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Whitens, Brightens and Confuses

Stores Stock So Many Types of Toothpaste, Consumers Are Annoyed; Some Wonder, Does Brand Matter?

By Ellen Byron - The Wall Street Journal

It should be so easy: Buy toothpaste. But few shopping trips are more bewildering.

An explosion of specialized pastes and gels brag about their powers to whiten teeth, reduce plaque, curb sensitivity and fight gingivitis, sometimes all at the same time. Add in all the flavors and sizes, plus ever-rising prices, and the simple errand turns into sensory overload.

Manufacturers acknowledge the problem and are putting the brakes on new-product introductions. Last year, 69 new toothpastes hit store shelves, down from 102 in 2007, according to market-research firm Mintel International Group.

Procter & Gamble Co., maker of Crest, says it has "significantly" reduced the number of oral-care products it makes world-wide in the past two years. "We've come to realize that fewer is better," says Matt Doyle, director of global oral-care research and development at P&G, who sometimes brushes his teeth 20 times a day in the course of research.

Stores are trying to simplify, too. Last month, 352 distinct types or sizes of toothpaste were sold at retail, down from 412 in March 2008, according to Spire LLC, which tracks shopping data from more than 30 million U.S. households.

Supervalu Inc., the supermarket giant, has capped the number of package sizes and flavor versions in its stores. "The palate might not be able to discern that sixth variant of mint," says John Mullaney, Supervalu's director of personal care.

"There's so much variety now that it has gotten a little daunting for shoppers," says Toby Truitt, store director for Major Market, a Fallbrook, Calif., grocer. He tells managers to give every customer the same advice. "We tell them to talk to their dentist," he says.

Crest hit the market in 1955 and in 1960 became the first fluoride toothpaste to gain the American Dental Association's "seal of acceptance." Toothpaste was elevated from cosmetic to therapeutic status, and sales of Crest nearly tripled within the next two years. The 1980s brought tartar-control formulas, raising consumer expectations of what toothpaste could do. Ever since, companies have brought out benefits and ingredients, in search of the next game-changing upgrade.

Each new benefit is a chance for toothpaste makers to push prices upward and drive sales. With some 93% of U.S. adults using toothpaste, according to Mintel, there's little room to recruit new users.

Even through the recession, when unit sales of toothpaste actually dipped, prices kept rising. The average price of toothpaste last year reached $2.83, up 8% over the past four years, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a market research group whose data excludes figures from Wal-Mart Stores and club stores. Today, toothpaste commands some of the strongest brand loyalty in stores.

Packaging plays its part in toothpaste-aisle clutter. "The toothpaste carton is a certain size and shape and sits on the shelf in a certain way. That makes it hard to communicate effectively when there's a meaningful difference in a new product," says Jonathan Asher, senior vice president at Perception Research Services, which specializes in packaging and shopper marketing.

This year, Colgate-Palmolive Co. introduced packages meant to be more easily deciphered. It standardized sizes of the Colgate logo, the "sub-brand" and the flavor or benefit, so shoppers will notice them in that order. It did what it calls "shelf tests," timing how long it took shoppers to find new packages of Colgate Total Advanced Whitening and other variations, versus older packages. "The new packaging was not only preferred but it was easier to find," says Nigel Burton, president of Colgate's global oral care, consumer insight and advertising.

Despite the overload, toothpaste is a retail darling, with something for every shopper. Stores see it as a steady traffic generator. The price range for toothpaste and related products, like whiteners, is one of the widest in consumer products, says Dina Howell, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi X, an in-store marketing unit of Publicis Groupe. "You can buy $1 toothpaste or $50 whitening strips," she says.

Two brands, Crest and Colgate. together command some 70% of toothpaste sales. Brand loyalty in toothpaste is so high that retailers are reluctant to shed even small brands. "If [shoppers] can't find their brand at a particular store, they'll go somewhere else to find it," says Pat Conroy, Deloitte LLP's U.S. consumer-products leader. "And while they're somewhere else, they might buy all the other things they need there, too."

"Since these toothpastes now claim to do everything, why do they need so many?" asks Bill Chabot, 66 years old, of Ontonagon, Mich.

Many dentists think differences between brands aren't very meaningful. "Just make sure it has fluoride and has the American Dental Association seal," says Ada Cooper, a New York dentist and consumer adviser for the ADA, which evaluates toothpaste claims. The ADA's seal "tells you that the product has been tested, that it's effective in doing what it says it's going to do, and has the right mix of ingredients."

"The brand itself doesn't really matter," she says. Ask a dentist whether you need a specialized toothpaste. Otherwise, "just choose a product that you like, which means you're going to use it more regularly."

Fluoride is what helps prevent cavities. "If you don't use toothpaste with fluoride—and some toothpastes that say "natural" don't have fluoride—I'm willing to bet you that within six months to a year, you will get decay in your mouth," says New York-based dentist Nancy Rosen.

Is there a difference between Crest's basic tartar-protection-with-whitening toothpaste and the premium-priced Crest 3D White toothpaste, part of a regimen also including mouthwash and whitening strips? "There are some proprietary silicas that we've invented with co-suppliers that do better jobs at this gentle polishing than standard silicas," P&G's Mr. Doyle says. "Not all silicas are created equal."

Write to Ellen Byron at ellen.byron@wsj.com

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