The laundry detergent aisle's constant flow of product introductions has made it an ultra-prime candidate for category management activity.
In fact, the continued shift by manufacturers to ultra-concentrated formulas has left retailers no choice but to review their detergent-aisle offerings. Many have conducted category reviews through which they have weeded out slow movers in favor of their better-selling counterparts. If nothing else, retailers have adjusted their space allotments to account for the smaller packaging of the concentrated formulas.
But before grocers begin to pat themselves on their backs about their new and improved product assortment in this and other aisles, they'd better look to enhance their merchandising of that assortment. That, according to industry consultants, will help bring a return on the monies invested in category management. Tactics such as cross-merchandising and better display of products are as important,
they said, as product assortment.
As mentioned, detergent manufacturers have all but forced retailers to change their shelf allotments. The smaller packages afforded by the move to ultras also created a problem for manufacturers.
"They didn't know what to recommend for the remaining space," said Paul J. Kelly, principal at Silvermine Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. "When they downsized, most of the manufacturers were reluctant to say, 'Let's not give as much space to detergents as we once did.' But the numbers kind of said you had to. They they were scrambling around to see what they could put into that space that had more profits but also tied into what they were doing. It became more than just a planogramming problem for them."
Some retailers, including Gary Price, vice president of merchandising at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, welcomed the smaller ultra packaging.
"In the heavy-duty liquids like Tide and Wisk, we were kind of maxed out. In our company, we have stores ranging from 14,000 square feet to 70,000 square feet, so we have to kind of custom-fit each store. In a section like laundry detergent, where a store might be tight on space, we might have to devote only a 4-foot section where we would normally have an 8-foot section. Now we can get a lot more SKUs because of the reduction in packaging."
He said the same scenario has taken place in household cleaners. "It's helped on item selection because some of them have cut 30% to 50% on the package size and therefore we can get a lot more items in there and get better item selection.
"We could also get more items in less space," he added. "For example, in a store that only needs a 4-foot heavy-duty liquid section, we could take the 4 feet we saved and devote it to something else. We've really done the spacing on a store-by-store basis."
Ken Harris, a partner with Cannondale Associates, Evanston, Ill., has seen other retailers juggle their detergent sets. While some have opted to devote the same amount of space to detergents in spite of the smaller size of the packages, others have put the squeeze on detergent space. "I'd hesitate to call it a trend because I'm not basing it on a large enough number, but more seem to be using a little less space for detergents."
Retailers, he said, are leery of shrinking the sections too much. "One retailer told me, 'Tide is Tide.' What he was saying is that no national brand or private-label brand is going to do for me what Tide does. I want to have enough space devoted to it."
Craig Martin, president of the in-store marketing division of Gage Consulting Network, Minneapolis, said simply devoting space isn't enough.
"Retailers have to do a better job of displaying the products," he said. Martin suggested better cross-merchandising and the use of shelving that allows products to be tilted up toward shoppers as ways to make detergent aisles stand out.
"Unless you're doing it with price, you have to find a way to make your aisle stand out. If you can create a more shopper-friendly environment, it will pay off. If not, your aisle is going to look just like the rest of the supermarkets and mass merchants."
Martin's comments are echoed by many throughout the grocery industry. Category management, they say, is at a crossroads. They warn that those who stay on the same path of dealing primarily with product assortment will find themselves traveling down a dead end, while those who turn the corner will achieve increased profitability by better understanding and meeting consumer needs.
A better connection with consumers is perhaps needed most in the laundry detergent aisle, where manufacturers continue to introduce the ultra-concentrated products, a concept some consumers have found difficult to grasp.
"If the need to focus on consumer wants is the key to moving ahead to the next step in category management, it's up to the manufacturers to better educate consumers on the use of their products," a category manager at a chain in the Northeast told SN.
"You have these ultra-concentrated products that people have no choice but to use. The problem is that they don't seem to really understand the concept. I think many of them still use too much. That's the consumer-related area that needs to be addressed most in this category," he said. "There's a bit of a trust problem there."
Assuming that problem is ironed out, detergent category managers must begin to deal with a problem common to all category managers: tunnel vision.
"Retailers need to get away from focusing strictly on one category," warned Cannondale's Harris. "They must remember to develop ways for the categories to work together well. Cross-merchandising is a must." The laundry aisle, with its many related products, is a prime target for cross-merchandising, Harris noted.
Gage's Martin suggested taking a unique approach. "Traditional 4-foot sections may not do the trick. By mixing things up and creating a different look, that may help the section stand out a bit."
The Northeast retailer said his company has been experimenting with various shelf configurations.
"We've mixed things up a bit," he said. "We did a category review to get what we feel is the right product mix. Now we're trying things in the aisle in terms of merchandising. We're doing a lot more cross-merchandising in that aisle than we used to."
A West Coast retailer said his company is at about the same stage.
"We can't compete on price with everybody, so we're trying to grab people while they're in the store. We're doing more with end-aisle and in-aisle displays in the detergent arena than we have done before. You can cross-merchandise a lot of things with detergents. We've done obvious things like fabric softener and bleach. But we've also done things like clothespins, T-shirts and iron-ons."