Last week, just seven weeks after launching it, Amazon temporarily halted sales of its Elements Soft & Cozy diaper line on its site. The online retailer emailed customers saying it was pulling the diaper line to make some design improvements. The email also indicated that the improvements were the result of early customer feedback and a new version of the diapers would be available again soon.
The diaper line, along with a baby wipes range, was launched exclusively to Prime subscribers amidst great fanfare in late November. Along with the new products, Amazon offered customers an “unprecedented level of information—when and where items were made, why each ingredient was included, where the ingredients were sourced and more.” The customer simply had to scan the package to reveal this information.
Just as the diaper industry reacted to the Amazon launch with great interest, it is has been abuzz with speculation post withdrawal. From the consumer’s standpoint, the diapers were not rated as highly as other premium brands. The diapers received an average rating of 3.4 stars on Amazon.com, about a point lower than Huggies and Pampers, and were priced similarly to the national brands, not including the $99 annual Prime membership fee needed to gain access to the diapers.
Tom Wilson, CEO of the Caregiver Partnership and a former Kimberly-Clark executive pointed out that the Amazon team had no experience positioning diapers correctly and their supplier Irving Personal Care has little or no consumer product marketing expertise.
“Diapers is a big business.” he says. “It’s tricky and if they don’t have people with the background, it is really hard to understand the nuances.”
Neither Amazon nor its supplier has commented on specific issues that led to the decision but diaper industry consultant Carlos Richer tested the diapers as part of a NAFTA diaper benchmark assessment examining 15 diaper products spanning the premium, value and private label segments.
He said the Amazon product was a good one but did not meet the same standards as premium diaper products, “They tried to sell the product as a premium product, not a private label brand, and this created a certain expectation,” he explains. “The Soft & Cozy product line did not meet that.”
To assess diapers, Richer looks at a tripod of properties to define how well a diaper will perform—liquid absorption, rate of acquisition and rewet. In a centrifugal absorption test, he found that the difference in absorption from one diaper to another was inconsistent, showing that the amount of superabsorbent polymer used per diaper could vary by as much as two grams, or 25%, in either direction—enough for a customer to notice.
Another problem was found in the rate of liquid acquisition in the diaper, which was slow even compared to value diapers. This is caused by two factors, the thickness of the layer, which is about 45 gsm, as well as its position within the diaper. “It takes a long time for the diaper to feel dry,” he says.
These issues were not necessarily deal breakers for the diaper. What may have presented more of an obstacle is the amount of hoopla surrounding the launch. “There was a lot of expectation. The diaper maybe could not live up to it,” he adds. "Irving Personal Care is a good company and makes a good product."
Another factor impacting Amazon’s role in diapers could of course be the market itself. Last week, in announcing its year-end and quarterly results, Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies and Pull-Ups diapers, indicated weakness in its diapers business, which reported a 10% volume decline during the fourth quarter of 2014. This softness caps a six-year streak beginning in 2008 during which K-C has lost about 15% of its marketshare.
Saying that the Huggies Snug & Dry brand has been challenged by premium Pampers in the higher priced tiers and value-priced Luvs and private label products in the lower tiers, CEO Thomas Falk told investors that K-C plans to make some significant changes to this brand. While he would not go into specifics, he did say that customers can expect some product launches and a few mainline improvements later this quarter.
Amazon elements wipes, which are being made by Nice-Pak, are still available.