Feminine Hygiene in Europe

November 15, 2005

new products give women more choices

Feminine Hygiene In Europe

new products give women more choices

By Helena Engqvist
Engqvist Consulting

One of the major events in a woman’s life is when she experiences her first period. The entrance to womanhood from being a child is a magic transition. At this time a girl starts developing awareness about her own needs, such as how to manage her period.

The first role model in a girl’s life is usually her mother. Multiple studies show that a mother gives her daughter advice on important questions such as which products to use during her period. Friends have a great impact too and girls talk about products they like. Some products are more accepted, while others are surrounded by taboos. Tradition, culture and education also influence their decisions. For example, in many European countries education about hygiene and personal matters begins as early as primary school.

Today, feminine hygiene products meet the basic criteria of absorption, comfort and discretion, although fashionable designs, new features and additives for ‘perceived’ better skin health play a bigger role. In addition, there are major changes in the demographic environment combined with challenges in retail and distribution. It is important to know where to find the best products, to learn how they perform and at what the price.

The Demographic Mystery

During the last 10 years, Europe has seen a change in population demographics. Fewer babies are being born, especially in the Western part of Europe  but also in some of the Eastern European countries. The female population aged 15-49 years has peaked across all of Europe in this timeframe and is now actually declining both in terms of percentage and in absolute numbers. The feminine hygiene sector is still expanding and consequently sales and volumes have increased. One important factor might be the still lower penetration and availability in some of the Eastern European countries. In addition, women are also using more products and favor various combinations. For example a tampon with a panty liner or pad backup is commonplace.

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In Europe some 42 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and panty liners were sold in 2004 compared to more than 35 billion products in 1997, according to Euromonitor International. The total European sales corresponded to approximately 30% of global sales of san pro products and reached more than $5.2 billion in 2004 compared with more than $3.9 billion in 1997.

A closer look into the numbers shows that the biggest movements in feminine hygiene are the increasing use of ultra-thin pads and panty liners in place of thick pads. Both ultra-thin pads and panty liners have shown annual volume increases with almost 5% each between 1997 and 2004. These two categories have in the same timeframe had an annual volume growth of 2.7% and 3.4%, respectively in Western Europe and 13.8% and 13.7%, respectively in Eastern Europe. In summary, ultra-thin pads and panty liners have increased their annual sales more than 4.5% and 6.3% respectively in Western Europe and around 13% in Eastern Europe. (Source: Euromonitor International).

Specific retail sales growth has been noticed in Spain in addition to high-growth markets such as Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland, mainly driven by increased sales of tampons, ultra-thin pads and panty liners. The sales development in Germany and the U.K. has remained more or less flat; while in France there have been increases in the sales of tampons and panty liners.

The growth and awareness of the product segments in feminine hygiene draw attention to a lot of other product categories such as hygiene wipes, spray, lotions and fragrances. For example this is the case in Poland where personal hygiene wet wipes belong to a still small category, which is growing rapidly together with cosmetic cotton. And many other Eastern European countries are following.

In some European markets retailers have placed the sections for feminine hygiene products together with light incontinence products for both men and women. It seems that there is more and more a gradual or undefined line between the two categories making it easier for consumers to find products that meet their needs.


Europe is Adopting the Global Concepts

As highlighted at the recent Outlook conference organized by EDANA, Europe is changing and its size and population have become even more important with the addition of 10 new EU member states last year, bringing the total to 25. The retail chains are getting more aggressive, leading to increased competition between branded products and private labels. Most challenging is the expansion of discount retailers who promote both selected branded products together with their own brands.

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A new consumer characteristic was discussed at Outlook, presenting the savvy consumer without traditional purchasing boundaries, because they are changing their behaviors and mixing trusted brands with private label products. An example is to buy not a branded tampon or ultra thin pad, but a private label panty liner or vice versa.

And, as several companies have stated: “The European market is getting more competitive with the focus on either branded products or retailer brands. This is especially obvious with the discount chains, which consequently lead to price pressures on nonwovens and other materials in addition to the price pressures on the product suppliers.”

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Such materials include topsheets made of thermally bonded and spunbonded nonwovens, apertured film with a cotton soft surface and apertured nonwovens, while backsheets are polyolefin-based film or solely a thin layer of nonwoven. The absorbent cores remain pulp-based or, for the thinner products, airlaid cores with superabsorbents.


How Do Consumers Choose Products?

How is it possible to make the right choice when there are so many different products on the shelves? Branded products and private labels compete for every centimeter of shelf space.

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However, to make it easier for consumers to choose pads and panty liners many companies use a labeling system with droplets based on the absorption capacity of their products.  This is not a defined industry code but based on the individual company’s description of absorbencies. Products can be coded with a drop for panty liners and very light products and up to five drops for night pads. Many suppliers have made it even easier to make the right choice by graphically describing the product range together with the droplet coding on the packages.

A few years ago EDANA orchestrated an effort together with the industry to align the absorbencies and coding of tampons across Europe. The European authorities agreed to this reference system and it has been in existence for some years. Now tampon absorbencies can be compared across Europe on the basis of a standardized absorbency categorization system (droplet system: one to six droplets). Furthermore detailed instructions about how to use the products as well as information about menstrual TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome), an extremely rare but serious toxic illness is provided with tampons in Europe.


Tampons Up for Revival

The tampon category might be up for a revival with many new features. One of the leading tampon brands, o.b. by Johnson & Johnson, has recently introduced several new innovations in two new product lines represented by o.b. Pro Comfort with SilkTouch features a three-dimensional PE-cover, for extra comfort and easier insertion. Also new is the classical o.b. tampon with nonwoven cover. Both products have innovative twisted grooves for reliable protection. The presence of o.b. and the other major brand, Tampax—called Always in  some markets—share the shelves with multiple private label products. One of the most recent introductions by Tampax is the applicator tampon with a wrap that protects the tampon even in the handbag and of course the multi-pack with three different sizes for best protection every day of the period.

Thick or Ultra-Thin Pads

There is a general trend that sales of full-size or maxi pads are declining significantly across all of Europe, giving way for the ultra-thin products. Thanks to the presence of superabsorbent polymers, these provide the expected absorption capacity. They also give girls and women the discretion, comfort and feminine design that has been sought after for generations.

Always, the leading brand in Europe, has had great success in expanding the market with products in all sizes and variants. The products feature a topsheet that feels like cotton. Recently Always & Freshelle, single-wrapped ultra-thin pads with an attached fresh wet wipe, has been introduced, addressing the need for optimal hygiene at any time. Always Maxi for night use is being promoted with extra absorbent, thicker core in the middle and channels to prevent leakage.

One of the key assets at SCA is “its ability to understand the consumer, together with the company’s innovative capabilities” said Ray Rust, global head of feminine hygiene at SCA. Unique solutions have been brought to the market by SCA with the Libresse brand and its new anti-leak technology in combination with SecureFit products and odor control. For example a unique Libresse night pad was introduced a few years ago with a patented Flexfit system for maximum protection. Other features are pads with the cotton soft surface that together with a full range of panty-liners complete the portfolio.

Mr. Lorenz Gilomen, member of the management board at Hyga SA in Switzerland, mentioned that “The market situation for normal and super napkins with fluff cores is difficult. Interesting seems to be the perspective for specially strengthened and shaped fluff ultra thin napkins and light incontinence products: The synthesis of the advantages of the two prevailing pad categories.”

The Winner is Panty liners

The leading panty liner brands, Alldays, Carefree and Libresse, show a great variety. Products range from the tiny micro products to string, tanga and full size, with and without wings, with fragrances and additives. Alldays Discreet, a recent introduction by P&G, introduced not only different panty liner designs less than one millimeter thick but also packaged in a innovative packaging with a plastic pouch in a half oval cardboard box. The Carefree brand, all the way from classic panty liners to Carefree Aloe, breathable backsheet and fresh scents, meet the needs of women’s various lifestyles. Although the branded European panty liner market is dominated by few major brands, it is supplemented by the “lucky other,” the private label sector.

More About Private Label

In Europe, like everywhere else in the world, private labels are increasing their marketshare at the expense of branded products. The top three manufacturers, P&G, SCA and J&J, hold more than 60% of the market in value terms and around 50% in volume terms, as for private label this figure stands at around 12%. For example, in Germany the private label market is growing rapidly especially in discount stores, where branded and non-branded products are close in performance, while aesthetic and cosmetic features still might be different. Here private label holds around 30% of the market according to Euromonitor International.

Numerous European players support the private label market. Henry Emond, marketing director at Kronosept, a Swedish producer, commented that “something new is missing and everybody is looking for the news.” Because of the demographics in Western Europe the market here is flat. However, news does reach the market and Kronosept has for example introduced an ultra thin anatomically shaped sanitary napkin as part of a new generation of body-shaped products. Mr. Emond mentioned the increasing need for niche products, and in some places the old-fashioned thick and very soft sanitary napkins are still popular.

Perfumed products are less likely to be accepted in the Nordic sphere, while heavily perfumed wet wipes are increasingly popular in Southern Europe, meeting a consumer need because of the warm climate. Although the market in Eastern Europe is expanding, for some this is not very interesting. Prices are low and exports are expensive and there is a trend that the major players are producing locally and reversely importing to Western Europe.

The New Trends and Developments

New designs and future trends target the expectations of modern women who have different lifestyles and use many different types, often expensive underwear, by focusing on discreetness and sleek design. Visible anti-leak systems featured with embossed lines and patterns, colored zones and flexible cores draw the attention of sophisticated consumers. They look at products for every individual usage situation and activity.

And, products are designed in multiple variants of shapes and sizes, e.g. string pads with and without wings, multiform and flexiform, colored and the very ultra thin panty liners that function only as drop-catchers. Some fit normal, tanga and string underwear in one product; others will meet needs selectively. They may contain aloe vera because of its perceived skin benefits or odor control agents for a better hygienic feeling and fragrances to prevent any unpleasant experience. Even the new types of innovative and compact packaging facilitate the need for easy storage and ‘take-away.’

Talking about lifestyles; women can also choose to reduce the frequency of their menstrual periods from 12-13 per year to only four by using modern contraceptives. These new alternatives give women another dimension of flexibility compared with some years ago. This is not to mention the use of pads and panty liners for light incontinence, an area getting more attention.

Over and over again the European industry is rapidly faced with the expectations of demanding girls and women who understand how to maximize every purchase to meet their individual lifestyle needs. So what will the impact be on the industry and especially material suppliers? Do they really know enough about the end user to meet these demands?

And finally, who is going to guide the young woman on her way to find the best individual solution when facing the plethora of options in the store? What is most important for her when she is going to buy her first products?

* Euromonitor International data reflects sales through all retail channels.

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