HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL IN CLEANING CATEGORY

Cross merchandising and new-product lineups are among the new approaches retailers are taking in the spring-cleaning category this season .These new strategies are an effort to head off consumer defection to mass merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Target."Mass merchandisers have made shopping for cleaning supplies an event for the consumer," said Gary Evey, communications manager at Spartan Stores.

Cross merchandising and new-product lineups are among the new approaches retailers are taking in the spring-cleaning category this season .

These new strategies are an effort to head off consumer defection to mass merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Target.

"Mass merchandisers have made shopping for cleaning supplies an event for the consumer," said Gary Evey, communications manager at Spartan Stores. "Unfortunately, in the case of conventional supermarkets, it's still considered a 'task' to go shopping, so we must create an environment that makes shopping for these items an enjoyable experience."

Multiple deals and cross promotions are one way to add excitement to the category, Evey said. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company also has added products to the shelves that play on the all-important convenience factor.

While brand loyalty still goes a long way with cleaners and major manufacturers promote their products with coupons and other freestanding inserts, customers are more willing to try items that save time, said Evey.

"Consumers are beginning to experiment with items that clean with less effort," he added. "A great example is Clean Shower, which has taken off like a rocket. This is a true category winner and is now available in a larger size for even more consumption."

Clean Shower, which debuted last year by Automation, Jacksonville, Fla., simplifies shower cleaning, Evey said.

"You simply spray it in your shower and that's it. No scrubbing, rubbing or any other effort [is] required," he added.

As products like Clean Shower enter the market, they can potentially ease the burden of labor-intensive spring cleaning, Evey added.

Another company that plans to tie in a new product with its usual spring-cleaning promotions is Oklahoma City-based Fleming Cos., which has 275 company-owned stores and serves more than 3,000 supermarkets through its distribution channel. Items making their debut this year are plastic storage boxes, said Bob Dunnaway, category manager of household products.

Dunnaway said the company decided to offer the products to address as many customer needs as possible.

"We offer a mix of products that provide consumers with what they want when they need it," he said. "That means going beyond the standard brooms and mops. The storage boxes can slip under the bed or be stacked in the closet or in the garage. It's a growth area."

Fleming is also targeting cleaning done outside the home. Consumers who shop the cleaning aisle also often buy a car cleaner if it's available, said Mike Poe, director of general merchandising.

"Due to the impulse nature of the consumer, they may buy additional cleaners if they are promoted," he said.

The storage boxes and automotive products fit into the typical cross-merchandising approach taken by the company, noted Poe.

"We don't just try to offer a couple of products. We try to provide everything from scrubbers to sponges to brooms to mops to household cleaners," said Poe.

Because of its approach to category management, Fleming puts household-cleaning liquids adjacent to other cleaning supplies.

"We start working with the retailers in October and November to figure what kind of products they will need," said Poe.

While Fleming headquarters provides support, decisions are made at the store level. And Fleming is not the only company letting its individual retailers decide the best way to reach consumers. Hy-Vee, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based chain with 174 stores in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota, is taking that approach, according to Ruth Mitchell, assistant vice president of communications.

"We do some corporate advertising, but the stores decide how they do their own in-store promotions," she said. "We may advertise in the newspaper or on television. The rest is up to them."

Other retailers plan to take a more low-key approach. At O'Malia Food Markets, for example, Easter is the key spring event and gets much of the retailer's attention, said Tom Mathey, director of merchandising. However, the cleaning category won't be completely ignored by the Carmel, Ind., company.

"We don't focus a theme around it, but we'll include the products in our circular," he said.

Despite the differences in strategies, timing is everything when it comes to promoting cleaners, retailers said. Supermarkets need to stay abreast of weather patterns in their region so they know when to begin placing greater emphasis on the category.

"What our customers in Minnesota need may be different than what our customers in Dallas may need," said Fleming's Poe. To that end, the company, which serves outlets in 42 states, expects to run promotions from last month to mid-summer, depending on the particular market.

Spartan has a similar plan on the table. "In Michigan, it's important to run spring-cleaning items for at least three months because consumers clean their homes and cottages in May and June," said Evey.