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    NONFOODS: Word of mouth

    Oral care is still bursting with lucrative opportunities, but whether the appeal is cosmetics, health or safety, the key is education.

    It's not just about fighting cavities anymore. The oral care business is becoming the beauty business. It's one of a collection of the trends in consumer needs and product innovations that are steering the future of the category's growth.

    The smart players have already been lining up their responses. Case in point: Last spring Procter & Gamble teamed up with advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi to position oral care product offerings as cosmetics. The two giants created an ad for the new Crest Whitening SpinBrush, a low-end electric toothbrush that has helped supermarkets find their niche in the growing subsegment. The ad, however, was notable in that it presented the SpinBrush not alongside, say, paste or floss, but grouped with an array of makeup brushes for applying blush, eye shadow, and foundation.

    The advertisement's tagline punctuated the message: "Blend. Shade. Define. Whiten." The ad wasn't aimed at supermarket circulars, either. Instead it was placed in popular fashion and women's beauty publications.

    P&G is latching onto the next wave in growth in oral care. While the initial flurry of excitement around oral care innovations -- whitening strips, low-end electric toothbrushes, high-intensity breath mints, etc. -- over the past few years has died down somewhat, the market still presents retailers, especially grocers, with numerous opportunities, provided they keep a vigilant eye on that market, execute quickly when a new item hits the market, and are willing to help educate consumers about the benefits of oral care that extend beyond a low price point.

    There's a lot of money being spent here. U.S. retail sales of oral care products -- including dental preparations, gum/mouthwash/breath fresheners, and implements and appliances -- was $7.2 billion in 2004, according to The U.S. Market for Oral Care Products, a market report released this past November by Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, Inc. It reflects a little over 2 percent growth from the previous year, and also is emblematic of a slowdown that's been building over the past two years, according to the study.

    Whiteners are still a tremendous growth engine in the category, although sales have slowed considerably as the novelty factor has worn off and the whitening function has expanded to other oral care product segments, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, and gum.

    Following a similar path, the implements/appliances segment, which includes manual toothbrushes, electric appliances, floss, and manual tools, likewise saw a boost at the start of the decade, thanks to the launch of low-end battery-powered brushes. The segment's burst of growth was followed by a similar leveling off of the market as the novelty wore off. Those consumers that have moved on after the initial trial have either gone back to manual brushes, or have traded up to the premium-priced rechargeable toothbrushes, which effectively removes their category dollars from the supermarket channel.

    "Our customers are not ready to spend that kind of money," says Bill MacAloney, chairman and c.e.o. of Anaheim, Calif.-based Jax Markets. "We are an EDLP operator, and the electric brush is well out of the range of what our customers look for."

    That's not to say his customers are bypassing the segment, however; while they might not splurge on dedicated whiteners or power toothbrushes, they more than make up for that with other oral care purchases -- which, MacAloney says, help keep oral care overall the largest of Jax Markets' product categories.

    Still, P&G sniffed out an opportunity for both itself and its supermarket accounts. This spring it will launch a rechargeable electric brush, but one priced to retail at $20, a third or less of typical rechargeables.

    Part of a group of eight new products spanning four oral care segments, P&G developed the Crest SpinBrush Pro Recharge to meet two consumer trends spawned by the flurry of brushing implement innovations launched just a few years ago. One is the desire among some consumers to trade up to the added features and benefits of a rechargeable toothbrush; the other is to deliver those features at a price lower than that of most rechargeables, a price that P&G considers commensurate with what supermarket shoppers would expect and that ought to make merchandisers comfortable.

    Even at the lower price, however, Jax's MacAloney doesn't expect he'll be carrying the new Crest-branded products any time soon, since price isn't the only factor driving the category's dynamics. Most of his customers, he explains, are Hispanic, an ethnic group that tends to be very conservative in its oral care product selections, opting mostly for manual toothbrushes, for example. It's also a group that's very loyal to the Colgate brand, which has dominated the Latin American market for years.

    A brush with beauty

    While the ethnic makeup of markets work to change the dynamics of product preference -- and while product fads come and go -- there is one factor that remains stable, according to oral care category experts. Americans are not getting any younger, and along with an increase in years comes increased concerns about the health of their teeth.

    And since practically everyone brushes their teeth -- or at least believes they should -- retailers can rest assured that, even given the cycles that rise and fall in sales of newer products, the oral care category overall should maintain a steady rate of growth, especially as the baby boomers enter their senior years.

    At nearly 77.3 million people, the baby boomer group is one of the largest components of the U.S. population, according to Packaged Facts. And as this large group ages, it will continue to drive oral care growth. Not only are baby boomers more acutely aware and knowledgeable about ways to maintain good health than previous demographic segments, they are also more concerned about maintaining their appearance, and have been quicker than any previous generation to embrace new dental procedures such as capping and implantation.

    This benefits supermarkets in two ways: Not only does it mean they now have an entirely new way of positioning their oral care products—upon their cosmetic benefits -- but with the recent innovations and expansion of the whitening category, they also have myriad products they can offer as a solution to meet this burgeoning consumer demand.

    Additionally, baby boomers are also avid label readers and Internet surfers, and often do quite extensive research on products before they make purchases. Because of this, they're ideal targets for marketers of new oral care products that require a bit of consumer education to launch successfully, the Packaged Facts report says.

    However, while mainstream grocery retailers are increasingly willing to display such information, mainstream oral care products are, for the most part, behind the curve. Only the natural and organic manufacturers are fully taking advantage of the opportunity to help educate consumers by offering detailed pamphlets and brochures with information about products.

    Lack of consumer interest isn't the reason that such information isn't more available, suggest retailers. "Our customers are definitely receptive to consumer education pieces," says Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications for natural and organic grocer Wild Oats, based in Boulder, Colo.

    While Wild Oats is clearly a specialty operator with a strong stake in making education a integral part of its merchandising strategy, the appeal of natural oral care products being sold though such stores is broadening. Standout vendors in the segment include Jason Natural Products, which markets Healthy Mouth toothpaste, and Tom's of Maine's whitening and kids' toothpastes. Tom's is already a dual player, with its namesake-branded oral care products sold in both mainstream supermarkets and natural food outlets.

    Nice and easy

    Other consumer trends are convenience and ease of use -- particularly in the whitening and flossing segments. The original wave of whitening products delivered results in 14 days. This gestation period was halved, and then halved again, until it now apparently takes no time at all for whitening systems to take effect. There are even products to provide touch-ups when users are on the go.

    Meanwhile devices that make flossing easier have been advancing at double-digit rates. They range from the Oral B Hummingbird power flosser to manual gadgetry such as Xylifloss' pocket flosser packed with 250 xylitol-coated strands. Nash Finch has seen tremendous growth in the floss segment because of such devices, according to Kim Schell, the wholesaler-retailer's HBC corporate merchandiser.

    But regardless of how innovative a product is, or how easy it is to use, if it's not on the shelf, it won't sell. Execution at the store level is key.

    "When possible, we make use of floor displays and smaller merchandisers," explains Jim Donnelly, president of general merchandise at Nash Finch. "At a minimum, the stores should have the product in front of the consumer as we make room on the shelf, because, when the manufacturer starts to promote it and it is not available in your stores, you'll push your shoppers toward the competition."

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