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Consumers looking to soak away sorrows and wash away stress are turning to bath and body stores for comfort.

Bath and body stores specializing in bath gels, body lotions, massage oils and aromatherapy have escalated beyond the Body Shop.

Speciality players now include the likes of The Limited's Bath & Body Works, Estee Lauder's Origins and H2O Plus. And these days those retailers are getting ever increasing competition from quarters including department stores, discounters, specialty apparel stores and category killers trying to latch onto the consumer's yearning for small, inexpensive indulgences. Total sales of specialty bath and body products are estimated at $1.1 billion.

The success of bath and body stores is closely related to the mood of consumers. With the stress of businesses downsizing and concerns about issues like crime, consumers are looking for inexpensive ways to ease anxiety.

"In the last few years, consumers talked about distrust, cynicism and anger, but a lot of that has eased," said Barbara Caplan, senior VP for consumer research company Roper Starch Worldwide, New York. "..... Consumers are saying, `I'm going to find things to make me feel better."

Ms. Caplan believes bath products are part of this self-indulgent remedy for consumer's anger and stress.

"A bath is something consumers do alone to let the cares seep away for a bit," she said. "Consumers are looking for things that give them genuine pleasure."

According to Roper Reports, the amount of women who had taken a bath in the past 24 hours increased from 17% in 1994 to 23% in 1995. Also, 66% of 1,000 adults surveyed by Roper in 1994 said taking a long bath, jacuzzi or sauna makes them feel sensual. Revlon commissioned the study to launch the Fire & Ice fragrance line.

In the U.S., the bath and body category used to be an extension of the fragrance business. But that began to change when the Body Shop appeared six years ago.

The fragrance industry has been hurt by the entrance of bath and body products, said Suzanne Grayson of retail consultancy Grayson & Associates, Santa Barbara, Calif. People have begun using these products in place of perfumes.

"The bathroom has become an experiential room more than it ever used to be," said Melisse Shaban, VP-general manager retail for the Body Shop, with U.S. headquarters in Wake Forest, N.C.

The Body Shop touts its commitment to social causes like the environment and no animal testing with little traditional advertising. The marketer did hire its first ad agency, Chiat/Day, London, last October, primarily for interactive ads and programming.

Like most of the specialty bath and body stores, the biggest marketing tool is the stores themselves with bright colors and posters touting new products, campaigns and social issues.

As the Body Shop's biggest U.S. competitor, The Limited's Bath & Body Works is going strong. Worldwide sales increased 132% to $259.7 million in fiscal 1995, ended Jan. 28.

"Bath & Body Works is flourishing," said Allan Mottus, publisher of The Informationist, a cosmetic industry magazine. "Because of The Limited group, they have had the ability to get into various segments of the market where they want to be-The Limited, Victoria's Secret, and now their own shops."

Bath & Body Works doesn't use much traditional advertising either. Stores are laid out like a fruit market with baskets of oils, lotions, and shampoos.

Estee Lauder's Origins stores are a bit different in style and look than the Body Shop and Bath & Body Works. "What they've done is taken their department store heritage and transformed it into an avant garde boutique," Mr. Mottus said.

Origins has natural looking stores with soft wood colors, concentrating on cosmetics and skincare and less on fragrances.

Even the Sharper Image is putting its own spin on the trend. In July, the company will launch the Sharper Image Spa, a catalog and retail store chain selling products related to hair and skin care, massage and stress relief.

Sharper Image Spa will open five locations this year and seven to 10 stores will be opened per year. The spa stores will target an older, more affluent audience than competitors, selling items like a massaging hair brush, pulse face massager, body pillows, and a body fat tester.

Department stores have carved out their own bath and body sections, or partnered with specialty operators like H2O Plus.

"They have realized the need and the opportunity and they are leveraging some retail space and competing with us," the Body Shop's Ms. Shaban said.

The Gap, Banana Republic and even category killer Bed Bath & Beyond are or will be dabbling with their own bath lines.

According to analysts, the market for speciality bath and body products is here to stay. "I don't see the appeal of body products waning, but in the near future, a few strong product lines will dominate and the weaker products will be spit out," Mr. Mottus said.

Julie Ralston contributed to this story.

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