While many retailers have taken a bath in the uncertain economic climate of the past few years, purveyors of bath and body products are splashing in success. And the number of specialty stores and lines continues to bubble up in malls and department store corners devoted to getting clean and smelling nice.
In the holiday season, bath products and gifts have the same essential function -- they make people feel good. And as gifts, the pampering potions found in bath boutiques have much to recommend them.
"Bath products are the '90s gift answer to flowers," says Barbara Jorgensen, spokeswoman for The Limited's Bath and Body Works shops, which debuted two years ago. "They smell just as good as flowers and stay around longer. Plus, they are non-caloric, non-alcoholic, good for your health and will not clash with your decor."
Laura Hubbard, area merchandising manager for Nordstrom cosmetics and gifts, says there is a feel-good air in the stores. "This year especially, people are shopping very early and seem to be excited about the holidays. Last year was sluggish, and the year before we had the Gulf War. People finally seem to be having fun and giving themselves little treats as well as gift shopping."
Another advantage of shopping the bath lines is that many of the products work for men and women. Ms. Hubbard says that the Nordstrom Bath Essentials line, which was introduced 18 months ago, has been extremely popular with both sexes.
"The peppermint and menthol products are targeted as splash and fun and not serious," she says. "They give extra meaning to the time people spend in the shower or tub and the menthol fragrance really clears the head and peps up the morning."
That fragrant rush to the senses is said to have physical benefits, too. Maxine Boorstein, director of marketing for the Amanda Fielding stores, says the chain's Secret Garden line of bath products was developed after a careful look at the growing popularity of aromatherapy in Europe.
"We sensed a trend, the idea of using fragrance not just as a scent to make you smell pretty, but also for
psychological and physiological effect," she says.
"That's what aromatherapy does. Let's say you steep in a bath for 20 minutes. The scent released to the nose will create a psychological soothing, the oil absorbed into the skin creates a physical benefit," Ms. Boorstein adds.
Aromatherapy has, in a sense, changed the fashion in fragrances. "The aim of aromatherapy is not to please, necessarily, but to have an effect," says Ms. Boorstein. "If marjoram has a relaxing feel, it helps if you like the scent, but the quality is more important.
"We don't position our product in a medical sort of way as they do in Europe; they use aroma to treat, but it is an idea that the Egyptians and Romans practiced centuries ago."
The Japanese actually implement the aromatherapy idea, she adds, by scenting subways to calm and relax people in a rush.
"In 1988 when we started thinking about Secret Garden, nobody outside Body Shop carried aromatherapy," says Ms. Boorstein. "But now many other lines are on the scent. Estee Lauder has introduced the Origins line and Bath and Body Works are also going along with the concept."
The aroma of herbs and fruit at the bath shops suggest the air of an open market, a pleasant way to sniff, test and browse.
Lisa McNellif, spokeswoman for The Body Shop, says the company tries for simplicity and accessibility. "We are committed to community service, minimal packaging, natural products and a concern for the environment," says Ms. McNellif. "However, our products are also a lot of fun."
She suggests a range of gifts for all personalities and all ages. "For example, our endangered species soaps and sponges -- pandas, elephants, turtles and rhinos -- are remarkably popular with youngsters," says Ms. McNellif. "They inform and educate and can be bought separately as stocking stuffers or in a knapsack gift set."
Yet another gift advantage of bath boutiques is that they suit all sizes and budgets. Baskets small or lavish can be made by the individual. There are bright sponges, scrub gloves, bath beads, exfoliators, moisturizers, oils and soaps of many colors. "If you want to make it a blue Christmas, you can make . . . your own gift basket with ice blue shampoo, lotions or soap," says Ms. McNellif.
Bath and grooming products are also an easy way to shop for the men on a gift list because so many prod
ucts cross over gender. Men are newly interested in gels, masks and face scrubs and many new products are multipurpose.
Barbara Jorgensen of Bath and Body Works cites a GQ study that found men may spend up to 44 minutes a day on personal care -- that includes showering and shaving, but they are also learning to spend some extra time on their grooming.
"The darlings are being influenced by the media, more in the health and sun-protection areas, but they are paying attention. They don't read the fashion magazines but they are being taught to take care of themselves by the women in their lives -- wives, lovers, sisters," says Ms. Jorgensen.
Bath gels are especially useful for frequent fliers because they are dual-purpose and can be used as a shampoo and body soap.
Lisa Herling, communications manager for The Body Shop, suggests massage oils as a gift because they imply some pampering and intimate time with the giver. "A couple may not have enough money to get away for a vacation, but an aromatic soak in the tub and a massage after is a little affordable luxury they can share."
Laura Hubbard, who in her job covers a lot of miles for Nordstrom, says the store's Aloe-Mint foot rub is a grand gift idea. The cream penetrates the feet and soothes and moisturizes. "It feels great to rub on before stepping out for a holiday party," she says.
"I would tell men who are shopping for gifts to skip the flowers, candy and expensive perfumes and give a foot-rub."