Oral Care

September 17, 2010
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More Grimaces Than Grins


Oral care product sales are a bit achy this year but private label continues to shine in some niches. You know times are tough when people decide to hold onto their toothbrushes for longer than they normally would instead of replacing them with new ones. That’s exactly what analysts and oral care product suppliers say has been happening in the past year. As a result, sales of oral care products declined just under 1 percent in 2009, according to a May 2010 Euromonitor International report on the sector. London-based research firm Mintel International, in a June 2010 report on the category, projects U.S. oral care product sales to increase less than 1 percent this year to slightly more than $3.4 billion. “The oral care category has endured three years of essentially no growth as many oral care consumers have trimmed back on category expenditures,” Mintel reports. “Three in 10 [consumers] claim to have taken some kind of action, such as switching brands or replacing toothbrushes less often, in the last year to save money on their oral care routine.” But while people may be more reticent to buy a new toothbrush, they are buying products that whitened their teeth because those are viewed as cheaper alternatives to going to dentists for whitening procedures. “Oral care just stays whitening, whitening, whitening,” says Arnold Margolis, director of sales at Centerbrook, Conn.-based Tower Laboratories which makes denture care products. “Everybody wants whiter teeth [because] everybody wants to feel good” in tough times, he says. Consumers searching for whitening products are turning to private label whitening offerings as the quality of those has improved, category watchers say. Sales of private label tooth bleaching and whitening toothpastes rose 8.5 percent to $24.6 million in the 52 weeks ended July 11, according to data collected by SymphonyIRI, Chicago. The data covers sales at supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers but not at Walmart. Private label manual toothbrush sales rose by 4.7 percent in the period to $67.3 million. Private label’s share and dollar sales in the toothbrush subcategory rose in the 52 weeks ended July 11, showing that when people are finally buying new toothbrushes, they’re being attracted by private label multipacks that can retail for 30 percent less than national brand competitors. National brands have tried introducing a variety of new toothbrush features in recent years (see box, right) but also have been raising prices and, in so doing, may have reached levels consumers don’t want to pay, argues Tony Clark, vice president of sales at Andover, Md.-based Dentacare Industries. “We feel like the consumer has hit a ceiling. They’re saying ‘I’m not going to pay $5 for a toothbrush anymore.’”

FORCED SMILES Consumers seem to be saying no to quite a few oral care category offerings, sales data for the 52 weeks ended July 11 show. Dollar sales are down compared to the same period last year in mouthwash, oral pain relief, portable oral care, power toothbrushes and private label toothpaste (see table, page 35). “From a standpoint of innovative products [in oral care], we’re not seeing a whole lot of innovation right now. It’s a combination of the economy and recent innovative products haven’t worked extremely well,” says Joel Warady, principal with the Warady Group, an Evanston, Ill. consulting firm. The Colgate Wisp, a disposable mini-toothbrush, is the most noted innovative product in the category in recent years but it has not seen a great deal of repeat purchase and so has not spawned an army of imitators, Warady says. Nanotechnology, which when used in mouthwashes allegedly reduces plaque build-up on teeth, has been circulating in oral care circles for three years now but has yet to burst into the American oral care aisle in any major way.

One innovative idea that does seem to be catching on is remineralization which can rebuild enamel on teeth. AT THE STORE Most oral care products are sold in supermarkets yet it’s been the major drugstore chains that have been the most innovative when it comes to expanding their private label oral care offerings and their oral care sections, consultants agree. As a result, “We have seen a slight decline in grocery store share of the oral care market last year [down 1.2 percent]. We’re seeing drug stores playing a more prominent role,” says Molly Heyl-Rushmer, senior analyst, health and wellness, with Mintel. Looking at who has been most innovative with oral care products since 2005, Mintel ranked CVS third behind national brand giants Proctor & Gamble and Colgate. Walgreen’s ranked ninth. “CVS looks at niche products and where there aren’t brand leaders, it sells its own,” explains Warady of CVS’ private label oral care strategy. “They’ve really moved a lot of their oral care to private label.” Private label’s share of CVS’ oral care sales is 30-35 percent, he estimates. Some of the innovative products CVS has tried include an ultraviolet toothbrush sanitizer and a private label disposable toothbrush to go up against Colgate’s Wisp. Supermarkets should be doing more to sell their private label oral care offerings, Warady contends. “There’s no question that mom is the one who is buying toothbrushes, toothpaste and mouthwash. The supermarket lends itself to satisfy those needs. I still don’t think supermarkets are taking advantage of that opportunity,” he says.

KEEP IT BRIGHT Packaging is increasingly being used to grab consumers’ attention in the oral care aisle and, hopefully, get them to buy. Colors for toothbrush multipacks and for toothbrushes themselves have become brighter in an effort to make them stand out on the shelves, says Jeremy Thomas, director of business development with OraTech, Riverton, Utah. “People are trying to become more innovative in their packaging,” Thomas says. That can mean using clamshell packaging rather than more mundane square boxes for whitening products, he says. Private label will continue to try to grab away oral care customers. Watch for scented toothbrush handles and stronger whitening products in the coming months. PLB

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