Mother may I?

Social media and online retailers are changing the way parents shop the baby category.

By Craig Levitt

In this era of social networking, everyone is eager to share their thoughts on a host of topics, including parenting, which has given rise to a countless number of “mommy” blogs.

Of course much of their blogging—and texting, tweeting and webcasting—centers around products they use daily to feed and care for their families. These mothers’ opinions are shaping the way the baby care category is being shopped and how the products within the category are being perceived.

Manufacturers and retailers have taken notice. According to the Chicago-based research firm Mintel, and it’s most recent Disposable Baby Products report, mommy bloggers remain a key communication tool for marketers.

The report states that some consumers view blogging as more reliable and honest than product brand marketing. As a result, parents looking for unbiased recommendations are turning to blogs for product reviews, suggestions and information.

“Word of mouth is huge and moms talk,” says Scott Traister, director of marketing for Cranbury, N.J.-based Arquest, suppliers of store-brand diapers. “They talk when they like something and they talk when they don’t like something; more so in this category than a lot of others.”

While online moms have had an undeniable influence on the category, industry observers say a number of factors have caused disposable diaper sales to stagnate a bit.

First and foremost, they say that manufacturers have become victims of their own success as mothers take advantage of ever-improving technology that allows for extended use.

Secondly, the nation’s birth rate continues to decline, obviously bringing fewer new users to the category. And, as with nearly every other category, the economy has parents searching for more value, leading to an increase in promotional and coupon purchases.

With parents continually looking to save money, there has been an increase in private label diaper sales. According to the Chicago-based Sym­phonyIRI Group, for the 52 week period ended Oct. 31, private label diaper dollar sales at food, drug and mass outlets (excluding Walmart) grew 13.5%, accounting for $307.7 million of the $2.4 billion category, which saw dollar sales decrease 2.2%. Private label unit sales grew 6.2% compared to an overall category decrease of 1%.

“Because of the economic environment, many consumers have switched their allegiance to store brands and have found that these brands are just as good or better than the [national brand] items they used to use,” says Rody Mehdizadeh, COO of U.S. Nonwovens Corp., based in Brentwood, N.Y. “The key will be for retailers to maintain the focus on continuous improvements of their private label programs.”

While private label products are changing the diaper aisle, grocers are also responding to trends in other channels. Many grocers are carrying larger box and count sizes to compete with mass retailers and club stores. On the other end, dollar stores are doing a good job of offering discounted prices on smaller sizes.

That is not to say that supermarkets cannot compete in the category, they just have to be a little smarter and more diligent. Some believe part of the problem could be a simply case of less being more.

“Food stores still have a wider selection than other outlets and the shopping experience is more complex,” says Chris Ferdock, vice president of marketing for Duluth, Ga.-based Associated Hygienic Products (AHP), manufacturers and marketers of disposable baby diapers and training pants. “Food retailers also need to be more proactive in marketing their private label programs in order to compete against recent program upgrades at Target and Walmart.” and other e-commerce baby product sites are also changing the way moms shop, making it even more important for the grocery channel to offer the proper assortment of both private label and nationally branded products, and not just in diapers.

A matter of trust
Take baby HBC for example. Observers say that many supermarkets employ a one-brand and private label strategy. John Ciotola, senior vice president of sales for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Grand Brands, supplier of the Lander brand, says supermarkets have the opportunity to feature a mid-tier brand, allowing them to be more responsive to competitors’ pricing. He says with baby HBC there is a trust factor involved as well.

“Consumers in this category will purchase based on products that they trust,” says Ciotola. “Generally young mothers are heavily influenced by what ‘mom’ used. Lander Baby is one of those brands that have a long enduring reputation of trust at a value price.”

Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark’s Keegan Coulter and Victoria Tylinski, brand managers for the Huggies brand, say supermarkets have an opportunity to gain and improve customer trust by leveraging their assortment as a point of differentiation. They say that the need for retailers to carefully manage their assortments applies not only to the diaper category but to the growing baby wipes category as well.

In fact, Mintel’s Disposable Baby Products report, predicts the baby wipes category will grow by nearly $60 million in the next four years. Much of that growth is due to the fact that usage occasions have expanded beyond the baby stage. Many parents that regularly use wipes to clean up after their children continue the habit as their children age, providing for long-term growth opportunities.

Industry observers say the baby wipes category represents an even more attractive segment than diapers for supermarkets because they take up less shelf space. Tom Hernquist, president, consumer division for Orangeburg, N.Y.-based Nice-Pak, says according to Sym­phonyIRI, baby wipes sales at grocery for the 12 weeks ended Nov. 14 are up 1.0% versus a year ago. Hernquist also agrees that the right assortment is important.

“If mom shops the baby aisle once and doesn’t find what she is looking for, she may be lost forever,” he says. “Retailers need to understand what their consumer wants by analyzing key insights in the baby category through consumer research.”

Know the shopper
On the diaper side, Traister says Arquest has conducted national consumer focus groups in an effort to figure out how parents are shopping the baby aisle. He says that in regards to the grocery channel, consumers are generally making purchases for one of two reasons: either there is a really hot deal available, or if they are running low they pick up a bag of diapers to tide them over until they get to the store in which they make their normal purchase. AHP’s Ferdock says the company’s consumer demographic research indicates that there is a distinct difference between national brand and store brand buyers, so retailers don’t have to sacrifice one over the other.

Whether discussing national or store brands, observers agree that new products and innovation go a long way in baby care. For example, Kimberly-Clark’s Tylinski and Coulter say the recent introduction of the Huggies Little Movers Jeans Diaper provided a fun alternative.

“We will continue to drive innovation by bringing new things to moms that they may not have expected,” says Coulter.  “We will deliver products that she knows and wants and we will deliver solutions she hasn’t anticipated.”

AHP recently introduced a line of Fisher-Price diapers. Ferdock says the brand, Happy Days & Nights, provides mothers with the “all-in-one” package of both day and night diapers to satisfy and entire day’s needs.

Recognizable brands such as AHP’s Fisher-Price product, Arquest’s Clifford the Big Red Dog license and U.S. Nonwovens’ Baby Magic, Sesame Street, Care Bears and Baby Abuelita licenses also provide retailers with added value when putting together their private label assortment.

In the case of U.S. Nonwovens Mehdizadeh says, “These licensed brands can either be co-branded along with the store brand program or as a stand-alone second tier brand. These licenses not only strengthen a retailers’ program but offer consumers the brand name quality they recognize—at a substantial value.”

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