Unless they were raised in a household that commonly kept flaxseeds and organic yogurt in the fridge, most of your customers probably made a conscious decision to start buying natural products at one point in their lives. Why? Most likely, during their quest for an improved lifestyle, they realized they could buy almost everything they found at a conventional store in a much healthier form at your store. But here's the rub: almost everything.
Blame it on misinformation or product loyalty, but for certain products, your shoppers are venturing out of your sunny aisles and back into the fluorescent gloom of conventional grocery stores. But it's getting easier to keep customers loyal to your store in one category that usually sends them looking elsewhere: feminine care.
Financially, feminine care is nothing to dismiss, especially since it represents $1.5 billion in sales each year, according to a March 2005 ACNielsen report. Sales for natural feminine care products have been consistently underdeveloped, however, according to Courtney Loveman, brand manager at Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation, which has a line of organic, chlorine-free feminine products. But Loveman believes the feminine care market is ready to absorb many more natural product sales in the near future.
It seems paradoxical that natural foods shoppers would choose to buy conventional feminine care—a very personal product decision—even when they clearly know buying organic and natural is healthier for them. "What most women complain about when it comes to natural feminine care is that there aren't enough options, and they're not getting the selection they would with conventional products," Loveman says. Though women may have been right about the lack of variety in the past, recently, the natural feminine category has expanded, and it's continuing to grow. "What we want to do is grow the category so women have increased options, so [they] won't have to sacrifice performance to satisfy their personal, environmental and health interests," says Loveman.
And health interests are a concern, or at least they should be. Many conventional feminine products are made with synthetic materials linked to toxic shock syndrome, a dangerous illness that can, in the worst cases, result in death. TSS became an issue almost 30 years ago, when feminine hygiene companies, responding to women's demands for a more absorbent product, replaced the cotton in their tampons and maxi pads with synthetic materials, like polyester chips and carboxymethylcellulose, or CMC. "In the early '80s and late '70s, there was not one tampon on the market that did not contain a synthetic ingredient," says Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., chief of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center and an expert on tampon safety issues.
Soon after these new materials were introduced, TSS started affecting women around the country. According to Tierno, four substances found in the tampons were linked to TSS: polyacrylic rayon, polyester, CMC and viscose rayon. "These substances created a different physical-chemical environment for the [TSS-causing bacteria Staphylococcus aureus] to grow and create its toxin, big time," he says. In 1985, Tierno and his colleagues were successful in getting three-quarters of the harmful ingredients taken off the market. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still permits the use of viscose rayon in tampons and pads, and manufacturers continue to use it to this day.
What's more, Tierno has noticed a recent upsurge in TSS cases in the last couple of years, which he believes to be partly caused by a faulty FDA policy. In 1999, the FDA approved a new category of tampon called "ultra" that could absorb up to 18 grams of fluid. At the same time, the organization agreed that it was safe for women to wear tampons overnight, and allowed manufactures to advertise this on their packaging. "Both of these situations will compound a woman's risk of getting TSS, especially if she's using a viscous rayon tampon," says Tierno. And finally, researchers at the University of Minnesota have found there is a difference in the strains of recent TSS cases. The new strain is "more toxic," according to Tierno.
Thankfully, some good news arises out of all the doom and gloom—news that will hopefully get your customers to stick around when looking for feminine care. According to Tierno, there have been no cases of TSS with 100 percent cotton tampons, and "organic cotton products are even better. The synthetic materials in feminine products created a new environment and condition in the vagina that did not and cannot occur with cotton," he says.
Moreover, natural feminine care products are healthier on other fronts as well. Seventh Generation makes all of its products with organic, chlorine-free cotton, shunning the bleaching process most conventional feminine care undergoes. "Bleaching is purely an aesthetic procedure," says company spokeswoman Chrystie Heimert. "When chlorine bleach is produced, it releases a dioxin into the environment that is a potential toxin to anything it comes in contact with, including your skin."
Susie Hewson, president of Bristol, England-based Natracare, which has been producing certified organic cotton feminine hygiene products since 1989, agrees that natural feminine care is a healthier choice for women's needs. "Gynecologists have determined that there is a significant number of women who develop allergic feminine irritation as a result of using synthetically loaded conventional feminine hygiene products," she says. Natracare's products are made without toxic chlorine bleaches, synthetic materials, dyes, perfumes and plastics, and are more than 98 percent biodegradable, according to Hewson.
But just because a natural version of a conventional product is better for you, doesn't mean it's more effective. In the case of natural feminine care, however, consumers need not worry. "Natracare tampons conform to FDA absorbency ranges, so they are equal in effectiveness to conventional brands because gram for gram, they absorb within the same range as conventional tampons," Hewson says. Some natural pads are not as absorbent as their conventional counterparts, but that level of absorbency comes at a price. "The widespread and excessive use of polyacrylates to achieve the extraordinary high absorbency levels of conventionally produced pads and liners means that [this high] absorbency cannot be attained in natural pads and liners," Hewson says. "This does not mean that Natracare pads are not effective or are in any way inadequate for menstruation. Conventional pads and liners are merely excessively over-specified."
And if Natracare's sales are any indicator, women are already starting to get the picture. The company has seen an increase in revenue of 20 percent per year for the past several years, according to Nancy Ekberg, head of operations at Natracare's North American branch based in Aurora, Colo. In fact, Ekberg also asserts, "According to the latest SPINS [market research] data, the natural feminine care products category is increasing at a rate of 12 to 14 percent per year."
Using past experience as a reliable gauge, Heimert agrees that feminine care is one of the next big categories for natural products retailers. Seventh Generation recently launched a line of natural and organic diaper products, which Heimert says "has resulted in three-fold growth in the category since it was introduced." She believes the same opportunity is available for the feminine care category. "This is a consumer that is interested in her own health and the health of the environment; it's the same consumer that we catered to in the diaper category," she says.
To tap into the feminine care goldmine, Hewson believes in making a woman's trip for monthly supplies as appealing as possible. "Make your store and the area where the feminine hygiene is stocked attractive.
Don't put it on the bottom shelf with the cleaning liquids, or hide it away in a corner," she says. Also, it's important to make consumers aware of the options available to them in this category. "Retailers need to understand that this is an opportunity to transition consumers out of the perimeter of the store. One of the things we hope to do is create off-shelf displays at alternate points in the store to get the consumer's attention. We're trying to build a really large educational component … so it's not all put upon retailers to do that," Heimert says. Seventh Generation's feminine care promotion includes a Web site dedicated to the subject.
It seems the time is right to bring feminine care into a more visible—and lucrative—light. "There's a lot of room for discussion and education around this product category," Heimert says. "There's a niche to fill."
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 7/p. 32, 36