There's no question that personal care sales are alive and well. Continuing the upward trend of previous years, natural health and beauty aids sales were $249 million for the year ending in February, up 13.9 percent from the previous year, according to SPINS scan data. With strong sales, many retailers are devoting more space to personal care, but the best way to merchandise those products is up for debate.
Traditionally, natural products stores' HABA sections consist of a sampling of available brands, shelved by category. Cruise the body lotion aisle in most larger naturals stores and you'll find about 20 brands side by side.
But many manufacturers want to see a more upscale, department store-style merchandising approach to personal care, where retailers carry entire lines in a block. The extra shelf space this takes results in the exclusion of many brands.
Some retailers argue that variety is what naturals' shoppers want, and that category merchandising is easier. Others are rethinking their HABA sections and trying new marketing formulas.
The Chevy Of Personal Care
One needs only to look to department stores to see successful marketing, said Curt Valva, general manager of Tampa, Fla.-based Aubrey Organics. "About 20 years ago there was a big shakeup in department stores about whether to put all the jeans on one rack or [sort them by] one brand—and they learned that it works better to display by brand, and this goes for cosmetics as well. I think merchandising personal care in this industry is about 20 years behind."
Valva argues that line branding is convenient and leads to multiple sales. "When products are in systems, the shopper doesn't have to bounce around the aisles, and if they're buying cleanser, they'll get other products to go with it at the same time."
Blocked lines also build brand loyalty and confidence, Valva said. "If consumers are familiar with your brand, they're more apt to try a new product, sort of like someone who has had Chevrolets for years—that consumer will be more willing to buy a product made by Chevy."
Susan Griffin-Black, chief executive officer for EO in Corte Madera, Calif., also advocates carrying fewer lines and believes the sheer number of brands lining natural products store shelves is confusing for consumers. "I've thought for a long time that Whole Foods and better natural foods stores have been over-assorted. I think people want less assortment and clear directions from stores—'We've culled the market and these are the best products'—instead of having every price point and zillions of vendors."
Smaller Manufacturers On The Block
Manufacturers of small and gift lines are also proponents of branding lines. "It makes a huge difference for small boutique lines," said Belinda Rush-Carville, owner of V-Tae in Nevada City, Calif. "We don't have the advertising or name-brand recognition of the larger brands, and when a customer can walk in and see the product grouped together, the impact is much greater."
She also said sales decline when V-Tae's scent-based lines are spread out in different sections. "The consumer wants Rain Blossom in a mist, in a bubble bath, in a lotion—and without having to search."
Rush-Carville said although she's happy that some retailers are blocking lines, she is upset that it is often to the exclusion of the little guys. "To me it's a tragedy. Health food stores are supposed to stand for something, [but they're] following the same old corporate template. It's like eliminating the small farmer."
Anne Dolbeau, co-founder of Lake Bluff, Ill.-based Inara, suggests more retailers build gift sections into the HABA department. "We do great [in gift sections]," she said. "More retailers should put gifty-looking products together and change them monthly—tell a different story."
Dolbeau said her company has pulled out of most natural products stores largely because of marketing. "I think the best thing about merchandising is telling stories, and until recently natural products stores have not been too good at it. They just throw product up on the shelf and hope it sells."
She points out that manufacturers must also bear some of the onus of merchandising. "Packaging is just as important for merchandising, something this industry hasn't realized until recently. As packaging gets better, there'll be a natural evolution to brand the lines."
Retailers Not So Sure
Although it's clear that manufacturers want to see a dramatic shift in HABA marketing, retailers are divided on the issue.
"It's not possible to group all the lines together; it's too much work," said Sherry Ponder, personal care buyer for Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville, Ark., where HABA sales have more than doubled in the past three years. "If I want to bring in something new, I have to do a total reset; if I want to phase something out, then there's a hole."
Robin Enright, HABA manager for Co-Opportunity in Santa Monica, Calif., also shuns the idea of blocking lines. "Consumers like variety. You would have a nightmare trying to put all the lines together, and if we carried only several lines, we wouldn't get any customers in here," she said.
Enright believes manufacturers want to see blocked lines simply to sell more of their own product. "[Manufacturers] want their products that we don't carry back on the shelf and hope that they sell in [their blocked line]."
Branding lines would not work for larger personal care sections, said Elizabeth Woods, HBC category buyer for Asheville, N.C.-based Earthfare, a six-store chain with five to seven aisles of personal care in each store. "Great customer service is really to be categorized, where you can say, 'Here's your hair care, here's your facial care,' " she said. "I can't imagine going up and down all the aisles trying to show them everything. We would lose their attention."
What Woods would like to see is bigger hands-on areas with department store-style glass counters and stools where customers can try higher-end products.
Learning From Spas, Department Stores
Some retailers, though, are rethinking how to market their personal care sections and are considering blocking lines. "We have an opportunity here to take a lesson from the department stores and make it much more consumer friendly," said Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats Markets Inc., based in Boulder, Colo. Personal care is the highest-margin category for Wild Oats, accounting for 19 percent of total sales.
The company is planning on revamping its stores' HABA sections this summer into a store-within-a-store natural living section. How the remodel will affect merchandising is not yet clear, but reducing SKUs is on the agenda. Tuitele envisions user-friendly cosmetic counters, lower- profile shelving and inviting signage.
"[Personal care] is underserved by many retailers in our industry," she said. "It requires a lot of education and customer service, but we see it as an opportunity."
The integrative pharmacy chain Pharmaca, based in Boulder, Colo., has made blocked lines its trademark in personal care. "We see ourselves as the trusted editors. We have preselected products that we think will sell and perform," said JoAn Isfenman, HABA category manager.
Isfenman and co-HABA Category Manager Chrystal Earringer look to spas and salons for merchandising inspiration. "In those industries, it's a rule of thumb to block by lines. A lot of research has been done that shows that when you put everything together, it enhances the sale of every item," Earringer said.
And Pharmaca doesn't just block the big guys' lines. The stores' shelves have plenty of space devoted to small, little-known manufacturers such as Sanitas and Modern Organic Products. "These are lines we really think a lot of; we've put our whole personality and staff behind them. They may not be seen in other stores but they deserve the space," Isfenman said. "We're building brand loyalty, even with unknown brands."
It's clear there are many distinct ideas about the best way to market personal care. And as HABA sales continue to grow, there's no doubt that retailers will be giving more thought to the issue. Whether or not the department store-style approach to marketing will make its way into naturals stores remains the unanswered question.