Natural Foods Merchandiser

Go with the flow: How to tap into the natural feminine care market

Shopping for feminine-hygiene products usually goes something like this: Select the product. Buy it. Get the heck out. Repeat monthly. And although industry analysts say the huge number of recently postmenopausal baby boomers has slightly softened the market, U.S. feminine-hygiene sales hover around $2 billion per year, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel.

The average woman will have 400 periods between ages 13 and 50, so it’s not surprising that convenience and cost reign supreme. However, growing concern about the environmental and health impacts of regular tampon and maxipad use is creating an opportunity for natural, eco-friendlier options—and the retailers selling them.

You’re going to put that where?
Conventional tampons comprise a mixture of cotton and rayon made from cellulose fibers. Until the late 1990s, the chlorine-laden process used to bleach tampons produced tiny amounts of dioxin, a carcinogenic chemical deemed “highly toxic” by the World Health Organization. These days, the presence of dioxin in tampons is virtually nil because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now requires tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels. But personal-hygiene manufacturers such as Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation, which offers chlorine-free, organic-cotton tampons, maxipads and pantyliners, ask why take the risk?

“It’s about taking the precautionary principle in everything we do,” says John Murphy, senior vice president of sales for Seventh Generation. “If you can whiten without chlorine and it’s cost and environmentally effective, why not take that approach?” Furthermore, the risk of contracting toxic shock syndrome, a dangerous bacterial infection associated with tampon use, decreases with 100 percent–cotton tampons.

Menstrual cups are another TSS-free option. Harnessing an 80-year-old concept, DivaCup, which is based in Ontario, Canada, makes a line of medical-grade-silicon cups that capture flow internally and can be worn for up to 12 hours. By preserving the natural moisture in the vaginal cavity, menstrual cups avoid the dryness and ulceration—key factors in TSS—that can occur with tampons. The initial investment is $40, but cups are reusable for up to a year. Plus, consumers may find that reusable options, such as DivaCup or washable pads from Portland, Ore.-based GladRags, are easier in the long run because they eliminate the need to constantly run to the store.

Tampons and pads also carry an astronomical environmental toll. The average woman uses 11,000 tampons throughout her lifetime and many of the used materials end up in waterways and the ocean. Although organic cotton’s benefits are wide reaching, even applicator-free tampons don’t address the issue of all those cotton plugs. So far, the most promising no-waste alternatives on the market include menstrual cups and reusable sea-sponge tampons, from the likes of Jade and Pearl—a feminine hygiene company based in Hawthorne, Fla.

Unplugged potential
U.S. consumer sales of natural and organic feminine hygiene in 2008 were $100 million, up 15 percent from the previous year.

“Because feminine care appears to be more of an afterthought, it’s not getting the productivity that it might otherwise,” says Seventh Generation’s Murphy. Mintel’s report shows that 64 percent of women say they’ll try new tampon brands or types and notes that feminine-hygiene sales through convenience stores were surpassing those of supermarkets, partly because such stores place the products front and center. Aside from displaying tampons, pads and cups in an easy-to-see location, maximizing the category’s potential requires a multipronged approach.

First, take advantage of the educational materials provided by manufacturers. Shelf talkers go a long way toward convincing a customer to try a new product. And who says you can’t sample feminine care? In July, Seventh Generation rolled out a sampling program in which consumers received three tampons, information and an incentive coupon.

Second, combat the “gross” response reusable products often generate by encouraging female staff members to try the products you carry. Sharing a positive personal experience allows the customer to envision herself using the product. Still, items such as reusable pads and menstrual cups are probably going to appeal most to your core naturals consumer. Some customers may feel more comfortable with natural and organic pads and tampons without applicators. Meanwhile others who want the closest-to-conventional experience available will be drawn to natural tampons with applicators. Stocking a range of items will keep you covered.

“This is the ultimate category of habit—most buy what their moms purchased,” says Murphy. “But women are looking for options that are more healthful. You can become that trusted source. Then you’ve got a long-term customer relationship and revenue opportunity to look forward to.”

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