While bar products are "bread and butter" when it comes to soap sales, pump items and body washes are continuing to add interest and profit to the category.
For example, Kevin Copper, vice president of merchandising for Sterk's Super Foods, Hammond, Ind., carries both pump soaps and body washes, which are more profitable than bar soaps.
"We make a higher gross margin on liquids than on bar soaps," he said.
Bar-soap sales slipped 2.9% in unit sales, to 635 million in supermarkets, for the 52-week period ended Feb. 22, 1998, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Dollar sales were up 1.5% to $1.37 billion.
In contrast, dollar sales for liquid soaps climbed 13.5% to $319 million for the same period, and unit sales were up 6.9% to 148 million. The shower-gel or body-wash category had $392 million in sales, an 11.2% increase, and a 7.6% increase in unit sales to 110 million.
The personal care category is seeing increasing interest in liquid forms of soap, according to Janet Donohue, spokeswoman for the Soap and Detergent Association, New York.
In a 1997 teleconference on cleaning products, hosted by the association, Robert Jaworski, president of personal care product development at Dial Corp., Phoenix, noted that today's products must address consumers' growing perception that they need to deal with "problem skin."
Body washes, based on the shower gels that first became popular in Europe, deliver an excellent "afterfeel," while providing both deodorant and antibacterial protection.
Similarly, consumers more and more concerned about germs continue to favor liquid hand soaps to keep hands clean and germ-free, he continued.
Consequently, it appears that these two categories are growing at a much faster rate than bar soaps, although bars still make the lion's share of company profits.
Another product recently added as a soap variety -- hand sanitizers that work without water -- will no doubt grow the category even further, predicted Nancy Landry, category manager at D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich.
"So far we have Purell, Dial, Lysol, and Soft Soap, which we just put in the schematic within the last few months," Landry said. Purell, the first of these products, was originally in the health and beauty care section.
Hand sanitizers come in 2-, 4- and 8-ounce bottles, or an 8-ounce pump, said Landry.
The smaller bottles are travel sizes, while the larger stockkeeping units can be used in the kitchen or bathroom. Landry said that women golfers, for example, as well as those who need to change babies away from home, use the hand sanitizers.
D&W will be demoing the hand sanitizers in the next few months, said Landry, since it's important to educate people in their use. She also noted that antibacterial pump soaps are her best-selling liquids.
"We devote roughly 16 linear feet to pump soaps, and about 40 linear feet to bar soaps," she said. Liquid products account for about 25% of sales at D&W.
Currently, hand and pump soaps are merchandised together, in the soap and laundry aisle, while body washes can be either in the grocery aisle or in HBC.
"My first choice would be to have all the soaps in the HBC section, because I believe it's a personal care item," Landry stated.
According to Landry, hand sanitizers grow the category, but pump soaps and body washes do cut into bar-soap sales.
Copper noted that some sales of bar soap are going to discounters and warehouse clubs. Still, like all the retailers with whom SN spoke, bars are the majority of sales at Sterk's. In Copper's stores, the whole soap section takes up about 8 feet, with liquid soaps, including pumps and body washes, accounting for about 8 linear feet.
Some of the body washes carried by Sterk's include Dial, Tone and Ivory products; in the pump soaps, items include Softsoap, Ivory, Clean and Smooth, and Jergens.
According to the IRI data, top-selling bar brands are Dove, Dial and Lever 2000. Dial had $260 million in sales. Top sellers in the liquid-soap category are Softsoap, Dial and private-label brands, with Softsoap at $127 million in sales. In the shower-gel category, top brands are Oil of Olay, Dove and Caress, with Oil of Olay at $85 million in sales.
Copper agreed that liquid soap and similar products are cannibalizing bar sales. He was not certain about how much the body-wash subcategory was growing, although he noted that "There's been a flurry of activity as manufacturers have introduced new items. But I don't know if, after everybody has tried it, it has the long-term potential to keep growing."
Sam Foster, vice president of merchandising at H.G. Hill Stores, Nashville, Tenn., also said liquid soaps were eating into bar sales. He noted, though, that since the profit on pump soaps is much better, he is not concerned about whether people are buying pumps or bars.
Pump soaps continue to expand, said Foster, and antibacterial varieties are where the growth is occurring. "Body washes are not as successful as the hand soaps," he added.
At Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., about 4 feet are given to liquid pumps and about 8 or 10 feet to bar soaps, according to Pat Redmond, grocery buyer. Like all the other retailers SN polled, Rosauers merchandises pump soaps with bars.
While Redmond rounded out the consensus that pumps and gels are cannibalizing bar sales, he said it was only by 5% or 6%.
"In some cases, people are buying both," he noted. Redmond said margins are slightly better on the liquid soaps.
Liquid-soap sales will increase if consumers perceive them as a value, which is not currently the case, said Redmond. "They seem kind of expensive," he said.
He also has observed that antibacterial soaps are doing best in pumps, and that sales have recently picked up, as have new product introductions.
While Landry has impressive pump-soap sales, Tom Wiard, general manager for Decker's Food Center, a small independent in Gillette, Wyo., said bar-soap vs. pump-soap sales were about 10 to one.
Pump soaps are given 4 linear feet at Decker's, while bar soap is given 24 linear feet.
"Pump soaps are increasing, but not drastically," Wiard said. "Antibacterial [varieties] seem to do better. The margins vary, but 25% is about average, which is a little better than on regular soap."
Both Redmond and Landry said body washes continue to be a woman's product, Ironhead notwithstanding.
As reported in SN, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, running back for the St. Louis Rams, was recently recruited by Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, in a national campaign to convince men that they too may use body wash.
Elizabeth Moore, a spokeswoman for P&G, told SN that the company is focusing on expanding the body-wash category, rather than pump-soap items. Currently, P&G has an Ivory pump soap. Its basic bars include Zest, Coast, Safeguard, Ivory and Oil of Olay. The newer body-wash products are Zest, Ivory and Oil of Olay.
"As a class, body washes are milder than most cleansing bars," Moore said. She explained that Ivory and Oil of Olay are pitched as providing more moisturizer and an "excellent after-use feel," while Zest is targeted at men, to leave the skin feeling cleaner and more refreshed.
She agreed that men have shied away from body washes, but felt confident that the Ironhead campaign would change men's perceptions. Moreover, she stressed that "It's a mistake to think of a body wash as a bar in liquid form. The formulation is radically different."
According to P&G's research, consumers are using both body washes and soaps. She also said that, although body washes are more expensive, the product is still a good value, since a consumer can get a high number of washes out of a bottle.
SN also spoke with John McKeegan, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J., about pump soaps.
Right now, Johnson & Johnson concentrates on pumps for kids, which are marketed as part of its children's toiletries line. Currently, pumps are available in Pooh and Mickey Mouse motifs, and they are merchandised in supermarkets with other children's HBC items.
Officials from several other soap companies, including Colgate-Palmolive Co., New York, could not be reached for comment.
Retailers varied in the amount of attention they gave to promoting soap. Some said they occasionally put soaps in ads and temporary price reductions, generated by the manufacturer.
Copper of Sterk's runs temporary price reductions whenever there is a deal, and in ads quite frequently, rotating brands, as well as soaps and pumps, two out of three weeks or every other week.
Liquid soaps, both pumps and body washes, are promoted about once a month at Rosauers, while bars are promoted less often. "There are very few deals on bars," Redmond said.
Landry at D&W has not created a strategy for promoting soaps, she said, and is currently not doing much advertising for the category.