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Aisle of man

Masculinity sells, retailers say

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By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / March 22, 2011

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SCHERTZ, Texas — Blue lowrider lights glow from the floor of the Men’s Zone, and speeding cars flash by on flat-screen TVs. But no one is downing beers and cheering on his favorite NASCAR driver. This is Aisle 13 in a Texas supermarket, a place where manly manicuring reigns supreme, not far from the deli counter and the florist shop.

Here, at the H-E-B grocery store, shoppers can browse more than 530 grooming products, including razors that sculpt beards, two shelves stocked with rinses to color gray hair, at least 15 body washes with names such as Swagger and Komodo, lotions that promise to smooth wrinkles, sprays to mask body odors, and eye roller gel to lighten dark circles.

And all of the goods are geared just for guys.

It is one of thousands of men’s grooming aisles that Procter & Gamble Co., better known for women’s brands like Olay, Tampax, and Pantene, is quietly testing at stores around the world. Several years after the consumer products giant took over Gillette, the Boston company that changed the way men shave, P&G is hoping to transform the way they shop.

P&G says sections dedicated to men’s products offer convenience for shopping-averse males: They can find the items they want without hunting through tampons and other feminine merchandise.

It’s also a safe space for men to learn more about toiletries that can stave off the ravages of age without worrying they may accidentally buy lavender-scented facial cream for women.

And the gender-friendly aisles, which showcase brands from various manufacturers, make it easier for retailers to present new lines that tap into the men’s grooming market, which soared 21 percent to $5 billion between 2005 and 2010.

P&G, which hopes to launch its first local test within a couple of months, concedes the idea is kind of a no-brainer.

“It wasn’t rocket science,’’ said Thom Lachman, P&G’s general manager of male grooming in Boston. “Men are buyers and not shoppers. They want to get the shopping done. And it benefits both men and women. Neither one likes to shop for personal grooming items with the other one right on top of them.’’

But the Men’s Zone is revolutionary for most major American stores, which group merchandise by category, rather than gender. Retailers that have tried it have seen a boost in sales of men’s products.

Separately from P&G’s effort, the New York drugstore chain Duane Reade has rolled out dedicated grooming sections — also called Men’s Zones — and plans to introduce the look in most of its 250 stores.

The discounter Target Corp. has experimented with a similar concept in about 1,000 shops.

At the H-E-B store in Texas, near a sign emblazoned with Gillette’s famous tag line, “The Best a Man Can Get,’’ touchscreen monitors feature short videos with pulsating music that explain why Gillette’s Fusion razors are superior and how to get the perfect shave.

Texan Angel Gonzales, 20, is just the guy these Men’s Zones are trying to attract: Since H-E-B launched its male-friendly section, Gonzalez has expanded his Old Spice regimen to include Nivea for Men body wash and Dove for Men+Care deodorant — two lines introduced in recent years.

“It’s nice to see all the choices. Before I just bought the same products,’’ Gonzales said. “It’s easier to find what I want, and I can just leave quickly.’’

That men even consider facial creams, much less flock to an aisle dedicated to such products, is a fairly recent development, spurred on by television makeover shows such as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’’ the popularity of body sprays like Axe among teenagers, and the growing sense among men of all ages that good grooming is not just for women.

While the era of the metrosexual may have faded, males are still showing interest in at least experimenting with brands designed to combat signs of aging. A report from the market research firm Mintel shows 11 percent of men purchased facial skincare products with wrinkle-reducing properties in 2010, compared with 8 percent of men surveyed a year earlier. And last year, 8 percent of men bought grooming goods that reduced eye puffiness or under-eye dark circles, compared with 5 percent in 2009.

It’s a small but growing opportunity, compared with the crowded women’s beauty market.

“The male market is tough to crack. They are happy to use the same product for their hair, body, and face. They would brush their teeth with it if they could,’’ said Kat Fay, a Mintel senior analyst. “But these separate grooming aisles are making it more user-friendly and less emasculating than shopping in a woman’s aisle when it comes to higher-maintenance lines.’’

Jerime Reid, 38, said he prefers the separation, at least in the grocery aisles.

“It’s a better experience when you don’t have to hunt through the ladies’ stuff,’’ Reid said.

Consumer products manufacturers insist that new lines for men provide real benefits and do not simply repackage women’s products with masculine scents or names like Axe’s Armor antidandruff shampoo. Advances in technology have allowed companies to formulate lotions, body washes, shampoos, and other items that address the differences in men’s skin and hair. Unilever, which introduced Dove for Men+Care last year, said a new clean-body-and-face wash is designed for those who prefer mild, unscented products.

Some grooming goods, however, seem to rely simply on manly marketing. Take body poofs, the mesh sponges women use to apply body wash in the shower. Unilever’s Axe and Dove lines have transformed the poof into a “shower tool’’ with a scrub side, a lather side, and a grip.

A Unilever spokesman, Rob Candelino, said these gender-specific items are a “promising business opportunity.’’ He declined to comment on P&G’s men’s grooming aisles — which also stock Unilever brands — but said the company plans to grow by “creating solutions that deliver male-specific benefits in order to meet men’s needs better than unisex or female products.’’

A spokesman for Duane Reade said its Men’s Zones allow the drugstores to offer more grooming merchandise, including higher-end lines like Anthony for Men. To make room, the chain has reduced its assortment in other areas with less promising growth, such as toothpaste.

Female shoppers appear to appreciate the segregation, too. Some even sound envious.

“I know exactly where to go to when buying my husband’s products,’’ said Melinda Reeder as she pushed her cart through Aisle 13 at the H-E-B supermarket in Schertz. “I wish we had this and there weren’t so many aisles for women’s products. It’s crazy.’’

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