A WARM WELCOME

As the first daffodils start to push up through the cold ground, many people begin to think about spring-cleaning chores. Even before that day comes, supermarkets across the country are gearing up to take advantage of the tradition of greeting spring with a clean home.Several weeks before the weather begins to warm up, supermarket buyers are beginning to look for new products that might be popular,

As the first daffodils start to push up through the cold ground, many people begin to think about spring-cleaning chores. Even before that day comes, supermarkets across the country are gearing up to take advantage of the tradition of greeting spring with a clean home.

Several weeks before the weather begins to warm up, supermarket buyers are beginning to look for new products that might be popular, and planning eye-catching promotions.

"This is all weather-related and the timing is particularly important," said Ron Cox, vice president of marketing for D&W Food Centers, in Grand Rapids, Mich. "The weather drives the category as people get into the mood for cleaning."

Doug Murphy, director of grocery merchandising for Martin's Supermarkets, South Bend, Ind., agreed.

"You get a bump at certain times of the year like spring because the warmer weather makes people want to clean the windows in their homes and clean and wax their cars, as well as doing the once-a-year jobs inside the house," Murphy said.

Although supermarket owners and managers report some inroads being made into the cleaning aisle and paper products category by mass merchandisers and club stores, supermarkets are holding their own, in large part because of the convenience they can offer customers.

"We find that the amount of chipping away in some categories that mass merchandisers can do depends on the gap between their prices and the prices of food retailers," said Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising for Dahl's Food Markets, in Des Moines, Iowa.

"If there is a small price gap, people will continue to shop at the supermarket for these items, because they are in here anyway and it is convenient," he explained. "But if there is a big price gap, people will go to the mass merchandiser."

The cleaning category can include a wide range of products, and most items have increased in sales over the past five years, some drastically, according to ACNielsen market researchers, Schaumburg, Ill. In many cases, increased sales in supermarkets have almost kept pace with the total sales increases in all channels.

For instance, the sale of heavy-duty liquid detergent, which rang up $2 million in sales in all channels for the year ended Jan. 4, 1997, increased by about 10% a year to $2.9 million for the 52-week period ended Dec. 30, 2000. Supermarkets accounted for $1.4 million of those sales the first year of the five-year period and $1.7 million of the sales for the year ended Dec. 30, 2000, an increase of approximately 6% to 7% a year.

Likewise, powdered cleaners, while a small category in themselves, jumped from $6 million in sales in all channels for the year ended Jan. 4, 1997, to $10.5 million in sales for the year ended Dec. 30, 2000, which was a dramatic 34% increase one year and 32% increase this past year.

In the supermarket channel alone, the increase for powdered cleaners was less dramatic, but still healthy, going from $4.7 million for the 52-week period ended Jan. 4, 1997, to $5.1 million for the most current year, an overall increase of 8%.

Rug cleaner is a product frequently cited as being purchased for spring-cleaning and is one often used as a centerpiece for spring-cleaning promotions. Supermarkets have been able to reap some of the benefits of these promotions for this product, according to ACNielsen figures.

Sales of rug cleaners in all channels jumped from $209 million for the first of the five-year cycle to almost $250 million for the most recent year, an overall increase of more than 18%. In supermarkets alone, sales of rug cleaners went from $112 million for the year ended Jan. 4, 1997, to $125.5 million for the most recent year, a healthy total increase of more than 12%.

On the other hand, sales of floor waxes, furniture polishes and ammonia have declined sharply in both total sales over the five years and in the supermarkets' share of those sales, ACNielsen figures show.

While floor wax sales may be down, the sales of wax applicators, brooms and mops have jumped dramatically in all channels and in supermarkets, possibly reflecting the new types of products that have hit the market recently and proved very popular, according to grocery buyers.

In all channels, sales of these items grew from $330 million for the 52-week period ended Jan. 4, 1997, to $520 million for the year ended Dec. 30, 2000, with the largest jump occurring between January 1999 and January 2000 when a nearly 39% increase was seen in total sales. For that same time frame, supermarket sales jumped from $140 million to $198.8 million, a 41% increase.

Another category where enormous improvements have been made in recent years is spot and stain removers, and total sales and supermarket sales reflect those innovations. Total sales jumped from $48.8 million to $81.7 million over the five years, a 67% increase, while the supermarket share of these items increased from $26 million to $37.4 million, a 43% increase.

Category managers reported impressive sales of new items and predicted continuing sales this spring.

O-Cedar Brands, based in Springfield, Ohio, a leading producer of cleaning products, plans a range of new products for this spring, including an Aqua Broom that squirts water ahead of the industrial strength broom to begin the cleaning process, a pivoting head scrubber and mop, and sponge mops with ergonomically correct handles. Sponge mops and brooms will be marketed in new colors, such as emerald, lilac and sky blue, with special displays to be provided for retailers to attract customers' attention, according to an O-Cedar representative.

"I was a little surprised at how well the new items did last year," said Nixon of Dahl's, which has 11 stores in the Des Moines area. "A lot of these things are 'big ring' products. It's not a 59-cent item; it's a $4 or $15 or more item. All of the ones that did well last spring will be back this year."

Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., had the same experience with new products last spring. S.C. Johnson Pledge Grab It dust mops and dust mop refills were big sellers. This spring S.C. Johnson is coming out with a citrus scent mop refill and a mountain berry scent window cleaner, which the stores expect to do well, said Wendy Melton, corporate communications coordinator for Food Lion, which has 1,200 stores in 11 Southeastern states.

"The new products are an increasing dollar share for the cleaning category, which is among the top fastest-growing segments in the nonfood grocery categories," Melton said.

Dahl's does not start its spring promotions until April, in part because the weather in the Iowa region does not warm up until then.

"We're busy trying to keep rock salt in the store until then," Nixon said. "Then we'll do endcaps with things like rug shampoos and window cleaners. There are a lot of different choices of products in this category, so we will select 10 or 15 items and promote them mostly on the shelf."

Cox of D&W Food Centers, which has 26 stores in Michigan, agreed with the timing.

"We do spring-cleaning themes in April and into May and to a large degree we do get a lift in sales from the promotions," he said. "We usually do special pricing or combinations, such as 'buy a mop and get a dusting spray for so much off.'

"We try to put together a series of shelf displays rather than a mass display. The new items like Swiffer were very popular last year and that should continue this spring," he predicted.

Martin's, which has 16 stores in the South Bend area, starts spring-cleaning advertising specials in April and does a lot of solution selling, integrating as many products as possible into the promotions, Murphy said.

"S.C. Johnson may do a big display and promotion, and we'll tie in something like paper towels with that. The advantage mass merchandisers have is that they can do mass displays and leave them in place for several weeks.

"We do a display for a week and then we have to move on, although we often keep the price points in place for longer," Murphy said.

"A lot of our stores develop a seasonal section after Easter and that can include a spring-cleaning display," he added. "The seasonal section could be from 24 feet long in a small store to 72 feet in a large store, taking up an entire aisle."

For Martin's, like many other supermarkets, some private label cleaning items do well against the name brands.

"We have Roundy's as the store brand and things like ammonia and window cleaner do quite well," Murphy said.

Upscale stores put a little less emphasis on the cleaning aisle, although spring is still the time for promotions, said Mike Richbaw, grocery manager for Food Markets Northwest, which has two Queen Anne Thriftway stores in Seattle and Tacoma and an Admiral Thriftway in West Seattle, all in affluent neighborhoods.

"We don't devote as much space to cleaning items as a mainstream store would, but we take advantage of the Thriftway ads and promotions that are developed," Richbaw said.

On the other hand, the Los Angeles-based Unified Western Grocers, which supplies 1,600 supermarkets in California and Oregon, aggressively promotes cleaning items each spring and fall, said Larry Ishii, manager of specialty products.

"Our people live and breathe by the product-selling shows we have to promote brooms, mops, scrubbers and those types of items. We offer displays for the products and develop advertisements," he said.

"The endcaps and freestanding displays are combined with the best pricing to create the most effective promotions," Ishii said.