Despite pumping in spurts of promotional dollars, formula upgrades on household cleaners are forcing supermarkets to clean house in the category.Manufacturers are downsizing containers as they move toward products with stronger solutions, retailers and wholesalers say. To properly stock those items on shelves, they note, stores often must revamp the section."The [cleaners] space in our stores is shrinking

Despite pumping in spurts of promotional dollars, formula upgrades on household cleaners are forcing supermarkets to clean house in the category.

Manufacturers are downsizing containers as they move toward products with stronger solutions, retailers and wholesalers say. To properly stock those items on shelves, they note, stores often must revamp the section.

"The [cleaners] space in our stores is shrinking slightly because

the major brands are going to ultra formulas. So it might be an 18-ounce container doing the job that the 28-ounce container used to," said Charles Jones, head buyer at Scolari's Food & Drug Co., Sparks, Nev. "But in most cases, what they're doing is, rather than making the bottle smaller, they're making it squatter so they keep the same linear inches on the shelf."

Retailers welcome the updated items but not the frequency at which they're rolled out. "The problem is that there's a constant flow of new products and line extensions," said Larry Miller, grocery buyer and merchandiser at John C. Groub Co., Seymour, Ind. "What we've done is, three or four times a year, go in and reset the department. I don't know if I'm going to do it that frequently now that I'm buying [for the category]. We pretty much keep the same amount of space. We just clean up all the items we're discontinuing and put in all the new items we're going to try."

Higher-potency products, however, are giving the category an "in" with consumers, said Gene Hebert, a former buyer and merchandiser at A&P's New Orleans division, who recently joined the private-label brokerage Daymon Associates, Stamford, Conn.

"Extra-strength and professional-strength [products] have come further to the forefront. With the new chemicals and compounds, extra-strength seems to be the way to go -- particularly in cleaners, either heavy-duty or all-purpose," he explained. "It's not innovation so much but just new products with a slight twist or wrinkle to try to get the consumer interested and keep the category fresh."

New-and-improved entries outnumber brand-new items, but supermarkets can't ignore either one, Hebert noted. "You have to be critical of what you're going to put in because there's so much of it coming at you. You don't want to miss out. If it's from a major manufacturer -- Clorox or Procter & Gamble -- you definitely want to give them a chance because, for the most part, they've done their R&D."

New-product releases have generated some consumer attention for cleaners, according to Pat Hudson, grocery buyer at Byrd Food Stores, Burlington, N.C.

"The national brands have put a lot of money behind their new products," she said, citing several new Clorox items. "I think a lot of customers look for the new items because that's usually where all the promotional and ad monies are spent."

The category's breadth affords promotional opportunities, said Rod Boni, grocery merchandiser at Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind. "It's not heavily promoted [per se], but there is a lot of promotional activity. It's frequent," he said. "You have window cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, household cleaners, glass cleaners, etc. There are a lot of categories within the category to promote."

Retailers say they expect an influx of ad dollars for household cleaners as the winter months wind down. "[Suppliers] usually come in and have some extra money to reduce the cost and to run some ads in the spring and later in the fall," Hudson said.

"Spring cleaning is still a big annual promo in the category for us," Scolari's Jones said. "We're going to be doing a lot of [promotion] during that time. I think we have ours scheduled in March."

Cross-merchandising is a focus at Pay Less stores during the spring-cleaning drive, Boni reported. "When we do our spring house-cleaning sale, we try to tie-in brooms, mops, plastic buckets, sponges and other related items from general merchandise," he said. "We put them with our display wall or on an endcap -- wherever we can merchandise them. We try to cross-merchandise and cross-advertise, too."

Sponges, scouring pads, cleaning cloths and paper towels also work as tie-in items, Scolari's Jones said. "If the cleaner is going to be in an ad, we might give it an end and then put a stack of associated items next to it," he explained. However, he added, "since [manufacturers] are going into the ultra formulas, which have a higher concentration of cleaning agents, it tears up a lot of the stuff."

Bonus packs and bulk sizes have provided a promotional hook as well, according to several buyers and merchandisers.

"Clorox is big in bonus packs. They do a very good job with them. Our business has shown dramatic growth when we use bonus packs," said Glen Ferguson, grocery buyer at Associated Food Stores, a Salt Lake City-based wholesaler.

"In our market, larger sizes in most any category do pretty well. We're always in the mind-set of trying to trade the customer up as much as possible. And it's been proven that with larger sizes consumers use it more, for some reason. It's like, 'I have plenty here, so I can squirt away.' "

But like the formula upgrades, larger-sized packages can create extra work on shelves, according to Groub's Miller.

"A lot of times, [suppliers] want to bring in a bonus pack or a buy-one-get-one-free pack, which causes even more disruption in the category. We might have just finished a set of bottles, and now they're springing out one that's an inch higher or a BOGO pack that's twice as big and won't fit on the shelf," he explained.

"It seems like a lot of [suppliers] lately, too, have wanted to come up with some kind of pallet module that has 'X' amount of cases of this item and [other] items on there, which usually is their best deal or their best unit cost on the items," Miller added. "But the problem is there are so many [items] that you don't know how long it would take you to sell it, or there's no way that if it sells maybe halfway you could get what's left on the shelf."

Refills are popular with consumers, Miller said. "Just the regular refill size is a lot better for us in a lot of cases. Once a person buys the [cleaner] with a trigger or pump on it, then if they see a savings on a refill for that package they'll buy it."

Because of changing formulations and package sizes, the household cleaners department requires keen category management, buyers and merchandisers noted.

"We have redone that planogram constantly," Byrd's Hudson said. "We end up having to make space by deleting another item we already have that's not selling. So the actual shelf space has not changed."

Brand variety has remained static, Associated's Ferguson said, because supermarkets are leaving fewer slots for new products from smaller manufacturers as the majors reshuffle their lines.

"With category management issues, the [product] turnover is less because I don't think [retailers] are giving other [suppliers] new tries anymore," he said. "That's why you're not seeing many brand-new items brought in. We're trying to cut down the space and go with the [brands] that are promoting the product and have proven themselves in the past."

A key factor limiting the household-cleaner category's growth at supermarkets is competition from mass merchandisers.

For the 52 weeks ended Nov. 5, household cleaner sales at supermarkets fell 2.4% in dollars and 4.5% in units, while at mass merchandisers they jumped 14.1% in dollars and 9.7% in units, reported Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Supermarkets generate nearly two-thirds of the category's dollar sales, compared with about a quarter for mass merchandisers, according to IRI figures.

"Those [chains] kill the category," Scolari's Jones said. "They drive the items out of the marketplace because they sell them for so little. They use them as loss leaders to get people in their stores to buy their TVs and other merchandise. It drives the product price down to where the grocery store can't make any money on it."

However, supermarkets are more apt than discounters to have a "hot" price on cleaners, Boni of Pay Less noted. "During our ad week, we may be lower than their price, then we'll go back to regular retail. So we're in and out with the hot price, while they seem to put up mass displays and have a low price for a longer period of time."