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The Game's Afoot!

August 17, 2009
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With more and more consumers out of work and without healthcare, self-treatment for less-serious injuries is gaining in popularity. Gone are the days when it was easy to visit one’s doctor for a minor foot ailment - consumers now are getting their foot care needs from their local supermarkets and drugstores.

Data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI) show that in the 52 weeks ending May 17, unit sales for the overall foot care category were down 2.7 percent, while dollar sales for the overall category were up 7.1 percent. On the other hand, private label foot care unit and dollar sales rose 0.3 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively.

“We are seeing a big move towards store brand in the foot care category,” says Steve Corsun, president of Mount Vernon, N.Y.-based Premier Brands of America. “It’s our belief that many consumers will not go back to branded when the economy rebounds because they will be satisfied with the quality of [the] store brand.”

But it’s not safe to assume consumers will stick with less expensive private brands once the economy bounces back. Mike Engles, vice president of sales and marketing at Plano, Texas-based Miller’s Forge, says that assumption is a trap in which retailers can fall way too easily.

“To keep gains and continue the growth, manufacturers need to continue developing innovative, top-notch, quality products,” he believes. “The days of simply waiting for the national brand to introduce a product and then copying it are long gone.”

Much opportunity exists for retailers to innovate in the foot care category with their own brands. According to the Global New Products Database (GNPD) from Mintel International Group Ltd., Chicago, foot care is a small segment of the overall skincare category. Foot care products are seen as specialized, and oftentimes, they’re used only when one is experiencing foot problems. To boost category sales, GNPD recommends that brands promote their products as “ideal for everyday use.”

Engles says retailers also need to realize that the foot care category is becoming more of a beauty category. Therefore, they need to design and market their products as such.

“The category continues to morph into a beauty category from a ‘problem-preventative/problem-solving’ category,” Engles says. “As a result, the products that we have introduced and continue to introduce are more fashion-oriented.”

Engles says with foot care implements, retailers are carrying ergonomically shaped products that are brightly colored to catch consumers’ attention.

Arnold Weiner, vice president of sales at Allentown, Pa.-based Aetna Felt Corp., agrees that bright colors capture attention. “Graphics and backgrounds should be vibrant colors or metallic in order to grab the attention of the consumer,” he says. “Anything that is unique or different will get noticed.”

The 'Green' Watch

Unique products also can include products made from natural materials. Consumers are keeping their eyes open for “green” alternatives - and manufacturers are introducing more green-minded products.

For example, Premier now is offering a 1 percent tolnaftate antifungal foot spray with a continuous-spray feature that has an innovative bag-on-valve technology, which enables spraying in any direction - even upside down. The technology separates product and propellant, which means only pure product will be dispensed. And Corsun says this private label offering is an eco-friendly alternative to many national brands, which still use the traditional aerosol can for their foot sprays.

Weiner notes another eco-friendly innovation in the foot care industry by stating that the latest buzzword is “bamboo.”

“There are numerous products that can be made with bamboo,” Weiner says. “We [also] have bamboo charcoal, which is the next generation of bamboo.”

Bamboo charcoal, a microporous material with a strong absorption rate, recently has been getting lots of attention. Weiner goes on to name various products that can be made with bamboo charcoal: insoles, socks, shoe fresheners, heel socks with mineral oil for cracked heels and more.

Corsun also sees the proliferation of bamboo in the foot care market. He says Premier marketed the first eco-friendly bamboo insole with a cloth lining made of natural bamboo fibers. Since it’s made from bamboo, the lining is naturally anti-bacterial, which helps to prevent foot odors. To add to the product’s green profile, the product’s packaging is made from 100 percent recycled paperboard.

Packaging with Personality

Considering that private label foot care products are gaining ground against the national brands in terms of innovation, packaging also should be unique and reflective of the product inside. Engles believes it is a given that private brand packaging cannot be too plain and simple. It must meet or exceed the attractiveness of the national brands.

“The more important piece is that the private brand packaging must make its own statement rather than simply mimicking the national brand,” he says.

Weiner believes packaging offers the best opportunity for retailers to market their store brand foot care products.

“The packaging tells the story about the product,” he says. “You can call out all the advantages of your … product with the verbiage on the package.”

Weiner recommends drawing attention to the eco-minded benefits of the product by printing key words such as “biodegradable,” “sustainable” and “green” on packaging. He also believes all store brand foot care products should be merchandised at eye level, and the national brand should be merchandised below, since it’s natural for consumers to reach for products at eye level.

But even if you create flashy packaging and stick it on the shelf at eye level, some consumers still won’t notice it. That’s why it’s important to look at how the item is displayed.

“All packaging tells a story,” Weiner says. “However, the consumer doesn’t always read the package. [Retailers need to] think out of the box and have a separate section -be it [a] floor display or power wing - for professional podiatry-type items.”

Retailers also need to make sure they’re aggressively promoting their private brand foot care products through all avenues, including print media, radio, television, Web sites, social media and more. But Engels believes the most important aspect is how the retailer promotes its private brands as a whole. Each product under a retailer’s brand has to live up to the name on its packaging - the retailer’s name.

“It only takes one inferior product to lose a private brands convert,” Engles says. He adds that when the economy improves, “Retailers need to continue promoting and merchandising their private brands with the same zeal they demonstrated during the economic downturn.”

Crossing Categories

To keep said convert, retailers and manufacturers alike need to work together to educate consumers. Weiner notes that store brands offer a much more economical choice than products purchased in a doctor’s office. But people with foot problems often still need to speak with an expert who can help them in choosing which treatment to purchase - a problem with the foot can be the result of a more serious ailment. This means foot care products can be cross-promoted with other products important to people suffering from illnesses such as diabetes.

According to Mintel’s report, “Foot Care - US - December 2008,” most consumers can benefit from foot care products. However, they don’t purchase the products because they either are unaware of those benefits or feel the cost outweighs the added comfort and/or cleanliness. The report says educating consumers and encouraging them to experiment will accelerate market growth substantially.

If the consumer sees the retailer as a go-to place that will answer her questions and help alleviate any foot problems with quality, private label products, the retailer will gain a customer who will come back even after the economy recovers. PLB

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