Green household products are making a clean sweep through supermarkets.
Eco-friendly cleaning products from small, niche companies are gaining widespread distribution in mainstream stores, while major national brands are reformulating products to reach green consumers.
“We've been increasing shelf space for these items,” said Kevin O'Brien, category manager for Roche Bros., an independent chain near Boston. “There's very strong demand for them.”
Roche Bros. stores carry full lines of kitchen, bathroom and laundry products from Sun & Earth, Seventh Generation, Ecover, Mrs. Meyer's and Dragonfly Organics. Stores typically offer at least two dozen items displayed on shelves stretching four to eight feet. Green cleaners are grouped together and are heralded by tags that clearly identify the products as eco-friendly, O'Brien said. Roche is rolling out nearly 50 products in the category, including all-purpose cleaners, candles and a fragrance system from Method, a company that's known for its environmentally sound products packaged in sleek containers.
“With this scare in China, people are getting to be more and more careful about what they're purchasing,” O'Brien said. “They're looking toward products with less chemicals.”
Green cleaners rely on plant-based substances to fight dirt. For example, Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Dish Soap contains soap bark extract, considered to be “one of nature's best de-greasers,” according to the company.
Earth-friendly all-purpose cleaners generate the strongest demand, O'Brien said. Among laundry detergents, Seventh Generation products are delivering double-digit sales increases, as are “free” products — those made without dyes and perfumes, he said.
Procter & Gamble brought Tide Free and Cheer Free products to market over a year ago to appeal to shoppers whose skin is sensitive to fragrance or dye.
“They're both doing well,” said Kash Shaikh, spokesman for Cincinnati-based P&G. “There's a market of consumers who really want to make sure they're using unscented products. It's an area in which we'll continue to try to innovate.”
Unscented laundry detergents and other fragrance-free products have a strong following at Andronico's Markets, said Jessica Willett, grocery category manager for the Albany, Calif.-based retailer. Green cleaners are nothing new for the chain. Shoppers here have been enthusiastic about natural cleaners for many years, Willett said.
The Andronico's stores offer 70 to 80 cleaning items that make eco-friendly claims. The Planet brand of liquid laundry detergent, in 100-ounce jugs, is the No. 1 seller among all the green products, Willett said. The soap is free of perfumes, dyes, enzymes and optical brighteners. Planet's hypoallergenic products are safe for septic systems, not harmful to aquatic life and have not been tested on animals, according to the company. A Planet spray cleaner is the best-selling all-purpose cleaner at Andronico's.
“We've had the Planet brand for many years, and it's value-priced compared to other products,” Willett said. “We've built a loyal following for Planet.”
Everyday prices for liquid Tide and liquid Planet are comparable, according to an Andronico's store associate.
Andronico's sees demand for green cleaners that are priced competitively with traditional cleaners, as well as interest in high-end products. The chain began merchandising the Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day collection this summer. The highly concentrated products are made from premium natural ingredients. For example, the all-purpose cleaner contains naturally derived cleaning surfactants such as natural antiseptic birch bark and aromatic essential oils. A 32-ounce bottle retails for $7.99.
Andronico's cut prices on Mrs. Meyer's products by 25% as part of an introductory promotion in the stores, Willett said. The chain featured the line in its “Food Enthusiasts” brochure, which is also available on the company's website.
“We've had great success” with the line, Willett said.
Like consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle-area residents have been buying green products for a long time. Eco-friendly household cleaners and laundry detergents have become a staple at PCC Natural Markets. The chain's No. 1 brand is Seventh Generation. Products from Bi-O-Kleen, Country Save and Ecover are also strong sellers, said Stephanie Steiner, grocery merchandiser for the eight-store chain.
Bi-O-Kleen claims its products are biodegradable, non-aerosol and free of volatile organic compounds. Ecover's products are made from plant- and mineral-based ingredients. All ingredients in Country Save's laundry detergent are biodegradable and completely soluble, according to the company. Seventh Generation's nontoxic products rely on renewable, phosphate-free and biodegradable ingredients.
Environmentally friendly cleaners are relatively easy to find these days. Yet the increase in the number of retailers selling the products has not hurt business at PCC, Steiner said. The company screens items before introducing them. Associates test the efficacy of products by using them in their own homes and by testing products in PCC's kitchen at the company's headquarters. Customers seem to appreciate the effort.
“Shoppers come to our stores because they know they can trust PCC to screen carefully any products for harmful ingredients,” she said.
Green cleaners are gaining momentum in other markets that have less experience with the category.
In Pennington, N.J., shoppers like the Method products, which arrived at the Pennington Quality Market in the spring. The store put up a two-sided wire rack, measuring three feet by two feet and standing about seven feet tall, in front of the meat counter to show off the eye-catching packaging of the bathroom and kitchen cleaners. The store offers about 25 Method products and may increase the line, said Pam Korzun, the store's manager for health and beauty aids and nonfoods.
“Method cleaning products have been flying off the shelves,” she said. “People are coming in and thanking me for [sourcing] an environmentally friendly cleaning product.”
Household cleaners made from natural ingredients delivered double- and sometimes triple-digit sales increases in supermarkets during the 52 weeks ending Sept. 9, 2007, according to data for several leading specialty brands tracked by Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
“There's no doubt they're showing great growth,” said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, a Washington-based trade group. “Their piece of the market has been small, and there's room to grow.”
OVERCOMING AN OLD IMAGE
Green cleaners have come a long way in a relatively short time. Consumers didn't embrace natural products when they first hit the market around 20 years ago. The first wave of cleaners didn't live up to expectations for cleaning performance, said John Mullins, president and chief executive officer of Sun & Earth, which makes nontoxic, pleasantly scented cleaners using coconut and orange oils and other natural ingredients.
“It created a stigma with consumers that the products were inferior and overpriced,” said Mullins. In fact, he said, there still are shoppers who believe harsh chemicals are necessary for proper cleaning.
In the years since, however, manufacturers have invested in research to improve their products. They developed oleo-based cleaners that performed as well as synthetic solvents or petroleum-based counterparts, Mullins said. Based in King of Prussia, Pa., Sun & Earth bills its products as safe, natural and affordable. A 22-ounce bottle of all-purpose spray cleaner retails for $3.79.
With products from major players like Clorox now hitting the market, competition among manufacturers for shelf space is bound to heat up. Yet the interest in green products from big companies could help the niche players, too, Mullins said.
“It's an exciting change,” he noted. “There will be room for a niche product like ours. We have loyal consumers.”
Likewise, the founder of Mrs. Meyer's said the arrival of more products from mainstream manufacturers could boost awareness of natural cleaners.
“It's a really exciting time for growth,” said Monica Nassif, founder and president of the brand that was named after her mother, Thelma Meyer, who became a cleaning expert while raising nine children. “We offer a point of difference from the large mass players.”
Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox plans to introduce a line of plant-based cleaning products, called Green Works, sometime in 2008. The company this year tested the cleaners at selected stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. The products, with suggested retail prices ranging from $2.99 to $3.39, will be about 20% more expensive than conventional Clorox cleaners.
Clorox is targeting consumers who want affordable and effective green cleaners.
“The retailer response as we talk about this product has been very encouraging,” said Aileen Zerrudo, spokeswoman for Clorox. “It definitely is an opportunity to grow the natural cleaning category if you're making something more accessible.”