A new wave of creative products is overtaking supermarkets. Witness this revolution in the home cleaning products aisle, where manufacturers are making big changes in the name of convenience and brand loyalty.
In the five years since the electrostatic dust mop first arrived on store shelves, an entire segment has grown around what manufacturers are calling "convenience cleaning" items: toilet bowl cleaners with flushable cleaning heads; bucketless mopping systems; single-use, premoistened wipes; sponges that require no additional cleaning agents; even a car-wash unit that attaches to a garden hose, just to name just a few. Many of these products feature a durable part and replacement components that manufacturers said spur brand loyalty and repeat sales.
According to Packaged Facts, a division of New York-based MarketResearch.com, Americans spent $484 million on "convenience cleaning" products and accessories in 2003, a jump of 40%. Specially formulated wipes are now a $2 billion category projected to reach $4.5 billion by 2010, according to the New England Consulting Group, Westport, Conn., which said about 57% of all U.S. households have purchased a product designed for quick cleaning.
Supermarket retailers may be wondering how much of this is good news for them, however. That's because the recent growth in the home cleaning products category is spreading beyond supermarkets into other retail channels, including drug stores, mass merchants, dollar stores and home improvement stores. To be sure, competition from alternative formats is a challenge to nearly every product category in the supermarket, but home cleaning -- nonperishable and difficult to position as a true food store destination -- can be especially vulnerable.
"I think we're definitely losing some of this [home cleaning] business to mass," said Bruce Colvin, category manager for Felpausch, a 20-store chain based in Hastings, Minn. "It's been slowly eroding for a few years now, even moreso for us in the last year-and-a-half when Wal-Mart moved into our neck of the woods. We also do battle with Target."
According to Mintel International, Chicago, the percentage of dollars spent on home cleaning products in supermarkets dropped 1.1% between 2000 and 2002 -- despite flat sales overall. Drug stores gained 4%, and mass gained 2.2% of the overall share during that same period. Many observers feel those trends have only accelerated since.
Retailers contacted by SN have taken various strategies to protect and enhance their home cleaning aisles. Yet, many are still searching for answers while facing competition from mass merchandisers in multiple categories, not just convenience cleaning.
"We're fighting a bigger battle in laundry products and baby diapers. Those are our big wars right now," said Colvin of Felpausch. "Cleaning products are secondary."
At the same time, Colvin said the chain has welcomed the wave of new items to the aisle. He has been particularly impressed with sales of Proctor & Gamble's Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Released last fall, it is a sponge that when moistened can remove scuffs on floors and walls without requiring additional cleaning solutions. The sponge gradually wears away like an eraser.
The new wet mop products and accessories are also doing well at Felpausch, Colvin said. "The biggest issue with these items are that they're shelf-hogs, and it took some rationalization [of stockkeeping units] to get them to fit into our sets," he said.
Much of the space came from traditional mops and brooms, which overall have seen dollar and unit plunges of around 20% over the last year, according to recent figures from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc.
Innovation in home cleaning should be an opportunity for retailers to reinvent their own approaches to the category, said Bill Wyman, president of Rockwell Consulting Group, Ridgefield, Conn. However, Wyman feels too few retailers are taking advantage.
"There are some very creative products coming out now -- things we haven't seen in this industry for 15 years," Wyman said, citing products such as Clorox's new bleach tube and wipes that have extended the brand franchise. "These niche products are becoming profitable leaders, and they afford supermarkets the chance to try and get back the business they've lost from other channels."
While retailers said the majority of new products has done well, customers still travel less frequently to the cleaning aisle in their stores. At Foods, Etc., Clearlake, Calif., a section of $1 cleaning items has been a most effective attention-getter, said Dennis Darling, president of the two-store IGA operation.
"Sales in the home cleaning aisle have declined dramatically, and we've tried a number of strategies to keep that from continuing," said Darling. "We've tried to go to a more everyday-low-price format and be sure we're competitive on price. We've also slotted a number of items available to us in a dollar store concept."
The chain reserved an eight-foot section in its home cleaning aisle for products, mainly cleaning liquids, that sell for 99 cents. "That's probably been the most successful thing we've tried to get people to come down the aisle," Darling said. "But when you trade the consumer down from the $2.50 item to the 99-cent item, it's hard to keep up your penny profit."
Not all have found the dollar strategy effective. Klein's Super Markets, Forest Hill, Md., tested but later abandoned a special display area featuring $1 cleaning items.
"It was our belief that with such dismal results, our customers either didn't like the dollar selections we offered or they had no interest in shopping for these in our supermarkets," explained Michael Klein, vice president of the five-store chain. "Basically, our customers' low-volume purchases indicated that, 'If we wanted dollar items, then we'd go to dollar stores. We're not shopping for them here."'
Klein instead espouses what he calls "general rules for good retailing" that earn shoppers' trust. His formula: Keep it clean, and have lots of variety, fair pricing and sales in conjunction with national or regional promotional opportunities.
Wyman, the consultant, said supermarkets should work to present home cleaning products as "total solutions" for consumers, using an approach they might take with food categories.
One of the issues driving product innovations in home cleaning is an ideological shift from home as "castle" to home as "resort" -- an escape from the pressures of the working world and a center of relaxation, togetherness and ease. Products to care for these homes help promote that lifestyle by being easy to use, fast and appealing -- in short, taking the "work" out of housework. According to the Soap and Detergent Association, these are products with built-in elbow grease.
According to Brian Sansano, spokesman for the Washington-based organization, 78% of all consumers said they are planning to do spring cleaning this year. In SDA surveys asking consumers what factors they look for when purchasing a home cleaning product, 25% cited a "trusted brand name," finishing ahead of "safe to use" and "good value," each at 20%.
Manufacturers are also finding niches for new products. Mr. Clean AutoDry Car Wash, for example, "brings significant increases in media to a category yearning for excitement," according to Lachelle Lewis, a spokeswoman for Proctor & Gamble. Lewis noted the new product, which features a durable handle and product dispenser that attaches to a garden hose, appeals equally to men and women, bringing women into the auto aisle.
Bucketless wet-mopping systems -- led by the Swiffer WetJet, Clorox Ready Mop and Pledge Go Mop -- dominated sales of cleaning tools, mops and brooms over the last year, according to IRI. These products are now introducing brand extensions, such as orange and vinegar wipes designed for specific floor surfaces.