The tide has turned in the detergent category, with liquid laundry detergent sales now surpassing powders, especially in urban and cosmopolitan markets.
And while powders still hold a sizable edge in many smaller and rural markets, liquids are gradually increasing in market share in those regions too.
According to retailers and industry experts, consumers favor the ease that liquids offer. As their cleaning power improves and their cost per use becomes more in-line with that of powders, they are expected to become even more popular.
"We are selling more liquid detergent than we have ever sold. The liquids are taking over the market, and we've had to change our sets a little bit as a result," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president at Magruder, Rockville, Md.
Polsky estimates that liquids now account for about 55% of his sales.
"A lot of people use liquid detergents for pretreating spots and stains," said Janet Donohue, director of communications for the Soap and Detergent Association, New York.
"They dissolve more quickly, which is important, especially as more people use a colder wash water," she said. She noted that liquids account for up to 90% of sales in some parts of the Northeast.
While liquids still account for only 38% of sales at Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, the nation's largest laundry detergent manufacturer, they have increased 50% in sales since 1993-94, while powders increased only 4% during the same period, said Damon Jones, a P&G spokesman.
"There definitely is a trend in consumer preference between liquids and powders," especially since the industry largely switched over to ultra concentrations, he said.
Improved technology has lowered the costs of liquids, bringing them more in-line with powders on a per-use basis, Jones said.
"The ultras offer some pretty significant cost savings. There are less packaging, transportation and distribution costs, and we have passed those savings on to the consumer. Although our liquids still cost more on a per-use basis than powders, our liquid prices are now lower than they were 10 years ago," Jones said.
According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, for the 52-week period ended Jan. 25, liquid laundry detergents seeped past their powder counterparts, with almost $2.178 billion in sales, a 9.4% increase over the previous year. By comparison, powder laundry detergents had $2.165 billion in sales for the same period, a 2.7% decrease.
While liquid sales have increased, Polsky also noted that total department sales have gradually softened, as consumers increasingly look to mass merchandisers for their laundry detergent needs.
"There's not a whole lot you can do to win those sales back," he said. "You just have to keep plugging away on the advertising."
Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., has been adding more 100- and 200-ounce bottles of liquid laundry detergents to its shelves in an effort to court the mass-merchandiser and club-store shoppers.
"We find the best way to advertise the category is to promote aggressively and to display," said Al Young, category manager. Young said New York-based Unilever has been helping the chain with its category management of the detergent aisle.
"We have reduced the space devoted to powders from 12 to 8 feet," Young said, noting that his sales ratio has been holding steady at 85% liquid and 15% powder.
Young said the ultra detergents have been selling well, even though he believes most consumers still prefer the old-fashioned standard-density versions.
"The Xtra 128-ounce standard-density liquid laundry detergent is one of our better movers and also one of the best retails. If the consumers were totally into ultra this item would not sell," he said.
Liquid detergents also appear to be gaining ground in the Miami market. On a recent visit to the market, it was observed that Publix Super Markets, Winn-Dixie Stores and Albertson's all devoted anywhere from 64 to 80 linear feet to powder detergents and 60 linear feet to the liquids. Supermarkets in the region also had a greater selection of regional brands and detergents and fabric softeners imported from Latin America for the convenience of their Hispanic shoppers.
One area where the powdered detergents still dominate is on the West Coast.
"We have been doing a lot of advertising on the powder. The powders are doing quite well for us. I think the liquids appear to have slowed down in this market," said Mike Peterson, buyer for Morgan's Holiday Markets, Cottonwood, Calif.
To boost sales, Peterson said he makes sure he has a laundry detergent featured every week.
"The powders still do better in our operating areas, but the liquids still keep coming on," said Pat Redmond, buyer at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash.
Redmond said his shoppers still see powders as being stronger detergents, but "Once the public perceives that the liquids do as good a job as the powders, then they are going to switch. Rapidly."
Redmond said Rosauers changed its sets over a year ago to make room for the ultra concentrates, and he has kept the same sets ever since.
Manufacturers have been quick to fill the extra shelf space created by the move to ultra concentrates with an ever-expanding array of new formulations, scents and sizes.
"We find that unscented detergents have increased sales, but the other items that have a scent are just line extensions," said Young of Big Y.
Polsky of Magruder said the new sizes, scents and formulations just cannibalize sales of the existing products.
"You have to wash your clothes. There is no other segment to draw from, so [line extensions] just cannibalize. From our point of view we give a new item about three to four months. If it doesn't prove itself, it is gone," he said.