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Antiviral marketing

Amid fears flu is headed back to school, too, germ fighters fill store shelves

Bath and Body Works in Boston had a sale this week on one of the most effective things you can use against H1N1: hand soap. Bath and Body Works in Boston had a sale this week on one of the most effective things you can use against H1N1: hand soap. (Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / August 13, 2009

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Merchants aim to pry open consumers’ wallets with a back-to-school campaign they hope parents will jump on: killing germs.

Amid heightened concern about a possible resurgence of the H1N1 virus this fall, retailers are promoting an expanded selection of sanitizing products to help guard against swine flu.

CVS is featuring displays full of merchandise designed to stop the spread of germs, including hand wipes, vitamin C supplements, and pen-spray hand sanitizers.

Bath & Body Works is promoting antibacterial products with huge signs plastered around its stores that say “Spread Love, Not Germs!’’

And Target is offering tissue boxes that kids can color with crayons.

“Our goal is to help customers easily find and identify products to help prevent the spread of germs for when children go back to school,’’ said Mike DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman.

The push for protection comes as merchants struggle to cope with tight consumer spending heading into the second-biggest shopping period of the year, behind the holiday season. The National Retail Federation projects back-to-school sales will drop nearly 8 percent, to $17.4 billion.

NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., says consumers plan to spend significantly less this year on footwear and apparel, making it even more important for retailers to capitalize on germ-fighting supplies.

“The H1N1 virus only supported consumers’ interest in protecting themselves and families against unseen bacteria,’’ said Bruce Cohen, consumer products strategist for the consultancy Kurt Salmon Associates. “With the potential for a significant flu season approaching, I would expect sales, shelf space, and retailer support for these [product] categories to remain strong as consumers and businesses look for ways to protect themselves.’’

Katherine Kaplan, whose daughter is entering kindergarten at Foxborough Regional Charter school, has a list provided by the school of items to pack for the first day of school: tissues, Clorox or Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sponges, and a package of scrubby sponges.

“I haven’t purchased anything yet,’’ she said, “but I will buy the hand sanitizer at the Dollar Tree and sponges at Ocean State Job Lot and wait for sales at Target, Benny’s, CVS, Walgreens, or Rite Aid for the other items.’’

Germ-X, a leading hand sanitizer brand, may get a big boost in sales this fall because of concern about H1N1 when students return to school, said Kristin Ebert, a spokeswoman for Vi-Jon Inc., which manufactures Germ-X. The company this year added several new fragrances, along with a portable 1-ounce purse spray and individual wipes, to make sanitizing on the go more convenient.

“Our goal is to ensure that we are doing everything possible to have products on the shelf for those consumers as that extra peace of mind,’’ Ebert said.

The small Germ-X sanitizer is being promoted for $1 or less at Wal-Mart. OfficeMax recently added Purrell Wipes to its offerings. And Walgreens has displays at the end of aisles where it is running sales through the school shopping season, including “buy 1 get 1 free’’ for the store brand 1-ounce hand sanitizers.

“This year, we’re expecting to see a significant increase in sales for these kinds of products because of the H1N1,’’ said Robert Elfigner, a Walgreens spokesman.

State health officials are putting together a packet for parents on H1N1 that will include recommendations about things like using hand sanitizers and other ways to prevent the spread of germs.

Frequent hand-washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of H1N1, according to health officials. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective, too.

But “We know that most classrooms do not have a sink, so alcohol-based sanitizers are really effective, and we are encouraging parents to send children with little bottles of sanitizers,’’ said Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Jim McManus, who was hospitalized with flu this summer, is planning to send his two children to school in Boston equipped with hand sanitizer in their backpacks.

“It was awful,’’ he said of the flu. “The schools better be ready for it with hand sanitizer, flyers for the kids and parents, and the vaccine when it comes out in October.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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