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Why feminine hygiene start-ups find traditional brick-and-mortar distribution unviable

Ajita Shashidhar     March 5, 2021

Every time a woman buys a pack of sanitary napkins at her neighbourhood grocery store, it is the man behind the counter who is more uncomfortable than the woman herself. The usually friendly salesman tries his best not to have an eye contact with the woman across the counter, hurriedly wraps the packet in an opaque black cover and hands it over to her.

The stigma attached around menstruation in India has made shopping for sanitary napkins a far from pleasant experience, especially in traditional grocery stores. Most women are also extremely uncomfortable talking about the challenges they face around menstruation. No wonder most of the challenger feminine hygiene brands such as Carmesi or Nua Woman have opted to be a digital-only brand.

The Rs 5,000-odd crore feminine hygiene market (dominated by P&G and Johnson & Johnson with over 90 per cent market share), has witnessed the entry of a host of new-age brands in the past few years. All these brands believe that they are able to solve period-related problems of women far better on a digital platform.

"The women are far more open to talk about their period-related concerns digitally," says Tanvi Johri, Founder, Carmesi. "Digital has opened up a lot of conversations around menstrual health, the different kinds of products that could be used such as a pad or a menstrual cup or whether to use an organic pad," adds Ravi Ramachandran, Co-Founder & CEO, Nua (Lagom Labs). Carmesi has 66,600 followers on Instagram, while Nua's Instagram page has 147,000 followers.

While an omni-channel strategy with a strong presence in traditional stores is definitely needed to become a $1 billion brand, these premium challenger brands plan to be only digital, at least for the short to medium term.

Ramachandran says that the only way to disrupt in a category such as sanitary napkins is through experience. "Can we personalise as each woman's period needs are different or can we solve their problem through technology? We can offer varied experiences only when we have a digital-only strategy. Even if the woman is okay going to a retail store to buy a packet of pads, it's never going to be great," he further explains.      

A traditional distribution strategy isn't a great idea for the low-cost feminine hygiene brands too. Suhani Mohan, Co-Founder of Saral Designs, which sells sanitary napkins mostly in lower income communities, says the key for success for a low-cost sanitary napkin brand is affordability and accessibility.

She says that a woman living in a village or in a low-income community has least brand loyalty, and added to it is the stigma attached to going to a shop and buying a pack of pads. Therefore, instead of making her products available at the nearest store, Mohan has created an all-woman last mile delivery network, that delivers the product right at the consumer's doorstep. "We call these women Sangini and they deliver pads along with other fancy things such as bangles and bindis," explains Mohan.

Mohan has created her own pad-making machine which she franchises to micro entrepreneurs. Through her franchise network, she has set up over 35 pad manufacturing facilities. "These manufacturing facilities are closer to the market and help us solve the problem of both accessibility as well as affordability."

SheWings, which is also into low-cost sanitary napkins, has a B2B business model where it partners with corporates and government institutions to distribute napkins in lower income communities. "A B2C model needs lot of capital and unless we have a big investor on board, we won't be able to sell in traditional stores," says Madan Mohit Bharadwaj, Co-Founder of SheWings.

Bharadwaj has recently partnered Crowne Plaza to provide menstrual hygiene kits. "Hotels only offer men's grooming kits, none of them provide menstrual hygiene kits. We are in conversation with all the leading hotel chains to supply menstrual kits," explains Bharadwaj.

Most of the challenger brands that are selling premium products, such as organic pads or bio-degradable brands, are also planning a range of other feminine hygiene products such as anti-acne creams specially meant for pre-menstrual conditions, or solutions around reducing menstrual cramps and bloating. SheWings is planning an entire range of premium products such as vaginal wipes, vaginal moisturisers and breast pads, which it plans to sell B2C.                       

Feminine hygiene has been monopolised by the likes of P&G and Johnson & Johnson. Though Indian FMCG majors like Emami have tried, they haven't been too successful in this area. On the other hand, there has been quite a bit of action in the men's grooming space, with companies such as Marico acquiring online male grooming start-up Beardo, and Reckitt Benckiser picking up stake in Bombay Shaving Company. Ramchandran of Nua hopes that the day isn't far when the biggies would also show interest in feminine hygiene upstarts.

Also read: Women's Day Special: How to inflation-proof your investments?

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