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    Fashionably Fresh

    It's not the flavor of the mint, but the power of the package.

    By Kevin O'Rourke

    The gathering is elegant. Beautiful people stylishly dressed in a posh setting celebrate nothing in particular, but do it with panache. A gentleman reaches into his jacket and pulls out a metal tin and offers the contents to the other revelers.

    Is this a scene from a classic 1930s Fred Astaire film? Was that a cigarette case?

    No, it's a scene that could take place today in any trendy spot in Anytown U.S.A., and that gentleman isn't offering cigarettes, he's offering breath mints — and intense breath mints at that.

    Nowadays, a breath-freshening mint isn't a personal thing, it's a shared experience. Breaking out a metal container of Altoids at a party and offering them to those around you is a statement about the type of person you are, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

    "The appeal of the mint as accessory stretches across demographic lines," the Times reported. "Where bad breath was once considered the province of old men with dental problems and cigar habits, it is now being peddled to the public as an affliction that affects all ages, from eight to 80."

    Whether bad breath is running rampant in society is open to question, but the significance of the mints' packaging is indisputable. Kendra Kuehl, purchasing and promotions director with Bosselman's Pump & Pantry, a 34-store chain based in Grand Island, Neb., explained.

    "Yuppies carry them around because they are an 'open-the-tin,' expensive kind of item," she said. "Most of them have flat packaging, which fits well in pockets, and people seem to like that."

    Premium mints in tin containers have become very popular in the young adult market and have become a new urban status prop in American culture, according to Ron Cheng, director of operations at Big Sky Brands, makers of Warp Energy Mints. "Mints are often shared at the workplace or during social activities. Carrying a stylish tin of mints is now a fashionable social item and becomes part of a person's style or character much like a wallet or a purse."

    Packaging innovation has really contributed to the popularity of the mints, agreed Brian McKee, vice president of merchandise, at Pak-A-Sak Inc., a nine-store chain based in Amarillo, Texas.

    "Lifesavers and Certs have been around forever," he said. "People want to change and want the new items. That is where all of your sales come from in the candy category, new items."

    McKee said that popularity of power mints is causing the chain to rethink the look of its candy rack. "We are moving the mints up toward the top of our planogram," he said. "Mints have traditionally been on about the fourth shelf down, but now with the higher dollar ring and higher gross profit dollars, they're working their way up higher and higher on the shelf. They've made it to about the second shelf."

    Let the Real Revolution Begin

    While some hip, single folks are impressing their friends and colleagues with mints in tins, others are impressing them with really fresh breath thanks to Pfizer's new take on a medicine-cabinet standby.

    Listerine PocketPaks are flying off c-store counters as consumers slip onto their tongues the small sheets of Listerine mouthwash distilled onto a substance called pullulan, a carbohydrate matrix that dissolves on contact with saliva. "The Listerine PocketPaks have just gone out the door at an unbelievable pace," said McKee. "That is probably the top profit item of any that we have in the store right now."

    It is the same story at Bosselman's stores in Nebraska, according to Kuehl. "They are doing very well for us. We can't keep them on the shelf and now we can't even get them."

    Indeed, retailers are having trouble keeping the strips in stores and Pfizer is having trouble getting them to retailers.

    "The success of the proposition is beyond anybody's wildest expectations," said John Gorman, marketing manager with Pfizer's consumer product division. "When you compare it to new products in the consumer packaged goods industry, it could be one of the top three or four new products introduced in the last 10 years when it comes to total sales."

    Listerine PocketPaks had sales of 54.5 million units in 2001 in supermarkets, chain stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks consumer buying, as reported in The New York Times. Altoids, by contrast, sold 49.4 million units. PocketPaks have yet to beat the still dominant Tic Tac, which sold 95 million units last year.

    The Listerine PocketPaks are selling so fast that Pfizer can't even keep up with production, according to retailers and suppliers.

    "We are really working hard to satisfy our customers' needs and meet the demand," said Gorman. "We've installed new machinery to increase production. We are working our production facilities round-the-clock to produce as much as possible. We have caught up significantly with the demand. It is such a phenomenon that every time we feel we are catching up the consumption continues to climb, and we have not even begun to plateau."

    This success has caught the attention of retailers. "It is a good margin item and it's a good dollar-ring item," said McKee. "If you take a $1.99 ring for Listerine PocketPaks, and compare it to a 69-cent ring for other breath fresheners, with normal growth of about 40 percent, it is going to give you great gross profit dollars."

    Other suppliers have noticed the sweet smell of fresh success coming from the PocketPaks and are jumping on the dissolving strip bandwagon.

    Wrigley, the company behind Eclipse, a new breath-freshening gum introduced last year, will extend the brand with the rollout of Eclipse Flash Strips later this summer. These high-intensity, dissolvable breath films will offer "Fresh Breath at the Speed of Life" as well as Wrigley taste technology, according to Kelly McGrail, a company spokeswoman.

    Also, Myntz Brands of Kent, Wash., has introduced Myntz Instastripz, sugar-free breath-mint strips that dissolve in the mouth.

    "Often you think it is just a fad and you hate to get too heavy into it," said McKee, "but right now these items are going great guns and you need to get into it while you can."

    According to Pfizer's Gorman, "We have unlocked an unmet consumer need. Listerine PocketPaks can provide meaningful oral health benefits because it kills germs, in addition to breath freshening. While most breath fresheners will last a minute or two, Listerine PocketPaks will last a half an hour.

    "It is portable mouthwash. You can take this anywhere, anytime you need it. It is discreet and highly effective. Portable solutions are what consumers are looking for."

    But many retailers are in a quandary over how to merchandise these products. "We've merchandised those items in three different areas of the store and we still constantly run out of stock," said Kuehl. "We have a checkout display, and we have them in the HBC section and on the candy rack with the mints."

    In the future there may be a category within a category in the candy sections for portable items that provide meaningful health benefits, such as cough drops, lip moisturizers and Listerine PocketPaks, suggested Gorman.

    "The problem is that the product is selling so quickly that we haven't achieved ideal, high-quality merchandising," said Gorman. "Ultimately, it will be found in two separate areas of the marketplace — at the front counter of c-stores and perhaps in the candy aisle with other breath fresheners."

    Cool! New! Sour! Hot!

    The traditional mint world has been a peppermint, wintergreen, spearmint world, but Listerine PocketPaks are apparently changing that. "It isn't really a flavor," said Gorman. "It has the flavor of Listerine Cool Mint mouthwash. In the future there is going to be opportunity to experiment and have fun with flavors in this category."

    Callard & Bowser-Suchard Inc., a division of Kraft Foods, may again be ahead of the trend curve as it will extend its line of Altoids Curiously Strong Mints with two new non-mint flavors — Citrus Sour and Tangerine Sour — packaged in distinctive round silver tins. The new Altoids Sours began shipping this month.

    "Altoids Sour makes sense because of the sour craze," said Kuehl. "On the other hand, the sour candy consumer is a kid or a young adult, while the Altoids consumer is a more mature customer."

    McKee said he believes sometimes suppliers go overboard intoducing new flavors, which can kill the brand. "I have seen this happen in so many categories. I think this could happen with Altoids. It takes away the emphasis on their big dog and hurts the brand overall," he said.

    Also debuting at checkout counters across the country this month was a new non-mint flavor from the original breath mint in unique packaging — Tic Tac. Ferrero USA has added Tic Tac Lime as an everyday player to its lineup of flavors. Available for the past two years as a summer seasonal, lime is now the first new official flavor in almost 20 years.

    "We originally introduced it to create demand and excitement at the retail and consumer levels. Although we were confident in the new flavor, we did not anticipate how successful it would be in such a short period of time," said Jennifer Dwork, Tic Tac senior brand manager.

    Also vying for space on the candy rack is The Wm. Wrigley Co. with Orbit, an intensely flavored pellet gum packaged in a credit-card-size plastic case designed to appeal to young adults. In addition, Wrigley will begin shipments of improved Wrigley's Spearmint and Doublemint gums this month.

    Competing against Wrigley is Hershey Foods, which bought Carefree from Nabisco in December 2000 and revamped it as Carefree Koolerz.

    Responding to a consumer preference for strong flavors and stylish tins, Amurol Confections, a Wrigley division, introduced Everest, a pellet gum in a tin, and more recently Dragon Fire Gum, a hot-cinnamon sugar-free gum, which is packaged in a round red tin. Dragon Fire Gum is set to begin shipping in June.

    Another new cinnamon product is Big Sky Brand's Warp Energy Mints, launched in January in yet another tin.

    By Kevin O'Rourke
    • About Kevin O'Rourke

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