Concentrated powders are retaining their powerful hold on the laundry detergent aisle, as the Ultra formulations add even more definition to the premium category.
Some retailers told SN the newest wave of Ultra products, Ultra 2, are the latest rage. "Ultra 2 is the way everything is going. [All stores] have an Ultra 2 with most of their stockkeeping units," said Jeff Shuler, merchandising technology manager at K-VA-T Food Stores, based in Grundy, Va.
Ultra 2 detergent, which represent a 20% size reduction from the Ultra SKUs, are formulated so that a consumer requires even less of it per load than the previous generation of concentrated powders.
Ultra 2s began hitting the shelves a year ago, as Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, lead the way with the first new formulation. P&G was followed by other companies introducing their own enhanced Ultra detergents.
But other retailers said the new wave of Ultras haven't impacted the market like their predecessors. Unlike the enthusiastic acceptance that manufacturers saw in the early 1990s, when customers eagerly switched from a large box of powdered soap to a considerably smaller one, the second round of Ultras has been accepted without much fanfare. Moreover, the smaller box has not created a significant amount of shelf space, category managers told SN.
"The consumer is so accustomed to the product being Ultra, that I don't even think they have noticed that there are Ultra 2s out there," Shuler said. "The box has gotten a little smaller, but it was a very minor change. I don't think we were able to pick up any space on the shelves with the new powders.
"If there is any extra room, the manufacturers always come in with an extra SKU or two to take up their linear footage," he added.
Denny McKinney, grocery manager of Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo., noted that "[The smaller boxes have] freed up a little bit of space. But it hasn't helped, because the manufacturers simply bring in more."
Shuler's sentiment that consumers haven't really noticed the new Ultra 2 detergent box was echoed by Bruce Thommen, category manager for pet, paper and household at Giant Food, Landover, Md.
"Everyone is used to Procter & Gamble and the other manufacturers changing formulations. They have become fairly common in the marketplace these days," he said. "The change was more dramatic the first time around, when [manufacturers] went from a standard density to the first generation of Ultras."
Still, the Ultras 2s are having an effect, in the form of widening the gap between premium-priced detergents, such as Tide and Wisk, and those on the lower-end, like Sun, according to Thommen.
This price difference makes it harder for middle-ground brands -- like Bold, Fab and Fresh Start, which are moderately priced, but do not have the reputation of market leaders -- to succeed, he said.
Thommen noted that customers of Procter & Gamble and Lever Bros. are brand loyal, and both companies have products in the premium segment. Thus, their customers are likely to pick up the new product because of brand loyalty, which will help drive sales in the premium category.
"If you're a Tide buyer, you're going to buy Tide, regardless of whether Procter & Gamble changes the ounce size a little," Thommen said. "It appears that customers are buying at either end of the spectrum. They are buying from the premium segment or they are buying at the lower-price end.
"[Retailers will have a] hard time reaching that middle ground, [but that] may vary geographically."
Ultras have also had the effect of further decreasing the number of classic SKUs in supermarkets. Retailers said the reduction of classics was evident in their stores.
"We have about 110 SKUs in our stores, which is fewer than the average in the market or at other grocery stores," said Steve Schreur, a category manager for grocery and household products at Harris Teeter, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.
Tracy Long, Procter & Gamble's spokeswoman, told SN that the company's full line of detergents -- Tide, Cheer, Bold, Gain, Oxydol, Dash, Ivory Snow and Drest -- all now have Ultra 2s. Of those, Tide is the only brand that still has the original, non-Ultra SKUs, she added.
"Generally, feedback has been positive for the products," she said. "We find that it's been better accepted than previous formulas."
Procter & Gamble's Long said the classic and Ultra versions of bottled detergents are performing satisfactorily.
But some retailers disagreed. They said that consumers don't see the value of the Ultra liquids, probably because the bottle is not very different from its classic counterpart, particularly when refill containers are compared.
"You really don't see the Ultra vs. classics battle in the liquids as you do in the powders," commented Schreur. "I think that is because the bottle looks the same. The only real difference is the size of the cap. If you have a gallon detergent and that is about the same size as the 100-ounce ultra, people don't see the difference. They see the difference in the box size."
"The Ultra liquids haven't been doing as well as the powder. And as far as the liquid refills go, the price compares to regular liquid detergent," said Steele's McKinney.
Retailers are also divided in their assessments of another new Procter & Gamble product -- limited bagged and bottled refills for the Tide and Cheer line. The environmentally friendly refills, which are made from recyclable materials and use less packaging, have been out about 18 months.
According to Giant's Thommen: "They are doing OK, but they really are a nonfactor. We offer them because there are certain customers who are interested in them. There is no groundswell of activity with them."
Meanwhile, in Coppell, Texas, Minyard Food Stores has shied away from bagged detergents because of the damage risk, according to Charlie Lane, the chain's household products buyer.
"We have not had much success with the bags. Until they get more established, we'll stick with the boxes. They are easier to handle. There is a lot of damage with those bags," Lane said.
Harris Teeter, however, has observed the reverse trend with bagged items. According to Schreur, the chain has actually seen significant growth in that category from September 1995, the period for which the most current numbers were available.
"In my stores, sales for those bags increased about 40% in fiscal 1996 vs. fiscal 1995. In the market, Tide and Cheer were up 15% from September 1995 to September 1996," he said.
Schreur noted that the gain may be due to the fact that Harris Teeter was slow in getting the refills, and once they were put on the shelf, customers responded positively.