By Sara Karnish
Scented merchandise and candles serve a dual purpose for customers at bath and body stores. The products lend a bit of everyday extravagance with their aromatic fragrances and lush textures. Most of the small-batch, handmade products are made with gentle, natural ingredients that provide much-needed relief to customers with skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and other sensitivities.
Lisa Miller, owner of Forever Clean Soap Works in St. Joseph, Mich., said their biggest sellers are their Shower Steamers, which she described as “a little head-clearing tablet of goodness”, made with mint, eucalyptus, and menthol. “It’s similar to a bath bomb. When the steam from the shower hits it, everything clears up. They sell well because word got around that they’re awesome. Not only are they good for opening up your sinuses due to allergies or a cold, they just give you a little boost in the morning.” Customers are more mindful of what they put in and on their bodies. “I think people are looking for more natural products. They’re getting away from detergents and chemicals that are in so many products. We can pronounce everything that’s in our products,” Miller said.
Amanda Beam, store manager at Pocono Soap in Stroudsburg, Pa., said their best-sellers are their handcrafted soap and soy candle collection. “They sell well for us because we make them ourselves, offer them in many scents, and tailor our branding and scent selection to our local tourism industry,” she explained.
Matthew Williams, who co-owns Mount Royal Soaps in Baltimore, Md., with partners Samantha Illes and Patrick Illes, said, “People love our bar soap and candles because they smell so good. We use lots of essential oils and fragrances which aren’t overpowering to give you a headache. Our shampoo and conditioner bars are also very popular because they are an innovative, zero-waste product. They come in a metal tin and last as long as a 16-ounce plastic bottle of shampoo would, minus the plastic!”
Holly Rutt, founder and creative director of The Little Flower Soap Company in Chelsea, Mich., said small stocking stuffer-type items like lip balms and certain soaps are in demand during the holiday season. “People are looking for small gifts, and they don’t just buy one—they might buy 10 or 12,” Rutt said. “Anything small and in that price range [grab and go items] is an easy purchase.” Little Flower has a retail store, but Rutt pointed out they do most of their business through their online store and sites like Etsy.
Vegan soap and solid shampoo and conditioner are among the top sellers for Cream City Soap Company in Wauwatosa, Wis. Anita Hero, co-owner of Cream City with her son Alex, said, “Our customers are very excited about the solid hair products for a few reasons: the formulation is very gentle, they are free of sulfates and safe for color treated hair, they are Ph balanced, compact and easy to travel with, and most of all, they require no plastic bottle. Our customers are very concerned about single use plastics, and try to avoid them if possible. A desirable characteristic of all our items is that they are scented with naturally occurring essential oils. Very few people dislike the scent of essential oils. But many find artificial smells overpowering, and sometimes suffer from headaches or stuffiness when in their presence.”
When merchandising scented items, appealing to the senses is key. “It is best to use what I call an ‘organized abundance’ merchandising mindset,” Beam said. “While some lines sell better with just one or two pieces on display, I find that scented items sell best when there is both ample inventory and scent selection available. Customers are drawn in by beautiful packing that fits the story of the store selling them. I love to create layers by stacking candles or soap to draw the eye to read all the product names, all while garnering desire to smell them! Once you can get customers to start smelling, you’ve succeeded.” Williams said, “We love having displays that show verticality and are tiered. We also make sure our displays are always full of product. Our approach is to give the display dimension and look plentiful.”
Never underestimate the appeal of packaging when merchandising items. The entire product—wrapping included—has a huge impact on sales. “We use something that looks like an egg carton for our soaps. I get them from Sustainable Packaging. They’re pressed cardboard, and people just love the look of it. The packaging draws a lot of customers, especially if they’re giving the items as gifts,” Miller said. Rutt makes up 4-by-4 shelf tags with the top two to three bullet points about each item. “I work with a lot of gift shops selling wholesale, and I also suggest this to the gift shops who buy from us,” she said. “For instance, for our Muscle Rescue Balm, it might say ‘It’s an all-natural Icy Hot’ on the shelf tag.” Based on its description, a female shopper may think it’s the perfect gift for her husband to use after playing sports or working outside. (Rutt’s husband, a medical doctor, develops their product recipes. Among other responsibilities, Rutt handles marketing and order fulfillment).
Hero suggested keeping displays simple: “We have about five or six choices of scent for each product, except for the soap, which has 15. We are located in a cozy stone cellar with very pleasant lighting, so people like the vibe of the place from the moment they step in. And then the scent hits them,” she said.
Retailers are noticing specific trends besides the general shift to handmade products with natural ingredients. “Shampoo bars are the biggest trend for us lately,” says Miller. “We don’t make the typical shampoo bar—we recommend using our own body bar for shampoo, so it’s like bar soap for your hair. People are trying to get away from having so many bottles in the shower—that’s a big all over trend. They’re trying to use less plastic, so they’re leaning toward the shampoo bars.” Williams pointed out candles and soaps seem to be more popular than ever. Customers are drawn to the authenticity and purity of the products’ natural fragrances and ingredients, preferring them over the mass-produced body care items found on most store shelves. Beam said, “An overwhelming trend in scented merchandise are items that promote positive energy such as Chakra, zodiac, moon phases and crystal themed items. Customers love to purchase these items for themselves, and they also make fantastic gifts. Aromatherapy items continue to trend as well.” Sometimes trends are a bit surprising. “I’m surprised at the popularity of our hibiscus rose geranium soap, and also oatmeal lavender sage,” Rutt said. “Sage and geranium are the key—[those ingredients] are trending a bit.”
The core customer demographic for small-batch, handmade bath and body products is shifting, as well. Women aged 20-45 are no longer the largest consumer market. “There seems to be a trend where the general public is interested in slow, handmade body care products,” Rutt explained, citing an interaction with two young contractors working in her home who struck up a conversation with Rutt about her business. She said, “These were guys you would not think would be into these things, but they knew what essential oils were, so the awareness is there. It costs a little more to have these things, but they’re worth it, and not just women are into it. My target customer was once women my mom’s age, but now it’s everybody.”
Trends in Candle Sales
Scented merchandise appeals to all of the senses, not just our sense of smell. Candles are an important segment of the scented merchandise category. Although not applied directly to the body, candles play a starring role in the practice of self-care. They help set a mood and the proper tone for a certain mindset. And their fragrances, natural ingredients, and associated “good for you” properties also contribute to their ongoing popularity.
Like other scented merchandise items, candles made from natural ingredients are currently trending, said Amanda Beam, store manager, Pocono Soap, Stroudsburg, Pa. “There is a trend in candles toward more natural waxes such as soy and coconut blends as opposed to paraffin wax. These cleaner burning candle options have become very appealing to customers with an eye on the ingredient list of the products they bring into their home. Candle packing continues to trend toward minimalist and ‘Instagram worthy.’ Customers are loving glass jars with clean looking, simple labels. Candles packaged in small black or colorful tins are also growing in popularity.”
Lisa Miller, owner of Forever Clean Soap Works in Saint Joseph, Mich., is also seeing a shift toward soy-based candles. “The soy candles have less soot, burn cleaner, and burn for a very, very long time. They’re trending because they burn cleaner, and cooler, so you’re less likely to burn yourself if you get the wax on you.” Alex Hero, co-owner, Cream City Soap Company in Wauwatosa, Wis., said, “We don’t focus on trends. We just focus on making the best candles.”
Candle sales and certain fragrances tend to be seasonal. Holly Rutt, founder and creative director of The Little Flower Soap Co. in Chelsea, Mich., said people buy more candles during the fall and winter months. “It gets darker earlier. Everyone wants to have a cozy home. Definitely pumpkin spice—we sell that a lot. Our competitors sell a lot of it. And Frasier fir, a Christmas tree scent, is popular,” she explained.