Under scrutiny are a number of small, mid-size and family run companies, representing strategic opportunities for multinationals such as Unilever and niche players like Maybelline.
Industry observers say the long list of targeted companies in the U.S. includes Neutrogena Corp., Helene Curtis Industries, Alberto Culver Co., Church & Dwight, St. Ives Corp. and Dep Corp., and in Europe, Sanofi Beaute and even Beiersdorf AG.
"The name of the game is consolidation," said Morgan Stanley, New York, analyst Brenda Lee Landry, "as companies look for synergies" with existing businesses.
Unilever's Chesebrough-Pond's is said to be studying Curtis while Maybelline has feelers out for Neutrogena and others. Chesebrough and Maybelline executives would not comment; Neutrogena and Curtis officials did not return calls.
Last week, Procter & Gamble Co. announced a $150 million all-cash deal for Giorgio Beverly Hills fragrances, bought by Avon Products in 1987 for about $165 million. P&G intends to polish Giorgio's U.S. image, tarnished by diversion to mass-market stores, and expand Giorgio overseas.
"To P&G, it means distribution," said Heather Hay, analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities. "P&G has just under 10% of the [less than $2 billion] European prestige fragrance market-it's successful and highly profitable-and they are trying to duplicate that success in the U.S."
In the sights of P&G Chairman Ed Artzt for two years, Giorgio offers the critical mass P&G needs in the U.S. That is where P&G's prestige fragrances Laura Biagiotti Venezia, Roma and Hugo Boss have been hard-pressed to build sales.
Giorgio, with $165 million in sales and an $8 million annual ad budget, is now introducing Wings for Men through Los Angeles office of Foote, Cone & Belding, an agency outside P&G's regular stable.
PaineWebber analyst Andrew Shore sees Giorgio as a "low-cost entry learning vehicle ... Over the past two years, it has been rumored P&G has had an interest in Estee Lauder. If P&G is interested in Giorgio as a learning vehicle, could its ultimate target be Estee Lauder?"
While Lauder and P&G have denied the rumors, one executive close to P&G said, "Ed [Artzt] would love to have it but the price would be too unbelievable."
A former P&G executive said Neutrogena, which analysts estimate would sell for up to $800 million, has been on P&G's "long-term acquisition list since buying Noxell in 1989."
But, what has amounted to a $2 billion-plus beauty binge for P&G since 1989 may now be on hold. Even some internal initiatives remain static.
P&G executives are wrestling over plans for Olay cosmetics. A concept test slated for earlier this year has been delayed while P&G fixes Olay skincare. The brand has been hurt by Unilever's Pond's, now adding an alpha hydroxy acid-based lotion plus eye capsules. Olay agency Wells, Rich, Greene BDDP, New York, is getting an assist from Saatchi & Saatchi on worldwide strategy.
As a result, some P&Gers may be more interested in a healthcare/household cleaner acquisition, like Sterling Winthrop's over-the-counter drugs, including Bayer, and sister household products unit Lehn & Fink.
Sterling Winthrop alone is said to command a $1.3 billion asking price but the cost might be justified.
"Were they to make a Sterling and Lehn & Fink acquisition, they would fill out two core categories," said Burt Flickinger III, management consultant, A.T. Kearney, a New York consumer goods consultancy.
Emily DeNitto and Jennifer Lawrence contributed to this story.