WIPE OUT!

Gelson's Markets, an 18-store grocery chain based in Encino, Calif., reports that sales of pretreated wipes have been consistent in the past few years, with items like Cottonelle and Kleenex's personal wipes pulling in the most profit in the category. However, it's not just the increasing sales of wipes alone that have Gelson's Markets President Bill Roulette talking.Upon receiving a request from

Gelson's Markets, an 18-store grocery chain based in Encino, Calif., reports that sales of pretreated wipes have been consistent in the past few years, with items like Cottonelle and Kleenex's personal wipes pulling in the most profit in the category. However, it's not just the increasing sales of wipes alone that have Gelson's Markets President Bill Roulette talking.

Upon receiving a request from a loyal customer, the chain entered into a unique customer service project that, according to Roulette, "has resulted in many positive comments from customers." The request prompted the stores' executives to look into providing pretreated wipes to shoppers, who have become increasingly concerned with preventing the spread of bacteria that is commonly present on shopping carts.

"Our executive committee thought that providing wipes was a great customer service idea, so we started researching which wipes would be best according to their cost and which would best clean off bacteria from shopping carts while protecting our customers' hands from residue," Roulette told SN. "We decided on an anti-microbial, hand-sanitizer wipe with aloe from Sani-Hands called Nice'N Clean."

Not only did the stores make wipes available to shoppers, but the chain's own in-house cabinet-maker designed and built sanitation stations for each store. The stations, located at the front of the stores near the shopping carts, come complete with custom-made signage detailing the use of the wipes and trash cans for disposal of the used products. Roulette said that along with the sanitation service, the chain routinely promotes a wide variety of wipes through in-store circulars and monthly newsletters.

These promotions highlight everything from Clorox, Lysol and Pledge wipes to personal wipes from Splash, Kleenex, Cottonelle and Sani-Hands, to name a few.

"There's been a great consumer awareness about personal cleanliness, bacteria and the spread of germs recently, which is helping to boost sales in the category," he said. "But despite the strong interest so far, it's still a little early to determine whether this is a trend that's here to stay or just a passing fad."

According to the U.S. Market for Pre-Treated Wipes, Personal and Household Products, the latest report from Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, New York, if sales of pretreated wipes overseas are any indication of the future of the category in the United States, grocers are in for a real treat. Despite the current wipes delirium in the States, the market here is much less developed than in Europe and Japan, indicating that there's still room for significant growth.

According to the report, the U.S. market for pretreated wipes has already enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of 24% since 1997, when sales were merely $720 million and consumer packaged goods giants Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble virtually controlled the entire wipes market.

Since then, overall retail sales in the U.S. market rose to nearly $1.7 billion by the end of 2001, an impressive figure considering the forecast for additional growth in the domestic market. Packaged Facts largely attributes this growth to the multitude of new products developed and introduced to consumers during the period. "The boom in the market for wipe products has been extraordinary," said Meg Hargreaves, vice president of research publishing for MarketResearch.com. "And it is obvious that wipes appeal to the public's interest in portability, ease of use and cleanliness. However, the staying power of many of these new, niche products has yet to be proven."

The wipes category covers such a wide array of products that many grocers divide them into two distinct divisions. Personal care wipes include everything from hand and body wipes, travel wipes and facial wipes to bathroom wipes, feminine hygiene wipes and specialized health care wipes, such as wound wipes. The other main division is household cleaning, which includes wipes for floors, kitchen, bathrooms, furniture, car care and even pets.

Companies producing wipes in one or both of these divisions appear confident that the phenomenon is here to stay, with some of the major players -- like the aforementioned Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble -- each having key executives and product development teams in place to oversee the development of new wipe products.

Some grocers believe that such large CPG manufacturers will ultimately rule the market as they did when they were the first to introduce new wipes products into the marketplace. Other grocers are capitalizing on the frenzy by developing their own private-label wipes that are less expensive. Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich., is just one example, with personal cleansing and household wipes that are about $1 cheaper than national brands.

Whether major manufacturers or grocers win the largest share of the market, most believe that the winner will only emerge after the fever of competition has died down and the last competitors have raised their flags in surrender.

"The wipes category has been fairly well received in our stores, but there are bound to be a number of changes before the category settles down for good," said Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising for Dahl's Food Markets, the 12-store chain based in Des Moines, Iowa. "When there were only two or three brands out there, they all did pretty well, but now that there are six, eight or 10 different brands competing for the consumer dollar, the category has become somewhat fragmented."

Roulette concurred, saying that the influx of so many wipes brands has created a sort of cannibalization within the category, and that while some are doing a little better than others, no one brand is really winning out across the board at this time. He too believes that if the category is to survive, dominant manufacturers and grocers will have to go through a long stand-off until their competition eventually drops out.

While some grocers deem pretreated wipes as a category that's here to stay, others don't see the category going anywhere now or in the future. Consider Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager for Highland Park Markets in Glastonbury, Conn., who said shoppers in his region just aren't buying into the concept of pretreated wipes.

"I'm not sure why wipes are selling better in other stores, but most of our customers still prefer the old-fashioned method of using a product and wiping it themselves instead of buying a pretreated wipe," said Cummiskey.

"We do have a large segment of the upper class in this area and while we sell some wipes, I'm sure many of the people around here hire cleaning services that wouldn't typically use the products. Our wipes sales are below average at best."

According to Cummiskey, Highland Park Markets doesn't sell a large amount of baby wipes either, which are frequently big sellers at supermarkets where other pretreated wipe products are thriving. The demographics of his customers, combined with their general lack of interest in the category as a whole, likely affect the overall sales in his stores, he said.

Surprisingly, like Highland Park Markets, many grocers don't see cost as being a major issue for their customers. Roulette said convenience is the biggest motivator for many of Gelson's Markets' shoppers who purchase pretreated wipes, despite some of the lofty price points.

Dahl's shoppers seem to be driven by the same factor. "I'm still surprised at just how many of our shoppers buy Swiffer and other expensive cleaning products," said Nixon. "With the initial expense of purchasing the starter kit and having to buy replacement cloths, the convenience wouldn't seem to outweigh the price, but our customers have continued to buy these items, proving that convenience wins out in our market."

In other markets, the still sluggish economy coupled with a growing base of lower-income shoppers has some grocers confused about the fuss over pretreated wipes.

"We have a very diverse store base, with many people not being able to afford luxuries like pretreated wipes because of their high cost," said Kevin Copper, manager at Sterk's Super Foods, a nine-store chain in Hammond, Ind. "There might be an increase in sales of pretreated wipes once the economy gets better, but for now, convenience doesn't seem to be outweighing cost as far as our customers are concerned."

Only time will tell how well this category fares, but Packaged Facts estimates that the pretreated wipes category will post a 7% CAGR for the 2001 to 2006 period. This would bring the overall market to around $2.4 billion, with personal care wipes potentially posting the strongest gains.