January 20, 2011

What Caused The Shortage Of ‘o.b.’ Tampons?

Already under scrutiny for a series of recent product recalls, Johnson & Johnson has another public relations issue on its hands after its o.b. tampons temporarily disappeared from stores with little or no explanation.

Users of the applicator-free tampons, many of whom are fiercely loyal, said they were furious when they could not find the product in stores late last year.

J&J has not said much about the matter, other than acknowledging that it had experienced a temporary supply interruption with o.b., and apologizing to those inconvenienced by the situation. 

The company said it has resumed shipping the product, but offered no further explanation about the shortage.

Users of the Ultra version of the product, which J&J has discontinued last September, have been outspoken in their complaints in online social media sites.

J&J said that its discontinuation of Ultra tampons, the most absorbent version, was a business decision, and not a result of any health issues.

"To discontinue a product with huge loyalty is a surprising move when you're already getting negative press for other issues," said Tim Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, during an interview with Reuters.

"J&J has had an astonishing series of snafus; there's been one problem after the next," Calkins said.

Last year, J&J recalled millions of bottles of medications such as infant Tylenol.  The company also recalled some 50 million more packages of medicines earlier this month, citing cleaning procedures and other issues at a manufacturing plant.

"So far it seems like the J&J brand is still holding up okay. But at some point you do begin to think that there's going to be a long term impact," Calkins added.

O.b. is a small brand in the overall U.S. tampon market, and accounts for just a small fraction of J&J's $61.9 billion in annual revenue.  However, the brand has a loyal customer base among women who prefer the tampon's fit or who want an environmentally-friendly option without a plastic or cardboard applicator.

The product, created by Gynecologist Dr. Judith Esser, was first produced during the 1940s. The name "Ëœo.b.' stands for "ohne binde," or "without napkins", in German.

For now, much of the product's loyal customer base is being forced to seek alternate brands.

"You force customers to buy your competitor's products and that's always a dangerous approach," Calkins told Reuters.

More than a dozen people have already submitted bids for one of several boxes of Ultra o.b. tampons up for sale on eBay, with the price currently set at $28.75.

Third-party merchants who sell their products through Amazon.com have priced boxes of the popular tampons as high as $79.99.

Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Yukela Williams apologized to consumers about the inconvenience, and said that women should expect to see the product back on store shelves soon.


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