CLEANSING ACTION

As new products continue to wedge their way into the bathroom cleaner category, it's "out with the old and in with the new" at the store level.Retailers and wholesalers say bathroom cleaners comprise an important profit-generating category. Buyers said bathroom cleaners can pull in upwards of 20% margins at retail.However, space constraints are leading them to predict that the sections in most stores

As new products continue to wedge their way into the bathroom cleaner category, it's "out with the old and in with the new" at the store level.

Retailers and wholesalers say bathroom cleaners comprise an important profit-generating category. Buyers said bathroom cleaners can pull in upwards of 20% margins at retail.

However, space constraints are leading them to predict that the sections in most stores are not likely to grow beyond an average 12-foot shelf allotment.

The category is showing growth, in large part due to the bevy of product introductions; but the extent of growth is not enough to warrant expanding the

section in stores, they told SN.

National scanning data shows that the bathroom cleaner business is indeed expanding. In the 52-week period ended this past September, for example, dollar volume totaled $193.8 million, up 4.3% over the previous year. Unit volume was up 5.1%, to 82.6 million units, according to Nielsen North America, Schaumburg, Ill.

Setting the pace are new items that not only make the bathroom clean, but also make it sparkle by fighting mold and mildew.

"Mildew items and anything with bleach are hot right now," said Ron Magstadt, a category manager at Associated Grocers, Seattle.

"The trend is going toward those items with bleach. The products without bleach are losing momentum," said Patty Lamphier, a grocery buyer at Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash.

"Most of the new products I'm seeing are with-bleach type items," said Glen Ferguson, a grocery buyer at Salt Lake City-based Associated Food Stores.

Indeed, retail and wholesale buyers said they are seeing a lot of those new products. In some cases the buyers are feeling overwhelmed.

"They're not setting the world on fire, but all the manufacturers have a [new bathroom cleaner]," said Barry Roupe, a buyer at Richfood, Mechanicsville, Va.

"I think Clorox could be credited for expanding the category with the introduction of Tilex, because, before that, there wasn't much going on," he added. (According to scanning data from Nielsen, Tilex showed a remarkable 116.9% jump in dollar sales in 1994.)

"Now, everybody's getting into the act," continued Roupe. "Most of the formulations have been out there for a long time, it's just that the other companies didn't capitalize on it. Now, they're trying to."

And from that standpoint, Roupe assessed that the category has surely grown, but not without consequence. "It's getting kind of saturated."

Ferguson of Associated Food Stores said the hyperactivity within the category is making the numbers difficult to calculate, even when he's reviewing them on paper.

"The category is saturated; that's the reason I can't give you an exact stockkeeping unit count," he said. "I've got the category analysis right in front of me, because I'm looking to discontinue as much as I can possibly get away with. Manufacturers just don't bring in one new cleanser; they bring in bleach, mildew remover, heavy-duty. There are easily dozens to deal with."

"I think we've gotten too many household cleaning products in the last two, three years," said Associated Grocers' Magstadt. "Now, you've got to take one on, and take one off." Magstadt agreed that he's seen growth in the category, "but there's not enough growth [to support] the many new items that are coming out."

"As a wholesaler-retailer, you have to cut back," said a buyer for a major Midwest-based company. "In our stores, the bathroom cleaner section is not growing anymore. So we're trying the new ones vs. the old ones," he said.

"Every time you turn around, manufacturers are coming out with another one," echoed Mike Tidd, a grocery buyer at Super Food Services, Cincinnati. Recognizing that retailers can't possibly carry all the SKUs, Tidd also said, "We try to keep them weeded out as much as we possibly can."

So, how do these buyers pare down their offerings? Mainly, it's in the movement statistics, they said; but the determination can become more complex than that.

"There are several factors," said Ferguson of Associated Food Stores. "First would be movement. But, for wholesalers, a retailer's movement stats could be deceptive.

"The movement might not always be correct," Ferguson explained, "because one retailer might back a 12-pack and another might back a 24. Therefore, one retailer appears to move more products but it's only because of the pack size."

After movement, Ferguson said he'll look at actual size of the products. "Maybe a certain size doesn't sell, so you always try to discontinue that and trade the customer up to a larger size, which would give them more of a ring at retail."

Magstadt of Associated Grocers said he deletes any duplication of products. "We also look at how long the item has been in the system. If it's been here only three months, I wouldn't discontinue it. But if it's been here six to eight months, I would."

To make room for a new bathroom cleaner, Magstadt said he more than likely will discontinue another bathroom cleaner.

"I wouldn't look in the kitchen area and other household cleaners unless there was nothing I could discontinue in the bathroom cleaners. Then, I may go to another cleaning section and see how all the movement is in those categories," he explained.

Another cleaner category where consumer activity seems to be picking up is disinfectants, said Linda Morgan, grocery merchandiser for Fleming of North Carolina, Warsaw, N.C., a division of Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City.

The Nielsen numbers show that segment is up 7.3% in dollar sales to $102.9 million. And toilet bowl cleaners hauled in $228.7 million, up 11.9%. Unit volume was up 6.3%.

Because the category has shown a moderate amount of growth, most of which the buyers credit to the new products, there is some debate on whether the new crop of bathroom cleaners represents incremental sales or consumers swapping products.

"People may still be buying their original items and trying the new ones, so the category is showing some growth. But I don't think it's bringing new customers to the category," said Gene Hebert, a buyer with A&P's New Orleans division. "At this point in time, I think there may be a slight addition to sales."

However, Fleming's Morgan said she thinks consumers, like retailers, were simply replacing one bathroom cleaner for another.

Other buyers said they have noted a net growth in sales for the category, which, to them, indicated that trading off was not a major factor.

"I think the sales are incremental; they're an addition to the category," said Super Food's Tidd.

The Midwestern wholesaler said, "I think they're helping the category and they're incremental sales. That's where the category trend is headed."

Richfood's Roupe concurred, saying consumers are probably looking at the mildew fighter as a specialty product for their bathroom chores.

Associated Food's Ferguson said the movement was a combination of the two. "I think there are incremental sales, but they're probably trading, too. It's hard to say yes or no to that," he said, noting that, after all is said and done, the new products are neither terribly good nor bad for the category's bottom line.

Because bathroom cleaners do not comprise as large a category as some of the other cleaners, wholesalers reported that manufacturer support remains stable, with no real differences from year to year. Several said the category has been helped by television advertising.

Fleming's Morgan credited television commercials, which emphasize the virtues of the new cleaners, with changing the consumer's buying habits.

"Since there are new items coming out all the time, there does seem to be quite a bit of advertising support, although all of the new items don't make it," said Super Food's Tidd.

"The big push was for Soft Scrub and some of those products. And the latest was when P&G came out with some pretty good products like the Comet bathroom cleaner," explained Richfood's Roupe.