The embarrassment factor has gone from buying sanpro, leaving you free to profit from an area which gets women heading for the toiletries aisle

Maybe it was the whole ‘with Wings!’ thing in the 1990s that did it. Maybe it’s just another sign that we’re a bit more relaxed than we used to be. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the days of women having the same approach to buying sanitary products as, say, the average 16-year-old boy does with condoms, has long gone.

According to Pippa Heritage of The Barns Green Village Store in Horsham, West Sussex, women don’t seem to suffer embarrassment about feminine hygiene products in the way they did. “I remember when I was younger going into a chemist then walking out again because I couldn’t bear buying them, but my 16-year-old daughter sends her boyfriend out to get them.”

However, Pippa says that she does usually offer customers a bag: “It’s one thing buying it, but another walking through the streets - most people don’t like to advertise what they’ve bought.”

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She says that the 1,000sq ft store that she runs with husband David is an emergency shop destination and so stocks up accordingly. “We tend to do brands that are trusted, so Tampax regular, super and super plus, and Always pads. Every so often Always does a £1 pad which sells well. We also sell Kotex, which is for night and good after women have had babies.” She says that Tampax is often on offer so she thinks that customers stock up even if they don’t need them at the time.

This laid-back attitude may explain why, when P&G gave its Always brand a makeover last year, the company went for eye-catching colours and a bigger Always logo. New larger packs were introduced and sizes changed to include Always Ultra Long Jumbo, Simply Fits Long Plus and Simply Fits Maxi Normal. The company says that the new products meet a consumer need for Long Plus ultra pads with 18% of total pads volume attributed to this size, according to IRI.

Lil-lets, however, took a different approach. The company changed its packaging last year to blend in with other ‘girly’ bathroom products. The packaging even had removeable product information sleeves for complete discretion. Company research identified that a pet hate of women was not having discreet handbag-proof wrapping on their products wrappers which rustled when opened and garish colours. Lil-lets came up with soft grey internal packaging and ‘Whisper Wrappers’ for quiet opening. Three new products were added: Freshlock ultra towels Silk Comfort compact applicator tampons and, tackling the tricky teen market, smaller towels that still provide absorbency.

But while there is still contention over whether women want bold colours or pretty packaging, what is certain is that they want familiarity. According Raj Patel of Porters, Londis Pharmacy and Convenience Store in Canterbury, Kent: “Female shoppers tend to be very specific about what they want, more so than men, and tend to go for what they trust. If something is new on the market they might try it out, but often go back to the old product.”

Of course, sanpro is only a small part of the female health and beauty category, but is key to footfall. According to Spar assistant trading manager Katie Dunn, the key is to have a small yet concise range. “As turnover is low, shelf space at a minimum and a high proportion of sales being distress purchases, the aim is to have a range of own brand and trusted market-leading brands which provide a choice of product and price,” she says.

The female health and beauty category overall, says Dunn, is an important one for Spar’s retailers, worth about £8m, and with major success coming within the Spar own label range. “Sales have grown 23%, most notably within our feminine hygiene range and shower gel lines. This is a cause of consumers trying to cut costs. In comparison, our branded business is down 5.5% year on year, with every category apart from men’s toiletries (up 145%) down on last year.”

The category always sees a lot of activity and therefore benefits from being well supported by marketing. Last year P&G teamed up with singer and actress Jennifer Lopez to advertise its Venus Embrace and Venus Spa Breeze products. The company also revamped Herbal Essences including a packaging makeover and formula upgrade.

Raj says that making things easy to find is key: “Our approach is to take the male bathroom products and leave the female and neutral bathroom products together. It tends to be females who do a lot of the shopping anyway, so it works for us.” He uses the Londis planogram, but changes it to accommodate local needs.

He also dual sites products that he believes shoppers might miss. Raj says that his experience running chemists before he opened his current store helps in making stocking decisions. “I know what sells and have the added bonus of the fact that I sell specialist shampoos, like those for dry skin, which other convenience stores probably wouldn’t,” he points out.

Pippa says that although she stocks a small range of health and beauty lines - “about one shelf with one of everything” - it’s one she wouldn’t get rid of. “It gets customers in. We’ve got a campsite over the road and it’s the sort of thing you forget when you go on holiday. I just make sure I stick to the staples.” •