Baby pants have been on the market since 1989, when Kimberly-Clark introduced them in the U.S. with the name Huggies Pull-Ups. They were marketed as “training pants,” to be used when the baby was ready to be potty trained. For this reason they were only available in the larger toddler sizes.
While this introduction created a new market niche, Kimberly-Clark’s Pull-Ups never enjoyed the great success of other pants style diapers targeting younger babies. Unicharm launched the Moony Man brand of pull up style diapers in Japan in 1992 and this launch was followed with similar products from other diaper makers.
These products were so successful that baby pant manufacturers in Japan were able to surpass baby diaper sales in less than 10 years, allowing them to enjoy a market share of as much as 60% of all diaper sales in Japan.
Unlike, K-C’s product, Moony was not designed to be used just as a training pant; in fact many of the users were even too young to be potty trained. They changed the original concept from training pants to what we know today as “baby pants.”
We have confirmed a few times that a diaper with better fit has better containment performance, resulting in a higher usage of the absorbent core before any leakage is detected—a concept I often refer to as the “maximum capacity before leakage.” For this reason, even when two diapers have the same exact absorbent core, with the same exact amount of SAP and ADL, consumers perceive the most ergonomic design as being more absorbent. Open diapers with stretchable side panels usually perform better than those without any elastic, for the same reason baby pants usually outperform baby diapers.
Why do you need to be concerned about diapers and baby pants? For one simple reason, it is not possible for a baby diaper machine to make baby pants—the process is just too different to allow for a baby diaper machine to be easily converted into a baby pant without a major capital investment. However, it does not make much sense to invest in converting your diaper machine; the cost of the required modules will be for sure much higher then the total cost of your used line. Be extra careful if people try to convince you of the contrary.
Let’s explore some facts:
• Baby pants have always been more expensive than open diapers; this may have been one reason why they were not so successful in the Western World. On the other hand, not many people have put any effort in testing if there are any savings in terms of the number of units required each day when you compare pants with diapers.
• It is interesting to understand the cultural differences between the Japanese market and the U.S. and EU (both behave in a similar way) where baby pants market share is just about one third of current market share in Japan. If you stop to think about it, that is an amazing difference considering the similarity in purchasing power parity between these mature economies. When you compare baby pants usage in Latin American countries, the situation is not better. Baby pant market share today in Latin America is less than half the market share of the U.S.
• While the Japanese enjoy different customs and culture than their western counterparts, like removing their shoes to enter a home, that on its own does not explain the higher sales in pants.
• An interesting market experiment is currently happening in several emerging countries, like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. And it is also just starting to happen in Brazil. Let’s view India as an example, a country whose culture and economy are vastly different from the Japanese. It is surprising to see the exponential growth of Unicharm baby pants in such a short time and especially in such a poor country. When one looks at the current market share for baby diapers and pants, pants are winning. You could say that this is basically because Unicharm may be subsidizing sales in order to create volume, but it may be something else.
Last month I was having an interesting chat in China with Samir and Ritika Gupta (Business Coordination House in India) while we were waiting to present our papers in Guangzhou, China, Ritika suggested that one reason for the high sales of pants in India could be due to the Indian practice of having the mother constantly on the look-out for signs of early potty training–a practice uncommon in the U.S. where early potty training is not on the list of priorities for most parents. Having a baby with a pant instead of a diaper makes it much easier for the parent to “save” the pants, by taking the baby quickly to the potty before the diaper gets soiled.
I was able to validate this theory while visiting Bangladesh, where I was told people only use a diaper or maximum two per day, according to local market intelligence data. I was told that parents there are used at recognizing baby’s movements in anticipation to using the diaper, this comes from one generation to next, from grandmothers teaching mothers how to look for these signs.
One way we will know for sure the reason why sales for pants are picking up so fast in poor countries will be checking what happens once Unicharm’s subsidy is gone (in case there is one). Keeping a close watch on Brazil, where Unicharm is entering now, will be imperative to understand what may happen in other Latin American countries in a few more years.
Carlos Richer is the owner of The Disposable Diaper Network group on LinkedIn, the largest network of diaper industry executives. He will present more information on the performance difference of diapers and pants at Outlook Brazil in March.