Spring has sprung -- and it's as chaotic as ever. Led by an uptick in bleach products and a resurgence of mildew removal items, specialty cleaners are making household chores neat and tidy for consumers this spring-cleaning season.
However, for retailers, a bombardment of new products is making the category a tad messy, if active.
"I've always thought this category, in particular, seems to have a lot of product proliferation," said one befuddled buyer.
He's not the only one. Truth is, some retail heads are spinning.
"Procter & Gamble just introduced a bunch of new items. Clorox is coming out with a Soft Scrub with gel in reaction to P&G's entry into the market with their Comet products," said Rich Vanderluit, grocery merchandiser for Phoenix-based Abco Markets.
"There's so many items already in the category, and so many new items coming. In fact, I can't even remember what they all are."
Not many of the retailers and wholesalers contacted by SN could. However, they were able to finger some especially promising products within the busy category.
Pat Redmond, grocery merchandiser for Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., identified "a new tub cleaner that has both the regular cleanser and then you push a lever and it comes with bleach. The mildew items are big now, too, and they have bleach in them."
"S.C. Johnson came out with a new product called Mildew Duck, which is a twin container with two chemicals that, supposedly, don't work if you mix them together. They have to be mixed in the spray head," said an East Coast wholesaler. "So that's unique to the category and unique packaging.
"Procter & Gamble put out a new item called Comet Liquid With Bleach, which has done very well. It's been out for eight or nine months, which is long enough to prove itself; and it's been very strong for us.
"There's a resurgence of the mildew removers; we're seeing an awful lot of them right now," the wholesaler said, but he added that the best bet these days is the bleach.
"The 'with bleach' category is kind of interesting. It seems to be the 'in' thing, because a good percentage of people who clean, clean with bleach. So I think a lot of manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon and trying to put that old 'with bleach' label on their products," the wholesaler asserted.
"Clorox just launched a cleaner with a bleach and mildew formula. Everybody's doing it," said a New England retailer, who admitted to getting the manufacturers and their products confused. "There seems to be some competitive thing going on with P&G and Clorox, seeing who can come out with the most new items in this category."
But retailers can't take them all. They just don't have the space. As a result, they have to pick and choose, looking for products that offer consumers something markedly improved or different.
"We just took on a new P&G Mr. Clean product with bleach," said Jimmy Jones, grocery buyer at Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C. Jones said there have been many other new products presented to his operation, but, to date, he's held them at bay, and off his retail racks.
Mark Polsky, senior vice president at the Rockville, Md.-based Magruder chain, reported he also is seeing more and more bleach and mildew products. "There's quite a few starting to come out." However, Polsky said it's too early to tell if the new products will have an impact on the overall category's sales.
One would think with all the new products and the popularity of bleach items, sales in the high-volume, important household cleaning category would be inching upward. But that's not necessarily the case.
"The problem with the cleaning category is that there are so many subcategories within that category. I don't think, personally, the overall category is up," said Gregg Byrd, grocery buyer for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co., Charleston Heights, S.C.
"What you've done is shifted somebody from one surface cleaner to a different kind -- a more defined kind of cleaner. But as far as the overall cleaning category goes, it's not up, but stable.
"All [manufacturers] have done is shift the dollars, which is good for them, because the more items you have, the more space it takes up. But, to be quite honest, that's not good for us," Byrd said.
And, according to A.C. Nielsen Scantrack data, the sales have definitely been shifted to bathroom cleaners, which in 1993 accounted for $197.3 million -- an increase of 29% from 1992. The top five brands all contain bleach.
Byrd said Piggly Wiggly has taken the stance of looking at all the new products with a more critical eye, making sure the product would benefit the consumer and the bottom line. Not only that, Byrd said they're now moving out an old item to make room for the new. Manufacturers, it seems, can't have their cake and eat it, too.
"In the past, P&G and Clorox would roll out a new item and we'd accept it. But we're not doing that anymore. And we feel like, at best, they'll get a swap."
"We're adding some SKUs," said James Houchens, vice president of grocery at Houchens, Bowling Green, Ky. "We're trying to get some like items out. We also stop and look at the category occasionally to try to make sure we're carrying what everybody else carries."
Richard Sizemore, nonfood merchandiser for Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., said, "If a new item comes out and it has a special sparkle for cleaning glass, or for aluminum pans, or maybe copper pots, we most certainly would carry it.
"But, more than likely, something would have to go because of our limited space. We make our decision with the front-end data-movement report," said Sizemore.
Manufacturers "would always like you to add an item, but the space is finite and the items are infinite. So something's got to go," said Abco's Vanderluit.
This maximizing space by adjusting the household cleaner mix is all part of the idea of category management, said the East Coast wholesaler. "Retailers are going to maximize the space rather than add to it."
He said the pricing of household cleaners falls under the category management umbrella as well. "It's account-specific; we're not going to have the same gross profit considerations as a competitor.
"However, there should always be gross profit, or gross dollars, or gross profit percentage, or return on investment -- whatever it happens to be you're using. There should always be some kind of goal by category."
Retailers consider bathroom cleaners a part of the overall household cleaners category -- which encompasses a great deal.
Sizemore of Pay Less said, "There's not an awful lot of profit in the soaps and cleaners that you normally associate with supermarkets; and we're very competitive on those items [with other forms of trade].
"But there are some specialty type cleaners -- maybe something for cleaning stainless steel -- something that is not a high-price recognition category and that would be probably a nonfood item, rather than grocery. And we would probably make about a 30% markup on that.
"But with just regular old soap powder, we normally sell that at cost."
Regular old, fancy new, nonfood, grocery: It appears the household cleaning category encompasses all these and more. Retailers told SN it's a broad category that involves subcategories and subsubcategories.