty Krab diner. His buddies include Patrick, a starfish; Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel from Texas; Squidward and his employer Mr. Krabs.

One of the reasons Baker believes the licensed personal care items have been so strong is that the character fits snugly with the category. To hammer that home, one of the bubble baths even has a cap on top where kids can blow bubbles.

The lineup also has the strength of MZ Berger company behind it. MZ Berger has vast experience in licensing with watches from Via Spiga, Hello Kitty, Gruen and Elgin. The company even offers a SpongeBob clock. MZ Berger decided to extend its expertise in licensing into personal care last year with the creation of the new division.

MZB Personal Care also has licensing rights for NASCAR, VeggieTales (currently getting a lift from a theatrical release), Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer.Retailers have always struggled with how much of a commitment to make to licensed products. Too often, hopes pegged on a movie release fall flat if consumers don’t flock to the film. However, there are characters buyers rely on and several sources said SpongeBob has the appeal to become a classic license. Sales of licensed personal care items exceed $5 billion per year.

Other personal care licenses on retail shelves include Scooby Doo, Bob the Builder, Harry Potter and Disney. Care Bears, Fairly Odd Parents and Strawberry Shortcake are expected to join those characters in the personal care department early next year.

Licenses are sure sweet for another company — Lotta Luv. Lotta Luv, which markets cosmetics in packages based on popular candy such as Tootsie Roll, Blow Pops, Charms and Junior Mints, is getting sweet distribution. Walgreens, Claire’s, CVS and Limited, Too, are among the companies putting large racks of the delectable cosmetics on display. Walgreens in particular has a huge commitment with 176 items merchandised. Even uptown’s tasty Dylan’s Candy Bar is planning a revolving display of Lotta Luv’s beauty items, according to Steph Fogelson, Lotta Luv’s president, who also hopes to expand the concept into bath and body.

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