Category review: Rub-a-dub-dub, PL is in the tub

March 28, 2012
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As the cold and icy weather of winter approaches, nothing is more inviting than the idea of kicking back and luxuriating in a warm tub of soapy bubbles.

Private label bath and body suppliers are showering the market with new offerings

As the cold and icy weather of winter approaches, nothing is more inviting than the idea of kicking back and luxuriating in a warm tub of soapy bubbles. Walk through any high-end department store and the salespeople perpetuate this fantasy as harried shoppers bustle to and fro. But if there’s anything that can pop the bubbles in your bath into reality, it’s the sticker shock that often comes along with such dreams.
The ups and downs of the economy in recent years has consumers pulling back the reins on spending, and while they are willing to sacrifice pricy luxury items, they’re not willing to sacrifice the luxury itself.
Enter private label-in the world of bath and body products, private label manufacturers are vigorously trying to soap up sales. At the height of the recession, consumers turned a price-conscious eye to private label products, and finding little or no difference between private label and their beloved brand names, save for price of course, they’ve stuck with them since.
“Affordable indulgences are still popular in light of the economy,” said Barbara Devine, director of marketing for Winooski, Vt.-based Twincraft Soap. Having a personal care product line has been a popular move among retailers, though Devine said they encourage retailers to go beyond simply offering a national brand equivalent and launching a national brand better.
“Time and again consumers have shown they will play a little extra if they feel a product is a quality product that works,” she said.
While customer confidence in private label bath and body products is up, the dollars are down. For 52 weeks ending October 2, 2011, sales of private label soap were down 6.3 percent, according to Chicago-based SymphonyIRI data. Private label bath fragrances and bubble bath, while owning 20 percent of the market, was down 12.8 percent in sales.
The bath products category as a whole topped $60 million in sales for the same time period, which means private label products have plenty of room to sniff out new ways to grow their customer reach as well as their dollar sales.
To drive sales, private label manufacturers and retailers have to hit it on the nose when it comes to trends. Natural and organic products, for example, remain in the consumers’ line of sight-what were once seen as high-end products available at glossy department store counters are now crossing over into more mainstream channels of distribution.
“Many large drugstore chains desire or already have cutting-edge skin care, bath and body product lines,” said Ellen Manger, head of marketing for Premier Brands, Mount Vernon, N.Y. “This is a natural extension of their offerings.”
But just because the products are on the shelves doesn’t mean consumers are going to pick them up. No matter what the price, consumers want to make sure the product is worth pulling out their wallet.
Said Devine, “consumers want assurance the product will actually work. It is not enough to simply add a natural ingredient, there has to be evidence that the ingredient actually works.”
Devine also noted that in addition to naturally derived ingredients, there is an increased interest in sustainably harvested and fair trade ingredients.
“Consumers are showing greater interest in where the ingredients in their products originate, and whether the environment was harmed in any way while harvesting a product,” Devine said.
Toronto, Canada-based Scents Alive has seen a softening in sales when it comes to private label bath and body products, but, explained Laura Sinclair, partner and sales director for the company, growth is expected, particularly from new, natural products hitting the market.
“We are seeing interest in product families with specialty actives like argan oil and nourishing extracts,” Sinclair said.
Unique and value-added products are what consumers are looking for, and private label is certainly capable of delivering. Products that provide unique exfoliants like crushed walnuts, orange peel or vanilla bean stand out among the crowd on the shelf, and with an on-average 25 percent price differential, private label is poised to stand out against the national brands.
Products that feature multiple benefits are also still popular, Devine noted. “People want to feel like they are getting value for their money, so a bar of soap that you can use on your body, your hair and to shave is a great value,” she said. But only, of course, “as long as it’s a positive experience.”
Boosting sales of bath and body has not only got to come from tapping trends, but also engaging the eye. Though it may cost a little bit extra, the additional effort “spent on graphics that pop and subtle details in packaging pay off to make private label competitive against national brands,” Sinclair said. “It will be worth it in the end to give eye appeal and ensure that the SKU gets the attention it deserves on the shelf.” By elevating the look of their products, more share goes into private label’s tub than the national brand’s.
As natural and organic products are on trend, what’s inside the bottle follows through to what’s outside the bottle, too. Devine noted that customers are asking for recycled paper wraps, compostable cartons and wraps and simply using less packaging overall.
Natural, organic, sustainable and scented-put them all together and private label bath and body products are sure to bubble up their sales.

Eye on the national brands

Taking a quick look at the local drugstore’s shelves, it may seem like every product comes courtesy of the branding behemoth that is Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever.
Axe body sprays, Noxema, Lever 2000, Suave and Vaseline-just to name a few-are all familiar names under the Unilever umbrella, and while private label bath and body products struggle to keep pace with the national brands, Unilever and its plentitude of products are trotting along. In the third quarter of 2011, according to a company press release, Unilever’s personal care products division saw 11.3 percent underlying sales growth.
If not made by Unilever, chances are that shampoo you lather up with every morning came from Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble. Over the last year, P&G launched multiple new products that set trends for the rest of the personal care industry to follow. Oil of Olay Body Care Collections’ scents and names like “luscious embrace” and “silk whimsy” entice consumers while Secret’s natural mineral collection of deodorants/antiperspirants speaks to the natural and organic trend permeating every category.
While these two giants have a stronghold on bath and body products, private label is not throwing in the towel, and watching the national brands to become not only like them, but better than them, will prove a viable move in gaining more market and dollar share.

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