The dirt on supermarket sales of laundry detergent vs. detergent sales in the mass channel is this: the supermarkets have not been hung out to dry. After nearly 10 years of battle between the two formats, the tide of sales flowing out their doors has ebbed, due in large part to consistent promotional and merchandising activity."There's no misunderstanding that [in the past] mass has dominated the

The dirt on supermarket sales of laundry detergent vs. detergent sales in the mass channel is this: the supermarkets have not been hung out to dry. After nearly 10 years of battle between the two formats, the tide of sales flowing out their doors has ebbed, due in large part to consistent promotional and merchandising activity.

"There's no misunderstanding that [in the past] mass has dominated the share of the market in many categories like paper and detergent," said Mike Racine, vice president of sales and marketing at Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash.

All the supermarket retailers who responded to SN's questions said their sales in the laundry-detergent category were flat, and in this case, that's a good thing.

"At Spartan, we are flat. There have been no major fluctuations. We attribute this to our strong promotional tactics," said Karen Aylsworth, spokeswoman for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Simply because sales haven't been washing away doesn't imply that supermarket executives can turn their backs on the mass machines and other retailers. Indeed, Allan Young, category manager at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., pointed out that "It's a real battle. The consumer can buy 50-, 100-, 200-, and 300-ounce detergent in any store format -- from drug to mass merchants."

Racine agreed that the drug channel is evolving into another competitor to watch. Because drug stores are becoming larger and offering a wider variety of product, supermarkets have become aware of that format's potential to capture laundry-detergent sales as well.

Nevertheless, supermarkets churn out the promotions -- everything from traditional merchandising ploys to newer innovative ones. For example, supermarkets historically have relied on endcap displays to influence laundry-detergent purchases.

Endcaps plus bulk sales and temporary price reductions have helped Big Y drive its laundry-detergent sales, said Young. "This is the only way to keep the consumer from buying at alternative formats. We display weekly with very aggressive price points," he said.

B&B Cash Grocery Stores, Tampa, Fla., runs laundry endcaps at least two or three times per month, according to a source. "It seems to be a [popular] item when we run it. We run the high ends -- the Tides, the Surfs -- as well as the low-ends, like Extra detergent," said the executive-level source, who wished to be anonymous.

At Spartan, merchandising on an endcap gives the customer more variety because the chain markets high-end and low-end product displays, said Aylsworth. "The customers have more choices," she added.

More choices and greater product diversity dominate the list of merchandising tactics supermarkets are using to lift the stain mass merchants have left on the category's sales. When asked to compare the laundry aisles in their stores to the aisles at mass stores, Aylsworth said 80% of Spartan's aisles are liquid products while 20% are powder products, and there are several varieties under those two branches. Meanwhile, mass merchandisers found near Spartan's locations seem to lack variety. "They have 30 feet of one product," she said.

Other retailers said similar things. "The mass merchandisers don't have as big a selection, but they have more units in the same size. So the area that they display and merchandise from is about the same as ours, but there aren't as many items in it," explained Chuck Jones, senior buyer at Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev.

Scolari's has begun using a variation of an endcap display: a display-ready pallet. These displays, introduced about three years ago, come prestacked with the individual units ready to sell as soon as the wrap is cut.

The B&B source echoed Jones. "I'm sure we carry a lot bigger base than Wal-Mart does," he said. He added that the supermarkets in his area are really the ones they're competing against. "We don't really go into Wal-Mart and price check or even item check. We do that with our everyday competition, which are the Publix, Kash n' Karry and Winn-Dixies. With them, we try and stay competitive, but we're the little guy on the block. We get our vendors to keep us as competitive as they possibly can," the unnamed source said.

Tidyman's Racine noted that while a standard mass merchant might carry far fewer stockkeeping units than a supermarket, a supercenter has varieties that are more comparable to what's found in a supermarket.

Comparing the trend in toilet tissue to that of laundry detergent, Racine said that by using a supercenter format, "mass can accommodate the needs of customers shopping for 24- and 36-[count] packs of toilet tissue, but in their Center Store, they stock traditional single packs. And sales of single packs still are more than 50% of unit sales."

That point of difference, selling the single, or smaller-unit sizes, has given supermarkets (and mass on the opposite end with larger sizes) a slight edge on other formats. Young said that other than the 50-ounce size, which Big Y sells, the mass stores and his stores sell comparable items.

"We have promoted large convenient sizes more in the last couple of years since mass merchants got into our market area," said the source with B&B. "When we run our convenience ads like that -- the 200-ounce detergents, even in other things like paper towels or bath tissue -- they do very well. Our customers notice the value."

Each format has learned from the other: mass has gone to smaller sizes in its supercenter formats, while supermarkets have moved toward offering larger sizes.

"Instead of buying the 50-ounce container once a week, they are buying the 100-ounce container twice a month," noted Spartan's Aylsworth.

To build additional sales and incentive, Spartan has begun merchandising additional clothes-washing products such as bleach, fabric softeners and stain lifters. These displays become more exciting and visually attractive to shoppers, Aylsworth said.

Part of a supermarket's commitment to the laundry-detergent category should be to advertise it 52 weeks per year, according to Tidyman's Racine. It's a staple item that has been promoted every week for the last 30 years, but now there's a change in the product type, he noted.

"Now there's a proliferation of larger packs, but there's still a challenge for supermarket shoppers to accommodate them in their grocery budget," Racine said.

Essentially, the customer is not used to spending more on bulk sizes in the supermarket channel. The mind-set, according to Racine, is that when the higher-priced item is bought in a mass channel, the customer doesn't see the product as part of her grocery budget, but she does when she buys it at a supermarket.

Private label may be helping to ease the budget worry by bringing good quality, fair pricing and adequate sizing into the store, but store brands face their own set of challenges.

For instance, at Big Y, Young said, laundry detergent is still a hard sell. "We have to sell our private-label image as being as good as the national brand, which is hard in the detergent category, more so than in others," he said. "The consumer feels that it does not clean as well, therefore we need to promote deeper and hope this will get some normal turn business," he added.

B&B tried a private label and subsequently retired it. "It didn't work for us. The price was comparable to the bargain brands [the store carries], plus our private label brand really wasn't known," the source said.

Conversely, Scolari's does very well with its private-label detergent, Hy-Top. "We do a really good job in the detergent section. Price points are substantially lower than what you can get with the national brands. And in most cases, there's good quality there," said Jones.

He added that the retailer incorporates its store brand into promotions via its club card or an on-shelf reduced price. "We sometimes run them in the in-store flier, but most of the time they're in our weekly ad when we advertise in the newspaper," Jones said.

He noted, however, that private-label detergent isn't for every shopper. There are price-point shoppers and then there are brand-loyal shoppers. "Right now, the biggest thing in the category is that people are trading off between powdered and liquid, depending on what's on promotion," Jones said.

According to data from the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York, private-label sales comprised 3.5% of the laundry-detergent market share in 1999. This number represents a decline of 0.2 percentage points from the prior year. Increases in private label in the laundry category occurred among bleach and fabric-softener sheets, where the segments increased by 0.6 points to 17.9% and by 2.2 points to 23.2%, respectively.

Mass merchants increased their private-label market share by 0.3 points to 0.8%, according to the same data from the PLMA. Some of this increase is due in part to the mass channel emphasizing its store brands.

Scolari's Jones added that manufacturers have been helping supermarkets in their fight for sales. "Manufacturers are realizing that even though they say it's a different class of trade, it's still the same people buying the product. Therefore, [the manufacturers] are trying to keep everyone on a level playing field."