Betting on boomers, P&G enters the adult diaper market

P&G's bet on adult diapers

It's the fastest-growing household products business—growing faster than toothpaste, tissues, toilet paper and other multibillion-dollar household staples. Give up? It's adult diapers.

While baby diapers is a much larger business, sales growth has been flat, while sales of adult incontinence products are rising, thanks to aging baby boomers in the U.S.

It's no wonder the world's largest consumer products company, Procter & Gamble, which has been struggling to post higher sales across businesses from beauty to cleaning for the past several quarters, is getting into the business.

P&G Chief Executive A.G. Lafley—who's been back on the job for just over a year, with a mission to find sales growth and turn around the core businesses—announced the entry during its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings call on Aug. 1. Next week, P&G will begin shipping a variety of products including liners, pads and disposable underwear under the Always brand in North America. The company already launched the line in the U.K., and will begin shipping to France later in the month.

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"With the trends in aging, the technology we have at this point and the strength of our Always brand, we think the time is right to get in," said Steven Bishop, president of global feminine and family care at P&G in an interview.

The move marks a return of sorts for P&G, which had once owned the Attends brand, but sold it off in the late 1990s. During that previous effort, the focus had been institutional. This time around it's all about the retail customer because that will be where the growth is, according to Bishop.

Incontinence is a $7 billion global market, and sales have grown more than 8 percent over the past five yearsfaster than the 5 percent to 7 percent growth in other products like toilet paper and tissues.

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Women account for 86 percent of total sales in the incontinence market, P&G said.

"One in 3 women ... over the age of 18 suffer from some sort of sensitive bladder or incontinence, but only 1 in 9 actually use a specialty adult incontinence product today. So there's just an enormous untapped opportunity here, and not just an untapped opportunity, but a need to truly improve lives for women," Bishop said.

P&G to turn focus to adult diapers as birth rate slows.
Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The company said it expects almost 50 percent expansion in the overall incontinence market, due to women with needs that don't already buy the products entering the category.

As for the demographics, the average age in the U.S. is 37.8 years old. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 76.4 million baby boomers, and the oldest of this generation, which includes those born between 1946 and 1964, are over 65 years old.

Ali Dibadj, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said the U.S., Western Europe and Japan are the prime growth opportunities for adult diapers, because of each region's demographics.

"This represents 80 percent of the current global market opportunity. All three of these regions have been growing in the mid-to-high-single-digit percentages over the past few years.

"Overall, we expect 7 percent growth for the next few years in North America and Western Europe, and close to 9 percent in Asia," Dibadj wrote in a research note last month ahead of P&G's official announcement.

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For now, the company is only focused on Europe and the U.S, and doesn't have plans to enter Japandespite the fact that the nation holds 25 percent of the global market share for incontinence.

In the markets it will enter, Dibadj expects P&G will be a "formidable competitor that will invest heavily" and successfully steal market share from the existing players.

Kimberly-Clark is the largest player in the market today, with 57 percent dollar share, according to Consumer Edge Research. Private label is second with 32 percent. Other players include First Quality Enterprises, SCA and McKesson.

In the baby diapers category, for comparison, P&G is in the lead, with a 41 percent market share, ahead of Kimberly-Clark and private label.

"P&G really needs a win these days and this launch will be under heavy scrutiny from investors and analysts," Dibadj said.

"Our goal is to have a billion-dollar brand," said Bishop. "We're getting in this to win and we believe we have the right to win with this proposition. That's what consumers are telling us."

—By CNBC's Sara Eisen