Laundry isn't fun and likely never will be. Manufacturers have long known this and have emphasized sparing consumers multiple-step processes. Retailers today line their shelves with all sorts of products that make new promises for an old problem: getting dirty clothes clean as quickly and easily as possible.
"There are so many new products, especially those with different scents," said Mary Gaiche, store manager of Crossroads County Market, an independent in Wausau, Wis. She does find space on the shelves for specialized products, such as those claiming to rid clothes of allergens. "With those products, you can catch a different shopper who is looking for something new. But different scents don't attract anyone to the category."
Dollar sales of laundry detergent declined 1.8% to $3.3 billion for the year that ended May 15, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The liquid detergent subcategory is up slightly, however, helped in part by a rash of specialized products.
There are detergents for black clothes, cold-water washing and baby clothes. Others promise to reduce wear on fabric and provide a deeper clean.
According to Mintel International Group, Chicago, more than 75% of the population uses one type of laundry detergent, indicating shoppers want one product to meet all their laundry needs. The question remains: Is there a market for all these personalized products?
Some new products appear destined for success: Softens in the Wash (SIW) laundry detergents have fabric softener built in. ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., projected that SIW products would grow to hold more than 10% of the category's sales in food/drug/ mass outlets (excluding Wal-Mart Stores) within the next year.
"Detergents with added benefits are becoming more popular," said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association in Washington. "It helps take a step out of the laundry process because you're using one product instead of two."
SIW products sell well at Piggly Wiggly stores in South Carolina and Georgia, particularly those that target specific areas, such as underarm odor and stains, said Rita Postell, spokeswoman for the retailer. The stores run special ads, temporary price reductions and price savings for loyalty card holders to draw customers to the laundry products and induce trials, especially of a popular brand's line extensions. "Movement in the first six months of product placement will reflect the product's potential for success," Postell said.
Opinions vary as to whether this move toward customization goes too far.
Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting services for Mintel, believes there is room in the market for all the new products. "What I see is, this is more about targeting, and these products are on the market for very specific uses -- a market that's geared around specific clothing or cleaning," she said.
The trend isn't limited to the United States, she said. In Argentina, one product targets cuffs and collars, while in Australia, there are detergents that claim to add UV protection to clothing.
Dornblaser expects even more specific products to start appearing in American supermarkets' laundry detergent aisles. Detergent with UV protection could be well received in the U.S., she said, particularly in the South year-round and in all regions during the summer.
"There's an opportunity to make this section [of the store] come alive more than it has done," she said. "It's getting to be like toothpaste, where there are so many choices it's hard to know what you want."
Don Montuori, editor of Packaged Facts, a market research report in New York, agreed. He said consumers are looking for convenience in all aspects of their lives, from food to personal care. Yet, he expressed doubt about some of the more novel products, recalling Procter & Gamble's popular household duster. "The market is friendly toward products that promote convenience. You saw that with the Swiffer, which exploded on the market, and the next year it dropped off by half. The novelty soon wears off."
The U.S. population's growing diversity is part of the reason for the increase in niche products in the laundry detergent category, Sansoni said. "One of the noticeable trends has been in the fragrance area," he said. "But there's also a certain market for people who want no fragrance -- people who have allergies, for example."
Despite these new products, laundry detergent sales are down in supermarkets. The channel still holds 57% of the market, but dollar sales declined 5.1% from 2001 to 2003. Not surprisingly, some of the business is going to drug stores and Wal-Mart, which have 5% and an estimated 26% of sales, respectively, according to Mintel.
Other new products appearing on the laundry detergent market are fueled more by machinery than convenience or performance. High-efficiency washing machines are entering the U.S. market from Europe. These machines use about one-third less water than a conventional washing machine. They are gentler on fabrics but require special detergent. A regular detergent, Sansoni said, would produce too many suds.
"I think the market will be steady as more of these machines are sold and this energy-efficiency push is getting highlighted more," Sansoni said.
High-efficiency laundry detergent is flying off shelves at Crossroads County Market, but Dahl's Food Markets in Des Moines, Iowa, doesn't sell much of it. "It's a growing category, but small as yet, and regular detergents still outsell it," said Ross Nixon, president of 11-store Dahl's. He said they could grow the category slightly, but added that consumers are too bombarded with options.
Along with detergents, stain removal is another area of new product development. More dashboard dining means more coffee, ketchup and barbecue sauce stains.
One of the newest products is the Tide to Go pen, meant to be carried in a bag or pocket. The pen follows on the heels of another portable product, Shout Wipes. For home use, there's the Tide StainBrush, a battery-powered device launched last year that works detergent into fabric to loosen stains before washing.
"It seems there are two big things going on -- pen products and stick," Dornblaser said. It's not that they're becoming more specific in the stains they treat, but in the form they are available in, she said.
"I think it's a very clever marriage of factors, and there's convenience with Shout Wipes and Tide's to Go pen," Montuori said. "They're not just for kids, and they're not even kept in the house. This is where you're going to see innovation and growth."
The problem with stain-removal products is that, unlike tough stains, their novelty can wear off quickly, he said. "They're not essential products, and certainly, if you're watching what you spend, they are easy to cut out."
Retailers were uncertain if there really is a market for these new products.
Nixon said that while he thought brand recognition would help sales of the Tide to Go pen, sales of stain-removal products at Dahl's Food Markets were otherwise merely fair.
The rise of multitasking detergents could be a factor in the success of these new products. Other retailers said that sales of stain-removal products have declined because people are buying laundry detergent with stain remover built in.
Sales of Home Laundry Products
U.S. retail sales of laundry detergent in supermarkets declined from 2001 to 2003, but traditional grocery stores still account for the lion's share of laundry detergent sales volume.
2001, $ million; %; 2003, $ million; %; Change 2001-2003 %
Supermarkets: 4,419.0; 58.7; 4,193.8; 57.3; -5.1
Mass merchandisers: 983.1; 13.1; 881.5; 12.0; -10.3
Drug stores: 338.2; 4.5; 371.0; 5.1; 9.7
Wal-Mart (est.): 1,782.6; 23.7; 1,878.8; 25.6; 5.4
Total: 7,522.9; 100.0; 7,325.1; 100.0; -2.6
Sources compiled by Mintel International Group
Private-label laundry detergents are a tough sell because of the strong brand loyalty in this category. Is there room for them among national competitors, or are consumers destined to stick with the national brands they know and trust?
Private label held just 5.8% of dollar sales of the laundry detergent market in 2003, down 12.3% from the year before, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. In the same year, the market was dominated by national brands of Procter & Gamble, which held 50% of dollar sales, followed by Unilever with a 13.2% share.
Private-label detergents attract cost-conscious shoppers, retailers told SN. "Generally, private-label brands hold their own with lower-end national brands, but popular national brand names drive the category," said Rita Postell, spokeswoman for Piggly Wiggly in Charleston, S.C.
Laundry is a chore, she added, but when it's done well, easily and economically, customers stick with a product that works for them.
At Crossroads County Market, an independent in Wausau, Wis., the price-conscious also tend to opt for private-label versions, said store manager Mary Gaiche. The store offers two of them: Shopper's Value, which is cheaper, and Aloft, which sells slightly better, owing to more frequent sales and better display presence. It's comparable to lower-priced detergents such as Purex, she said.
Dahl's Food Markets, an 11-store retailer in Des Moines, Iowa, switched from its own private-label brand to Supervalu's, which is popular with consumers looking to economize, said Ross Nixon, chain president. It's a controlled label that's not recognized as belonging to Supervalu and doesn't feature the wholesaler's name. Sales in these stores, however, continue to be dominated by Tide and Era, which constitute 65% to 75% of sales.
The perception that private-label laundry detergent is less effective no longer holds water, though.
"The quality [of private label brands] has improved substantially, and the market is a lot more competitive," said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for The Soap and Detergent Association, Washington. "To a lot of consumers now, for example, the Costco brand is a brand."
Consumers will often shop around depending on price and performance before choosing a brand and sticking with it, he said. "Detergent manufacturers have to work that much harder to get your attention in a cluttered marketplace."
Private-label laundry soap probably is of equal quality to the national brands, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting services for Mintel International Group, Chicago. "Probably the biggest differences are in fragrance and its efficacy. Given how much there is of private label on the market, I would wonder how much brand loyalty there is."