Asda takes on Boots in sun cream battle

The ‘consumer’s champion’ is moving its cut-price own-label assault to the suncare sector. Can it make inroads?

More than 40,000 people die of skin cancer each year in the UK. Between 1991 and 1995, the value of the total sun cream market increased by almost 40 per cent – to the point that in 1995 it was worth 115m.

The two figures are not unrelated. In the Eighties, sun cream products were marketed to promote a “healthy” tan. By the Nineties, “protection” had become the focus. Fear has replaced the desire for a bit of colour and price is a secondary concern. As a result, it is premium brands such as Ambre Solaire, Piz-Buin and Sun E45 which have experienced the biggest growth, according to Mintel figures.

But now Asda, which has spent the past two years positioning itself as the consumer’s friend, is entering the market. It will adopt its usual posture of saying it is offering a cheaper alternative – but will have to convince consumers that its Sun System range is of good enough quality to prevent them from frying.

For the first time consumers will be able to purchase a range of 12, 200ml bottles of suntan creams at a uniform price of 4.99 each, regardless of factor, when the products go on sale next week. By contrast, market leader Ambre Solaire’s factor eight lotion costs 8.49 for 200ml but the factor 25 sells for 9.79. Boots Soltan costs 7.79 for factor six, but 9.39 for factor 15.

“Higher factors don’t have to mean higher prices,” says an Asda spokesman. “We are not prepared to charge a premium for protecting fair skins. Many suncare manufacturers are making big profits – up to 200 per cent in some cases – but we do not believe health protection should come at such a high price.”

Consistently high-priced sun creams are an obvious target for Asda’s price policy, which flouted the resale price maintenance scheme for over-the-counter drugs in the run-up to the launch of its cut-price own-branded paracetamol and vitamin range (MW October 27 1995).

In a recent Mintel survey 72 per cent of respondents thought skin protection was more important than getting a good tan. But a joint investigation by the Consumers’ Association and The Sunday Times in 1995 caused alarm that not all sun creams gave as much protection as their labels claim. When they tested a range of sun creams they found only six out of 15 had the sun protection factor that was claimed on the label.

By slashing the price of the Anadin Paracetamol painkiller by half, Asda said it was fighting for the customer, who it claimed was paying over the odds to deliver huge profits to manufacturers. Cynics retorted that the move was nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt cutting the price on a small-selling item, rather than the main brand.

When Anadin disputed the move, Asda ceased stocking the paracetamol brand in its stores. The Office of Fair Trading is now investigating the operation of resale price maintenance, which is due before the Restrictive Practices Court later this year.

Asda refuses to say whether it will be slashing the prices of equivalent sun cream brands, such as Uvistat and Ambre Solaire, but it is developing a pricing strategy which will undercut all the main brands and other supermarket lines.

Asda’s new range will also target other own-labels, such as Boots’ Soltan and Superdrug’s Solait and supermarket ranges from Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which have sprung up in the past few years, themselves undercutting the major brands.

“Boots is a real target,” says one grocery source. “It is being taken on by the grocery chains which can undercut in areas like skincare because they do not have any infrastructure to build up.”

But Sun System will also significantly undercut rival grocery chain Sainsbury’s and Superdrug’s Solait. Superdrug’s marketing director Steven Round says: “Most of the major multiples now have competitively priced own-brand suncare ranges so it is no surprise that Asda has followed suit. Although Asda’s new range is aggressively priced, we understand there are only 12 products, so it is clearly at the expense of consumer choice.”

Boots refuses to be ruffled by cut-price policies. It claims when Superdrug started selling sunscreens at a third off branded ranges and its own range in the early Nineties, Boots actually increased its market share by two per cent from 49 per cent.

A Boots spokesman says: “When supermarkets such as Asda, which are not direct competitors, slash prices it makes the public more aware of the product and that’s good for everyone.”

In the light of the current pricing structures for sun cream, Asda’s cut-price brand is a significant entry into the market. However, as a product which is increasingly being marketed as a way of preventing cancer, Asda’s name is unlikely to have the same resonance as Boots the Chemist or even the medical associations that go with Superdrug.

“Our price pointing is a reflection of the supreme technology and ingredients we use,” says a spokeswoman for market leader Ambre Solaire. “Asda has had own brands in other areas and they have never threatened us.”

Asda’s Sun System range has not been independently tested yet and there is no reason to suggest it is less effective than other brands. But Asda must be careful that in such a sensitive market it has the power to sell as much on quality as on price.

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