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updated 8/4/2006 7:24:16 PM ET 2006-08-04T23:24:16

Procter & Gamble Co., in a campaign to learn more about what triggers a woman's "buy" impulse, is opening its first U.S. store that will sell exclusively Olay products, in Kenwood Towne Centre.

But the 130-square-foot kiosk space, which will operate from Aug. 15 to Oct. 15, is really more of a laboratory than a store. It's a controlled environment where Procter researchers can observe, in the purest form, just how women choose and combine products.

Such research can be crucial for properly expanding a brand such as Olay, which already posts sales north of $1 billion. Skin care regimes, because they involve a spectrum of creams, ointments and anti-aging ingredients, are complicated ventures for shoppers and marketers. Should she use both the night cream and the eye serum? Is she a candidate for Olay Regenerist or Olay's latest line of anti-aging creams, Definity?

Should she choose Olay over Cliniqué?

"This is as truthful as you can get," said John Brownlee, brand manager of Olay North America. "You say that you really love it, but do you love it $20 worth?"

Which is the tricky thing about Olay, an increasingly upscale brand that is sold in drug stores, supermarkets and mass merchandisers. Procter cannot set up a counter in the aisles of Wal-Mart or Kroger, so shoppers cannot rely on a consultant to explain how to use Olay's many different products. Besides, Brownlee said, "women never browse if there's something crying or melting in their cart."

So Procter has turned to Benchmark, a downtown marketing firm of 45 people, to design the kiosk at Kenwood. It follows similar Olay counters and kiosks that Benchmark designed in Poland, Spain, Russia and Mexico.

"The key task of this site is not to sell the product," said Maria Deacon, senior environmental designer at Benchmark. "This is acting as a teaching tool."

A modern, upscale tool. The Kenwood kiosk will feature tall counters and high seats, where consumers can meet with the beauty consultants. Two sides are walled, to give the impression of a department store cosmetics counter, and large images will hang behind product displays.

Procter considers the kiosks and counters the closest thing to spying on a woman as she shops. Sure, there are other forms of research. But in-house grocery stores, focus groups and shop-alongs are not as reliable because shoppers tend to do what they think the researcher wants.

Not to mention that buying face cream is a completely different experience than buying detergent or macaroni, even if it happens under the same roof.

"You go to Wal-Mart or a supermarket and pull Tide off the shelf. You're there all of two seconds," said Davis Dyer, author of the Procter biography "Rising Tide." But purchases such as Olay, he said, generally take more thought and comparison.

At the kiosk, Procter package designers, engineers and market researchers will mingle among independent beauty consultants, observing the shoppers. Over two months, 80 Procter professionals will rotate through the store.

With the information they glean, Procter may tailor Olay's packaging or in-store marketing, Brownlee said. But retail experts do not expect Procter to leave the mass merchandise format.

"The ideal situation would be to make your brand somewhat upscale but sell it in a self-service format through really good displays and signage," said Don Longo, editorial director at VNU Business Media's Retail Group, whose publications include Progressive Grocer, Adweek and Brandweek.

Indeed, some mass merchants might be coming around to Procter's way of thinking: Longo said warehouse chains such as Costco and Sam's Club, are interested in offering demonstrations.

© 2007 Cincinnati Business Courier

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