CPG Playbook   //   May 31, 2024

How Slatkin + Co’s Harry Slatkin creates unique candle lines for Dollar General, QVC and more

Scented candles remain a hot business, and not just for luxury brands. According to IBISWorld, the scented candle market in the U.S. has been growing at a rate of 1.7% per year since 2018, and $2.9 billion in 2023.

Slatkin + Co is one candle company that’s looking to cater to mass-market shoppers who want good-smelling candles on a budget.

First founded in 1992 by founder and CEO Harry Slatkin, the company was sold to Limited Brands in 2005, with Slatkin taking over the home fragrance division of Bath & Body Works. Then, in 2017, Slatkin relaunched the business as a separate new company, starting with the HomeWorx brand. The brand was first sold on QVC and then in retailers like Nordstrom, Kohl’s and Ulta. Slatkin + Co’s portfolio of home fragrance brands has grown to include HomeWorx, ScentWorx, Aroma Home and the youth-skewing Dwell212, debuting on QVC and in retail this fall.

The latest line is Club92, designed exclusively for Dollar General, which rolled out nationally starting in January. Club92 includes scented candles, wax melts and reed diffusers, all priced between $3 and $8.  

The Club92 launch is part of a bigger brick-and-mortar retail push for Slatkin + Co this year, with plans to add 26,000 doors by the end of 2024. Last year, the portfolio company took aggressive steps to reach wider audiences looking for trendy, accessibly-priced home scents. This move meant entering chains like CVS, Walmart and now Dollar General to expand its five brands’ retail presence. Since the plan’s rollout last year, Slatkin + Co has experienced a 30% year-over-year growth, with current revenue at nine figures.

Much of this expansion is fueled by Slatkin + Co’s Dollar General line, which is now in over 19,000 locations. The company is also selling its lines at off-price and home improvement stores like Home Depot, TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack, entering 5,000 doors collectively in 2023 and adding 3,000 more this year. 

But making a candle for a more value-focused customer is easier said than done.

Slatkin said “masstige” — the prestige products created for mass customers — is much harder to develop and scale than higher-end brands. “Luxury is easy to put together because you’ve got the money and you can try to hide the retail price,” he said, to create higher margins. 

“But when you get into our world, that customer has worked very hard for that money,” Slatkin said. Slatkin was inspired to make a candle for a value retailer after stopping by a Dollar General location where he saw the many cheap beauty and home fragrance products available. From there, Slatkin + Co pitched Dollar General on an exclusive line that became Club92. “It happened by finding that void in the market.” 

Katie Thomas, leader of the Kearney Consumer Institute, said shoppers at big-box and even dollar stores have higher expectations than ever for affordable luxuries like home fragrance. 

“We’ve seen such growth across income sectors at these retailers, so it makes sense they [retailers] see opportunity in people picking up these products along their shopping trips,” Thomas said. For the brands like Slatkin + Co that are trying to tap this market, Thomas said there is room for many because most people today tend to buy across price points, perhaps picking up name-brand candles during one shopping trip, and opting for private label items on another. “The masstige customer wants to be treated with respect,” she said. “They want to get that elevated experience even without a Le Labo budget.”  

The challenge for brands specializing in these categories, Thomas said, is figuring out how they can exist across various price points and retailers.

Targeting a new customer demographic  

Dollar General specifically is trying to find new ways to appeal to its customer base, Slatkin said, “but it’s also raising the bar for that new customer coming in.” Due to grocery inflation the last couple of years, dollar stores have attracted members of higher-income households who are trading down. This shift has prompted big players like Dollar General to develop more premium offerings that still appeal to the core customers looking for deals. 

There are challenges in bringing typical luxury features, such as lead-free wicks and sham on the bottom of the jar, to an affordable line. “We have about 150 different scents coming out this year across the five brands, and I test every single one of them,” Slatkin said. It takes about six to eight months to bring each candle to fruition. 

To get Club92 to the $8-and-under range, Slatkin said, “I tweaked ingredients and packaging to make it work” while still providing quality for the value. For instance, there are raw vanilla scents from all over the world that range vastly in price. “I can get jasmine in the South of France for a lot per pound, or I can get one with the same sensibilities in places like India that are much less expensive,” Slatkin explained. These cost-saving measures are what helps Slatkin keep the mass market lines, like Club92, under $10.

The same goes for sourcing a glass manufacturer who can supply cheaper jars than those used in HomeWorx, Slatkin + Co’s higher-end brand. “Do you get the same experience as my HomeWorx candle? No, but for this customer base, they’re going 10 steps higher than they’d normally do.” 

With hundreds of products and multiple lines now being sold at dozens of retailers, Slatkin + Co’s challenge is in pitching the right merchandise to each interested buyer. For the retailers ordering from Slatkin + Co’s existing lines, like CVS and Ulta, Slatkin said the company tries its best to match the retailer’s data to exclusive products.

“It seems like it’s all big-box stores and all the same, but there are different shoppers who go into a drugstore versus grocery,” he said. One important aspect of creating an exclusive line, said Slatkin, is to base it on that customer demographic’s taste and not just recreating the higher-end brands under the Slatkin + Co umbrella. “We then combine that data with our own, which also includes age groups,” he said. Slatkin noted that in the past 30 years, the candle shopper has skewed younger because more people are growing up with home fragrances than they did in previous decades. 

For instance, Slatkin pulled data from Dollar General when creating the scents, and found that the customer gravitates toward fruity, gourmand-focused fragrances even in other areas of the store. As such, SKUs like very vanilla cupcake, crisp apple and mango key lime were created.

As Slatkin + Co’s home fragrance lines expand into more retailers, the company hopes to cater to price-conscious candle lovers. The trick will be balancing the production margins with what each customer cohort is looking for in this category.

The on-shelf look and branding are important in grabbing first-time shoppers’ attention, Slatkin said, “but the quality of the burn and pricing is what gets them to come back.”