Ultras are the name of the game in today's laundry detergent aisles.
Introduced nationally in powder form in June 1990 and in liquid form in November 1992, the concentrated products have quickly turned the detergent section into a one-horse town. Manufacturers and retailers alike have said "out with the old, in with the new," leaving only a handful of nonultra detergents available.
The changeover has resulted in laundry aisle resets in many of the nation's supermarkets. Many of those who haven't reset the aisles yet are planning to do so shortly.
According to statistics compiled by Information Resources Inc., Chicago, ultras accounted for $2.2 billion of the $2.4 billion in powdered laundry detergent sales for the 52-week period ended Feb. 27. That 91.3% share left less than 9%, $211.6 million, to nonultras.
As impressive as those ultra numbers sound, there was actually a 4.4% decrease in dollar volume for powdered ultras during that span. Still, ultras fared better than the whole category; the numbers for all powdered laundry detergents reflected an 8.6% decrease in dollar volume.
Liquid ultras, on the other hand, posted a gain of nearly 600% during the same period. That increase is tempered by the fact that liquid ultras were available for only part of the previous year. Nonetheless, ultras accounted for $1.1 billion of the $1.6 billion in sales of liquid detergents for the period. Nonultras, on the other hand, garnered only $581 million, a decrease of nearly 60%. Those numbers reflect a share of nearly 65% for ultras, a percentage retailers said continues to skyrocket.
Ultra detergents are concentrated versions of regular detergents. Ultra powders generally call for a half cup of the product per use, compared with one cup for standard detergents. Liquids range from one-quarter to four-tenths of a cup, compared with an average of about a half cup for standard liquids.
The many changes in detergent offerings brought by the ultra wave have kept supermarket planogram designers on their toes.
"The laundry category continues to be one of the most dynamic categories in the store, with everybody changing everything," said Ned Meara, grocery merchandising manager for Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J., "It seems every time you look up, there's a new detergent or a new improved whatever on the market," he said. "We certainly have seen a tremendous amount of changes in 1993. I think we as a company thought perhaps the powders were going to become stronger than they really were, but where we operate is really not a powder market. The liquids have really gained a foothold."
"We're doing a category plan in that area now," said Tom Longwell, a buyer for Kroger Co.'s Columbus division, which is based in Westerville, Ohio. "We've been out looking at competitors and things like that. We find that ultras are dominating.
"A lot of the competitors aren't carrying the one-cups anymore," Longwell added. "Ultras are more dominant with those people than with others because they've chosen to get out of the one-cups and aren't carrying very many of them. A lot of people have gone in that direction."
Meara said Grand Union has had to totally reconfigure the department, creating the "proper planogram out there, so we could house these things. We had to discontinue some items in order to get all these new ones in, which was done. "That's a lot of effort, but you do get the support of the branded people, the Procter & Gambles, Levers, Colgates. They still have their retail people out there to assist you in these conversions, but it really falls on the store to get it accomplished."
Meara said technology allows rapid change in the field. "As soon as things like this happen, we're changing that planogram and that gets out to the stores, so the stores then know what goes where on the shelf. It's a little more sophisticated than when I worked in the stores."
Meara said his chain's most recent planograms don't reflect much of a net gain in the number of stockkeeping units within the laundry detergent space.
"The SKU count has not really increased, because there's been so much fallout in the category," he explained. "When people come in with a new and innovative product, many times the other one goes. Tide is Tide. It's changed many times over the years, and stores have just substituted the new item for the old."
The planograms at Grand Union and other chains also don't show any decrease in the space allotted for detergents, in spite of the smaller size of the ultra packages.
"You would think there would be all this shelf space that is now freed up because the boxes are a heck of a lot smaller," said Jim Barch, vice president of marketing for Church & Dwight, Princeton, N.J., which makes Arm & Hammer products. "If you would have done a shelf set back in 1985 before ultras came, and replicated that shelf set in 1994, you should have a much smaller set because the boxes and bottles are smaller than in 1985. But the shelf environment is just as large now, because retailers have made room for all the line extensions that people have. "In 1985 there was Tide," Barch said. "Now there's regular Tide, Tide Free and Tide With Bleach, and ditto for virtually all the major brands. So the additional space that was freed up by smaller boxes and smaller bottles really has gone back to the brands, to use on their different varieties."
Greg Byrd, a buyer for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co., Charleston Heights, S.C., agreed the space for detergents has remained somewhat constant. "When they increased the number of different sizes, there was some downsizing of the containers at the same time, so that pretty much alleviated that space problem," he said.
"Ultras are what's happening, both in liquid and powders," he added. "The ultra category is definitely expanding. Sales in units are about the same, but dollars are definitely up."
"We had to rework all the shelves, and add shelves in," said David Ervin, a buyer for Quality Foods, Commerce, Ga. "We reset the whole section. We did a total reset one time, and have just plugged in from then on, doing what we had to do."
"We waited as long as we could before we did any resets," said a buyer for a Southern retailer who asked not to be identified. "The manufacturers did a lot of the work for us, because most did away with their old items when they introduced the ultras. "We had to do some reconfiguring, though, to make the most out of our shelf space," the buyer said. "It basically involved making adjustments for the new sizes. There's no point in leaving the same amount of space for a new, smaller package that you left for the larger one before it.
"Of course, our ultra sales are much better than our nonultras," he added. "When we saw how popular the powdered ultras were, we were glad to see the liquids come out."
All retailers contacted by SN said they still carry a handful of nonultra detergent SKUs. Most report the nonultras continue to move.
"Tide, Ajax and Trend have nonultras," Ervin of Quality Foods said. "They still sell. A lot of people just don't want to change." He added, however, that most people are buying ultras. "We only have a couple boxes of regular detergent. They've got to buy the ultras."
"We've found the traditional heavy-duty detergent has still maintained some strength where it's available," Meara of Grand Union said. "People will pick up price points and are not as brand-loyal in that category as in others."
Jim Pickette, a partner and buyer for Discount Foods, Anniston, Ala., said his nonultras are his best sellers. "The biggest type of sellers are Trend and Purex."
Pickette said he added shelf space to accommodate ultras, rather than cut out existing products. He's also promoting the older products, not the ultras. "We don't advertise that many ultras. We're mostly sticking with Purex, Trend and Ajax in the old-type powder."
Longwell of Kroger said he's seen nonultras with strong sales at some competitors' stores. "The Purexes of the world haven't gotten completely out of the one-cups yet. You see them doing a good job where they are. There are certain consumers who still look at price points out there and the difference between the one-cups and the ultras creates kind of a large spread in pricing. Meara said most ultras are priced in the same range. "Liquid Tide [40 ounces] is running in the area of $3.39, $3.49. The others are all pretty competitive with that. The private label we have is selling at about $2.29, so there's a significant savings. We feel we have a product that's equal to the brands.
"We're looking with interest at the 90-ounce Ultra Tide Free that's coming on board. There is no history with it as yet, but we're looking at it and we'll be following it.