Power brushes a hit at every level

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Competition and growth continue in the lower-priced battery-toothbrush business, but that hasn't hurt high-end rechargeable brushes, according to industry players on both sides of the playing field.

Consider: Procter & Gamble Co. is upping advertising behind its Crest SpinBrush Pro with a recent direct-response-style 60-second ad, while Philips Sonicare launches Sonicare Elite, a higher-performing version of the original, priced at $119 to $139-$20 ahead of the base model.

Though Sonicare only competes on the high end and SpinBrush competes only on the low end, both players saw sales jump more than 20% in the 52 weeks ended April 20, according to Information Resources Inc.

`ability to innovate'

"We've purposely tried not to transition people from the high-end brushes," said David Dintenfass, brand manager for P&G's Crest toothbrushes. "That market operates almost independently. I think that market will grow depending on the high-end players' ability to innovate."

Philips Sonicare, which leads the high-end market, believes it's doing just that with Sonicare Elite, the brand's first new product in 10 years and first since Philips bought the business three years ago. Priced up to 20 times the highest-priced SpinBrush Pro, the Elite includes such bells and whistles as timers to ensure people brush 30 seconds in each quadrant of the mouth, dual speeds and power that gradually increases during the first 12 uses.

"We continue to enjoy very strong growth," said Frank McGillin, VP-marketing of Sonicare. "Sonicare has a different technology, and in terms of the cleaning experience, it really is different. People who use Sonicare are incredibly passionate about it."

Sales of power brushes more than doubled between 1999 and 2002 to $315.7 million, according to figures from VNU's ACNielsen Corp., reported by Banc of America Securities. Almost all that growth, which doesn't include Wal-Mart Stores, club or department stores that are also big power-brush sellers, was due to lower-priced battery brushes. But the high-end players still saw their sales increase 7% during that period to more than $100 million, with growth likely faster than that if unmeasured channels were included.

The loser has been the manual-brush business, down 12.4% during those three years to $455.5 million, with sales off more than 8% through the first quarter of 2003.

Gillette Co., the only company to compete in manual, battery and high-end rechargeables, is seeing sales and share growth in all three segments and has reported double-digit growth in oral care the past two quarters.

But Gillette is pushing what could be a shakeout in battery brushes as it launches its Oral-B Crossaction battery brush, according to Deutsche Securities analyst Andrew Shore. He said on a recent conference call that Gillette sales reps are telling retailers the category is overcrowded and recommending Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s sagging Actibrush and Motion brands get the boot.

"I wouldn't want to confirm that we're making any kind of sales pitch along those lines," Gillette VP-investor relations Chris Jakubic said.

Either way, Colgate is losing power-brush share, down from 18.6% in the first quarter of 2002 to 10.6% last quarter, according to Banc of America Securities. A Colgate spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.

`aggressive' strategy

Far from giving up on the power-brush segment, though, Colgate earlier this month presented to its sales force what a spokeswoman called "a new aggressive power toothbrush strategy" and a new lineup that includes products for kids. The line includes the Bionicle kid's power toothbrush launching in September, which includes a toy that works with Lego's Bionicle action figures.

Crest SpinBrush's share, meanwhile, was up nearly seven points to 40.7% as it pushes its more premium SpinBrush Pro. Mr. Dintenfass is trying to stoke that momentum with a 60-second ad from Respond2, Portland, Ore., developed in cooperation with Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, featuring testimonials and a toll-free number for $1-off coupons.

Most people learned about SpinBrush Pro by word of mouth, and the testimonial style aims to mimic that, he said. Household penetration of battery brushes grew from 3.9% in 2000 to 11.2% last year, and Mr. Dintenfass sees room for that pace to continue.

"The market's never going to go back to the way it was," he said. "It's only going to change faster."

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