MASS MARKETERS CATCH A WHIFF OF POTENTIAL

Byline: Faye Brookman

NEW YORK — After merely dabbling in aromatherapy for the last several years, discount and drugstore retailers are now looking for the category to become a major factor in the beauty business.
In fact, many see aromatherapy as the savior they need to spark a stagnant bath business — especially with fragrance powerhouse Coty getting involved with an upcoming introduction called Healing Garden (see related story, page 5).
“It could be a category where the time has come to see sales growth,” said Penny Hall, category manager for Harco Drug.
Although she hasn’t yet stocked any aromatherapy-based items, she’s heard enough success stories from other chains to whet her appetite.
Among those buoyant about aromatherapy and looking for more entries is Mary Prince, division vice president of merchandising for Kmart. The chain sells a handful of single items as well as a full aromatherapy line called Terra Naturals.
“We think it is a category with potential, and we’re anticipating more products,” said Prince.
Sally Yanke, buyer for Medic Drug in Cleveland, believes aromatherapy is already injecting new life into the bath business.
“The category had a great deal of sameness with all of the shower gels. The aromatherapy candles are making bath viable and exciting again,” Yanke said.
The bath business could use a jolt. According to statistics from Information Resources Inc., sales of bath products declined 9 percent to $167 million in drug, food and discount stores for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 29.
Some sources think the advent of aromatherapy could restore the double-digit gains the category enjoyed in the early Nineties.
Aromatherapy is not a new concept — department and health food stores have been selling scented massage oils and candles for several years. What is new, mass market buyers said, is a more educated mass customer who has been experimenting with bath products, as well as the ongoing improvement in aromatherapy selection in mass market doors.
“You can be standing in Target and not know you are in a discount store. You might think you’re in Macy’s,” said Alida Stevens, president of Sinclair & Valentine. “Also, we’re seeing more people informed about aromatherapy through women’s magazines.”
Stevens feels she has the background to gauge the category’s potential. Sinclair & Valentine started shipping several aromatherapy-based bath products to mass retailers four years ago.
“We were ahead of the curve and many of the items just didn’t move,” Stevens admitted. “Now, many of those same retailers are coming back to us and saying it is time to try again, especially with Christmas products.”
Sinclair & Valentine has repackaged and repositioned its products, she said, to make it more in tune with updated mass market tastes. For example, there is a greater emphasis on simplified formats such as bath salts.
Paul Dembow, vice president of marketing for Arizona Natural Resources, agreed that the mass market is awakening to aromatherapy. The key, he said, is to make sure the packaging conveys what he called the “therapeutic benefits” of the products.
Arizona Natural’s candles, for example, are labeled with claims that they can deliver a result such as increased energy, or remedy a problem like stress.
“Without someone trained to sell aromatherapy, you have to rely on the package,” Dembow said.
Some sources believe the full flowering of aromatherapy is still a few years away for the mass market.
“You still don’t really have the sophisticated customer for a true aromatherapy item,” said Mark Kaplan, president of Sarah Michaels, a leading bath line.
Instead, he believes there is a place in mass outlets for “personal indulgences” integrating aromatherapy concepts, such as scented candles.
“We do well with our candles, but we no longer offer a lightbulb diffuser for fragrances that we used to have on a regular basis because it just didn’t sell. It is too hard to explain that concept at mass,” he reasoned.
The rush to build aromatherapy in mass outlets could have a downside if retailers aren’t careful about what items they select, cautioned Greg O’Daniel, director of operations for Kneipp Corp. of America, based in West Hazelton, Pa.
The danger is that the term “aromatherapy” could be used in conjunction with products that don’t actually deliver therapeutic benefits or don’t have a significant concentration of essential oils, he said.
Still, O’Daniel noted, customers who have come to appreciate the benefits of taking baths are ready to seek the advantages of therapeutic bath products.
To encourage sampling, Kneipp recently created a collection of four 0.6-oz. single-use bath bottles of different flavors that are packaged together and sold for $8.99.
“This is very good for introducing people and then trading them up to a full 100-ml. bottle for $13,” O’Daniel said.
By offering a wider variety of bath items, including aromatherapy, O’Daniel said retailers can eliminate the monotony plaguing the department.
“There’s so much duplication among body washes and fragranced bath products. Offering therapeutic products can serve those shoppers who want a true therapeutic line,” he said.
He cited an Acme unit in Voorhees, N.J., where the chain has gone so far as to install a claw-foot bathtub in the bath area to help set the tone for its upscale bath and aromatherapy brands.
Another possible obstacle is that finding a merchandising home for aromatherapy can be a challenge for retailers attempting to carve out a bigger business. Some space may have to be taken away from the bath array.
Said Medic Drug’s Yanke, “What we’re trying to do is have it as the bridge between cosmetics and toiletries,” which encompasses the bath department.
Most buyers agreed that aromatherapy needs to be situated near bath, but not near commodity bath products such as bar soaps.
“Mass merchants are even selling aromatherapy candles in the candle department,” said Dembrow.
In all, the vendors are welcoming the new attention to the category. They’re even sanguine about the pending invasion by Coty.
“I’m glad they are entering the market,” said Stevens at Smith & Valentine. “They’ll spend the money to educate customers, and we know they’ll bring out a quality product. It will build business for everyone.”

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