The market for personal care products remained steady in 2001 thanks to a number of new product introductions that caught the attention of both mainstream and natural products shoppers. Retailers and distributors saw the strongest sales from these emerging products, especially those featuring unusual ingredients in their formulations, and from nutraceuticals.
Christy Lopez, health and beauty buyer for Tree of Life West in Hayward, Calif., sees continued solid sales for several items introduced in the past few years. "There are certain items that are definitely hot right now," Lopez says.
In some cases, wider media exposure brought in product-specific shoppers who might not normally frequent the personal care aisles of natural products stores.
"Progesterone creams and other menopause-related items have sold well, so have DMAE [dimethyl-amino-ethanol] creams, Ester-C creams and supplements. These items have actually been on The Oprah [Winfrey] Show a couple of times, and there's a lot of radio and television advertising for natural relief [of menopausal symptoms]," Lopez says.
Lopez also sees a continued trend toward the use of organic ingredients in personal care products, especially staples such as shampoos, soaps and conditioners. She mentions strong sales in particular for Avalon Organic Botanicals and Nature's Gate organic lines. "I think interest [in organics] will continue to grow," she says. "More people are looking for healthier, more natural alternatives for products they use daily."
She also notes more interest in vitamin E oils, at least in the West Coast region to which she distributes. People are interested in its nutritive benefits for the skin, as well as specific applications to diminish scar tissue and stretch marks, she says.
Tai Henks, supplements buyer for Staff of Life in Santa Cruz, Calif., sees a similar trend. "In personal care, the nutraceutical creams are hot," he says. "People are interested in products with alpha-lipoic acids and Ester-C, largely due to The New York Times best-seller The Wrinkle Cure (Warner Books, 2001). Soon after that book came out, we had a dozen people a day in here who probably wouldn't have made it in for any other reason."
Henks mentions other new products that have caught his attention in the past year, including a wrinkle serum and a skin healer with an aloe vera base. He says progesterone creams have reached a plateau in his store, though sales remain strong. In general, innovative products with new ingredients are the hottest things on Staff of Life's shelves.
"Functional cosmetics are being taken to a new level," Henks says. "I think this trend will continue, and I expect to see the larger cosmetics manufacturers start to incorporate some of these ingredients."
Mike Thompson, purchasing manager at Tucson Cooperative Warehouse, a distributor based in Tucson, Ariz., that primarily serves co-ops, is less optimistic. "I haven't really seen anything jump out as an exciting new product," he says. The warehouse, he says, is looking to reduce the number of SKUs it stocks because of "duplication and redundancy" in the personal care market.
With so many companies jumping on the bandwagon, he says it's tough to stand out with a unique product. However, Thompson does see innovation in certain categories, including dental care products. "There are a lot more products on the market in dental care," he says. "I noticed that Jason just came out with a Co-Q10 toothpaste and mouthwash and claims to be the only one who has that."
"Progesterone creams are also a very strong category for us," he says. "That has a lot to do with our target markets, where the clientele is typically a middle-aged female."
For companies introducing new products, one of the biggest challenges continues to be education, both for retailers and for customers. Of course, it helps immensely to have high-profile media coverage, but many manufacturers and distributors get the word out the old-fashioned way—by meeting face-to-face with retailers and explaining why a product works and how it's different from other products on the shelves.
One example of this approach comes from Associated International Marketing, a Texas-based firm that specializes in skin care formulations featuring emu oil extracted from the large flightless birds. Bobby Pixley, the company's chief financial officer, says that education has played a vital role in getting word out about its products.
The formulators intend the oil to be used for chronic dry skin conditions, including childhood eczema. The elderly are also key consumers, Pixley says. "We're really focused on a target area, including diabetics, people on dialysis and the bedridden because these people need their skin [deeply] nourished."
Pixley says sales have taken off since the company began sending brokers to educate retailers and explain the product's benefits. "The stores are now selling two to three times as much product as before," she says, "and we're recruiting more brokers to do one-on-one education."
The education effort seems to be working. Karen London, a supplements buyer at PCC Natural Market in Bellevue, Wash., says that among their lotions, "Emu oil is a big one. I can't tell you where the information is coming from; I don't know that they do any advertising, but it just leaves the shelves." London began by stocking pure emu oil and has expanded to include lotions, soaps and even emu oil soft gels.
Thus, one of the challenges facing retailers who wish to expand their customer base is getting these product-specific shoppers to try other offerings in the personal care department and other parts of the store.
Though some of these hot, new personal care products have soared in popularity because of media exposure, other established products continue to sell well to long-time natural products buyers. Distributors mentioned Avalon Organic Botanicals, Dr. Bronner's soaps, Nature's Gate shampoos and conditioners, Mountain Ocean Skin Trip lotion and Tom's of Maine toothpaste as perennially solid sellers. These are likely to be bankable performers in the future, but it seems that growth in the personal care category will continue to come from innovative new products with cutting-edge ingredients.
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 6/p. 42, 44