Larger packages of bar soaps are beginning to soak up more of the supermarket shelf space given over to the personal soap category.Soap category buyers and merchandisers told SN that bigger multipacks are attracting bigger sales, and in a bid toclean up, supermarkets are changing the makeup of their soap sections. They're stocking more large multipacks and reducing facings of or even eliminating some

Larger packages of bar soaps are beginning to soak up more of the supermarket shelf space given over to the personal soap category.

Soap category buyers and merchandisers told SN that bigger multipacks are attracting bigger sales, and in a bid to

clean up, supermarkets are changing the makeup of their soap sections. They're stocking more large multipacks and reducing facings of or even eliminating some single bars and packs with just two or three bars.

That trend, retailers said, is especially strong in bath soaps, which lend themselves to inexpensive multibar price points. The more expensive facial bars are still sold predominantly in smaller packaging.

The trend is apparently a bright spot in a category that otherwise has its problems in supermarkets. On the whole, the soap category was down 6.5% in unit volume, but up 0.6% in dollar volume in food stores, for the 52 weeks ended March 12, 1994, according to Nielsen Marketing Research, Northbrook, Ill. A breakout on the percentage of sales in packaging containing six or more bars was not available.

In emphasizing bigger packs, supermarket buyers to some extent are taking advantage of merchandising groundwork laid by other competing classes of trade.

"I think what happened was the box stores started with those bigger sizes and probably got the customers used to them," said Marlin Larson, manager of grocery, dairy and frozen at Albertson's northern California division, Sacramento. "So then the regular supermarket retailers have put them in. The customers are obviously aware of that type of product. So yes, it's helped us to put in those sizes."

The division, in fact, has expanded the whole line to larger sizes. "It's a growing market, so obviously we have to be aware of it and make it available to our customers," he said.

Larson said the sizable multipacks are working for just about everybody.

"Most retailers have put in larger packages to combat the Price Clubs and Costcos of the world. Many of those (I'll use the term 'newer competitors') out there, like the Targets, the Kmarts, Wal-Marts and Price Clubs, have a tendency to use those bigger sizes. It's working well for them and it's working well for us."

It's working well for G&R Felpausch Co., Hastings, Mich., too. "That seems to be the trend in supermarkets, as well as mass merchandisers," said Mort McKillop, grocery, frozen and dairy merchandiser at Felpausch. He cited convenience in the package size and value as the reasons for the trend toward large packages.

Supermarkets initially moved slowly into carrying the larger sizes, wary to some degree of the potential for slower turns and price points that could be a bit of a turnoff for grocery shoppers. "I know some shoppers had a hard time getting used to the higher price points of the large packs," said a buyer with a Midwestern chain, who asked not to be identified. "When you're used to paying $1.09 for your soap purchase, it's tough to come in and pay for $3 or $4, no matter how many bars are in there."

But Larson said the price points are an aspect of the category that some supermarket operators actually have come to embrace.

"It's nice when you get that bigger ticket sale," he explained. "Instead of selling a $1.09 four-pack Ivory, you can sell a 12-pack and it's a much bigger ring -- two or three times the amount. It's good from that standpoint."

Rick Roehrman, category manager for grocery at Dillon Stores, Hutchinson, Kan., a division of Kroger Co., said the chain has carried larger packs of soap for about a year. He looks at the category much like Larson does.

"In terms of actual item movement, if you're looking at volume, it's rather slow," he said. "But you're talking about a big purchase."

At Dillon, displays and advertising are steering more and more shoppers down the soap aisle. The soap bar category "is trending up, because we're giving it some promotional support to do that. We do bar soap display and promotion once a month," Roehrman said.

Roehrman added, however, that coupons may not be the way to go for the segment.

"Bar soap is kind of a strange little deal, because the majority of your customers out there are brand-loyal. So far as trading in new customers, you're probably not going to get a whole bunch. You might pick up existing users and get them to buy more," he said.

David Middleton, a buyer with Delchamps, Mobile, Ala., said manufacturers are encouraging promotions, particularly in the larger packages.

"They're starting to deal a little bit heavier in the larger packs," he said. "It seems they're starting to push more with more allowance dollars and stuff like that."

Middleton said that although he's seen growth in sales of larger packages of soap, especially in bath soap, the liquid body wash segment is the hottest part of the category for his chain. Still, like other retailers, he's carrying more larger packs of soap than he did before, and thinks the upward trend will continue for big packs.

As with the other retailers contacted by SN, Dillon's Roehrman said bath soap outsells facial soap in the large packs.

"Bath soap seems to be the best seller, just because it's a high-consumption item. The one exception to that might be Ivory, and I'm not sure how you'd classify that," he noted.

McKillop at Felpausch said the six-packs of soaps seem to be the most promotable. The three-packs, four-packs and six-packs are the best-selling soap items in his stores, he added.

Thomas Holder, a buyer at Winn-Dixie's Atlanta division, said the largest packs are doing fairly in his stores, but three-packs are the best sellers. Because of the strength of that pack, he hasn't rushed to increase the number of larger packs. "We've done some on an in-and-out basis. But as far as carrying them in our regular shelf section, we have a couple, but that's about it."

Still, Holder acknowledged the trend could take hold in his stores in the future. When asked if larger packs might soon control a greater share of the category, Holder replied, "it could be we'll go that way."

Lori Schacht, vice president of Keith Uddenberg Inc., a 25-store operator based in Gig Harbor, Wash., said her stores are selling at least twice as much of the larger packages of soap as they did as recently as two years ago. "But we still sell more of the two- and three-packs than we do anything else," she added.

The bar packs lend themselves well to smaller displays and cross-merchandising opportunities, she added. "We don't find they make good display items [in mass quantity] because they're not real consumable," she said of bar soap.

Glen Laucas, head buyer at Southwest Supermarkets, Phoenix, said manufacturers may be driving sales of the larger packs of soap more than shopper preference. "I think that because most of the manufacturers have gone to multipacks; customers don't have much choice," he said.

"It's like with detergents. When everybody made ultras, you didn't have a choice. They didn't make regular Tide anymore, so you had to buy Tide Ultra if you wanted to buy Tide. It's the same with multipacks. Most of our soap section is multipacks, so because of the lack of choice, a lot of customers have been trying it and getting used to the idea."

The buyer from a Midwestern chain said space limitations both in many supermarkets and homes will keep the single and double packs around as a viable segment of the category.

"With so much of the population aging, manufacturers of every type of product are going to have to keep smaller packages readily available," he said. "How much soap does a single person, or even a couple, really need?"

Ron Amstutz, a buyer for Buehler Food Markets, Wooster, Ohio, said his company has had "only marginal success at larger sizes," adding that, "If anything, it's staying steady or declining a little bit."