By Bob Nieman | Dec 26, 2013
Besides water, natural gas and electricity, it’s perhaps the hottest commodity at your self-service laundry.
Whether you sell it in your vending machine or over the counter, or simply prefer to let your customers bring in their own, detergent – and other related laundry supplies – is a big part of your everyday business life.
These products directly affect the final results customers get at your store – which directly impacts your bottom line.
So, what’s the latest on this sometimes-forgotten (but crucial) X factor in your laundry business equation?
“The detergent industry is a mature and highly competitive category with more than $7 billion in sales,” summed up Bill Schwaikert, president of First Preference Products, based in Lakeville, Conn. “The largest entity is reported to have almost a 60 percent share of the market – more than four times higher than the closest competitor.”
Although category sales for the past five years have been “flat to modestly declining,” the major brands continue to look to innovation for further sales, Schwaikert added.
“The overall detergent industry trends surround sustainability, saving time, simplicity and safety,” explained Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership at the American Cleaning Institute, which represents the producers of household, industrial and institutional cleaning products. “Certainly, the unit dose – the laundry packet products – has really crystalized this trend. Whether it’s in the home or the laundromat, the laundry packets are probably one of the best inventions ever. It’s a lot easier to bring in a little packet than a whole jug of detergent.”
Single-dose detergents and stain removers continue to gain in popularity, according to Mary Marlowe Leverette, editor of About.com’s Laundry category.
“They are especially convenient for those who use laundromats,” she said. “Detergent and laundry product manufacturers will continue to reduce water content in products to reduce packaging and transportation costs. Powdered formulas of popular brands have already increased in price, due to the expense of transporting heavy shipments to retailers.
“I predict that powdered formulas will disappear in many brands – and there will be continued improvement in formulas as we use more cold/warm washes, as well as diversification for segmented markets.”
Regarding the sale of detergent and other laundry products, the future is limited only by the technology laundry owners have to work with, according to Andy Wray of Sudsy Laundry Systems in Westminster, Calif.
“Owners are moving toward vending larger products, multi-pricing availability, more money/product controls on machines, and additional products entering the vending space,” Wray explained. “Meanwhile, laundry customers are looking to save time as well as money, and having different brands, sizes or price points in product vending is going to be the key moving forward.”
On the vending side, detergent sales in self-service laundries continue to be dominated by one major brand, Tide.
“Increasingly, due to limitations in vending machine space, store owners are replacing some other detergent brands with a more diverse line of products, such as detergent additives and special-purpose products,” Schwaikert said. “The combination of lower cost and increased sell-through provides more profitability for the valued machine space.”
In addition, recent trends indicate a move toward larger vending machines, newer upgraded equipment with multi-vended price capabilities and different types of venders that can carry wider ranges of products to try to cover their laundry customers’ needs.
According to Wray, today’s vended packaging is brighter with more multi-lingual designs that ever before.
“We’re seeing the 2X, 3X and 4X products being distributed in clever multi-use and reusable bottled packaging,” Wray said.
Bill Mark of Norton Supply, based in Providence, R.I., is seeing more focus on high-efficiency formulas on the vending side, as well as more diversified offerings within the same number of vending machine slots.
As for over-the-counter soap sales, those are expanding in most markets, whether represented as single-use or multi-use sized packaging.
“There is certainly the trend of attended stores selling more over-the-counter products,” said Minnesota laundry owner Jeff Gardner, who writes PlanetLaundry’s monthly “The Laundry Doctor” column. “Because of today’s large-capacity washers, the single packets don’t satisfy what many customers need to do their laundry.”
If customers are going to need use two or three packets in a 60-pound washer, Gardner reasoned, why not sell them a small container of soap over the counter, from which they can clean 12 to 14 loads.
“With over-the-counter sales, there is room for our industry to come down with 2X products, because they can make them smaller and more manageable,” Mark explained. “You can make them fit so many wash loads in a small 10-ounce bottle, which for us and our customers makes a lot of sense, because the typical end-user who walks into a laundromat doesn’t need a 50-load jug of detergent.”
Over-the-counter products are offering more choices, sizes and brands, Wray pointed out.
“We’re also seeing more and more ethnic products being introduced to capture regional markets,” he explained. “Tapping into the local customers wants and getting it to them.”
“OTC sales represent an additional revenue stream for the laundromat owner,” Schwaikert noted. “No investment in vending equipment is needed, and wages are usually already built in for the attendant, making this an attractive opportunity.
“During the last several years, the most noteworthy laundry product has been the single-use dissolving pouch,” he added. “Although in existence for some time, this technology received a substantial boost through the focus of the major brands. However, these products have not achieved the market share originally projected.”
Although many manufacturers hoped that single-dose sales would boost profits, detergent sales have remained relatively flat for the last several quarters, Marlowe Leverette agreed.
“During difficult economic times, consumers turn to less-expensive brands or use fewer products as their income is diverted to other needs like food and shelter,” she said.
Schwaikert also warned that laundry owners are now increasingly in competition with supermarkets, dollar stores, drug stores, convenience outlets and mass merchandisers for detergent and laundry supply sales.
“The number of retail sources has grown exponentially,” he explained. “Dollar stores are particularly relevant, as they are frequently located in close proximity to laundromats and represent the most rapidly expanding channel with well over 30,000 stores among the top three chains. These chains continue their expansion by many hundreds of stores per year.”
Detergent pricing is reasonably stable; however, retail promotions are aggressively used. Therefore, laundry owners need to be mindful that dollar stores and mass merchandisers often use laundry brands as low-profit incentives to generate traffic to their stores.
“Grocery chains often operate with higher profit margins, punctuated by vendor-sponsored promotions as buy one, get one free,” Schwaikert said. “Laundromats need to carefully evaluate their product selection to meet the competitive challenge by retail sources.”
Convenience of purchase is what the laundromat offers, but the value proposition cannot be ignored, according to Schwaikert.
“There has to be a balance between convenience and value for the laundromat patron to make an on-site purchase,” he noted. “The price and product offered by the laundromat must be competitive and this can be challenge for the store owner.”
“Larger packaging and multi-use concentrated products have pushed vend prices higher at the store level,” Wray added. “Also, newer venders can allow for multiple-price points on similar-sized products. And, now that card readers are more widely used in the self-service laundry business, owners can vend products like in a store – in penny or dime increments – but through a vending machine.”
“Vend pricing is very regional,” Mark said. “We have owners in the greater New York area who are still charging 50 cents a vend, but I think more and more are vending soap for $1. We’ve broken through that 75-cent barrier. It’s like the slice of pizza mentality – a slice isn’t $1 anymore, it’s $2.50. Detergent vending is going up, and it should continue to stay that way.”
From a sales standpoint, laundry owners should view detergent vending as offering their customers an option, rather than expecting it to be a booming profit center.
“Owners have to realize that they are there to make their money on their washers and dryers,” Wray suggested.
Then again, because detergent and other products are indeed convenience items for the laundry customer, owners shouldn’t be afraid to price them to make a profit.
“Your laundry products aren’t for the customer who comes in every week,” Gardner said. “Those people are going to bring their detergent to the store. Your vending and OTC sales are for people who don’t want to get back into their cars, drive to get something and then come back. Those people are paying for the convenience.
“For a long time, owners weren’t willing to go to $1,” he added. “I think they’re consistently getting the $1 pricing now. But don’t be afraid to go to $1.25 or higher.”
Stocking the Essentials
So, what essential detergent and laundry supply items should all owners have on hand for their walk-in customers – either in their vending machines or for sale over the counter?
First of all, laundry owners need to know what products their customer base actually uses. Close observation – and even a peek inside your trash cans – is a valuable source of information.
Next, visit the retail sources in close proximity to your store to see what type of selection and pricing they are offering. After all, these outlets are often the sources of products carried in by your customers. Also, consult your supplies distributors, as they are valuable resources for information and product supply.
For Marlowe Leverette, here are the basics for producing clean laundry:
• Heavy-duty detergent that contains stain-removing enzymes
• Oxygen-based bleach for whitening, brightening and stain removal
• Stain remover for oil/grease stains
• Chlorine bleach, pine oil disinfectants or phenolic disinfectants for disinfecting laundry
• Liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets
“Additives such as liquid bleach and all-fabric bleach are popular on-site purchases by laundromat patrons,” Schwaikert said. “Many patrons don’t carry in these products, as they are not often used in every wash. The retail store sizes for these items are often large and heavy, making the small-size laundromat products an attractive option for on-site purchase.”
Some larger laundries will offer multiple venders, as well as ancillary products like vended laundry bags or over-the-counter nylon and mesh bags, according to Wray.
What types of detergent products can laundry owners expect to see in 2014 and beyond?
“We are seeing more of these packs with different types of chemistry in each one,” Garner noted. “The little packs with the swirls in them are highly concentrated. The trend is to try to concentrate the product as much as possible. Of course, the challenge has always been to get the customer to use less of the concentrated product, so the pods have been a great way to make sure the customer uses the right amount.”
Multi-functionality is definitely a trend, according to Sansoni. “The in-wash boosters and stain fighters that are in these products goes right to convenience, and having those available for sale in the store is something that appeals to the consumers.”
“Major brands continue to strive for increased market share through line extensions of their brands,” Schwaikert said. “Examples are detergents designed to remove odors generated in sports-related activities. One interesting product has been the introduction of a 4X detergent concentrate that greatly reduces the amount of packaging and distribution costs, while providing an equivalent number of wash loads.”
Newer O2 units, which are popular in OPL installations, begin to make their way into self-service laundries, Wray added.
Sansoni also is seeing more detergents that are effective in cold water, as well as even more focus on HE products.
“That’s a major cost factor,” he noted. “Continued advancements in detergents that don’t require hot water, and high efficiency is much more prevalent than ever. Energy costs aren’t going down, so anywhere you can take advantage of product and equipment technology to help save cost, that’s always a positive.”
Although the market for eco-friendly laundry products is still quite small, there has been some movement toward “green” plant- or vegetable-based products in recent years.
“Green detergents are gaining market share, and that share will grow if the economy improves,” Marlowe Leverette said. “Some ‘green’ products are very effective in removing soil and equal the cleaning ability of chemically based formulas. Others are not effective, but the same goes with chemically based products. The biggest downside for ‘green’ products is the additional cost.”
Gardner said that he sees a lot of people coming into his store with environmentally friendly soaps.
“I think that’s based more on my clientele,” he said. “If the clientele is eco-conscious, they’re using that stuff. For the general self-service customer, they’re still looking for Tide or Purex. So, you have to know your market.”
“Their appeal is to a very specific consumer,” Schwaikert explained. “It is significant to note that dollar stores and many other retailers have yet to get behind the concept, although Walmart has just announced a natural cleaning products line under its own label.
“When formulated properly, ‘green’ products offer excellent results and do contribute greatly to sustainability – but they sometimes cost more.”
Sansoni has witnessed the evolution of environmentally friendly products other the last 10 years and noted that this growing category is slowly shaking the reputation that it can’t compete with mainstream soaps when it comes to cleaning effectiveness.
“Some ‘green’ products are catching on in certain markets, but being limited in selection and cost of packaging has been a hurdle,” Wray concurred. “But many customers who are devoted to using eco-friendly products do look for them.”
However, many within the industry, including Mark, are not yet sold on the staying power of environmentally friendly detergents.
“As much as we like to think it would take off, it hasn’t,” Mark said. “If Tide outsells everything eight to one, are you going to put something new in your vending machine to displace Tide? Are you going to give up on the ancillary products that customers need anyway?
“Anything ‘green’ always sounds great and looks great, but when it comes to actually paying for it, I think there is some resistance.”
Another detergent-related trend that laundry owners may be seeing more of in the future is auto-injection. In fact, laundries have been using this technology worldwide for some time now, Wray stated.
“I believe some locations may be able to use this system,” Wray admitted. “However, by the time you look at the increase in costs to set up pumps and chemical costs, as well as the space requirements, it would be tough to offer this in a price-sensitive market. That said, it may catch on one day here in the U.S.”
“I can see advantages for the laundromat owner, especially with respect to proper machine operation,” Schwaikert added. “The challenge will be in gaining consumer acceptance. Consumers are accustomed to controlling the selection and use of their preferred product. Product fragrance and scent of fabrics after laundering is a significant matter of personal choice.”
With the nationwide trend toward larger washers, it’s easy to see where auto-injection could be an alternative for some laundry owners in certain markets.
“There are a lot of the 120-pound-plus washers out there that are auto-injected,” Gardner explained. “The vend price includes the whole cycle, everything. The detergent compartments on those machines are difficult to get to, and many customers don’t know how to add the correct chemistry.
“I don’t know that I see auto-injection as a trend, but I personally feel it’s a good thing to offer customers. It’s expensive to do on an individual machine basis, but it’s an option.”
Another option Gardner has seen in his store is homemade detergent.
“I see a lot of customers making their own soap,” he said. “With some detergents getting to be so expensive yet not being exactly what the customers want, people are bringing in Tupperware containers of their own soap. There are great recipes on the internet, and my customers get good results with it.”
The most misunderstood aspects of detergent by the general public are that a certain scent equals clean and the differences in cleaning ability between products, according to Marlowe Leverette.
“The public doesn’t know how to read the ingredient labels to determine whether the detergent will effectively clean their laundry,” she added. “Also, the fact that thermal energy and mechanical energy do a great deal of the cleaning of laundry – and that adding more and more detergent is not needed.”
Of course, the “less is more” philosophy is one that laundry owners have been trying to instill in their customers for years.
“I have addressed the issue of detergent dosage with every manufacturer, along with their lack of providing an easy-to-read measuring cap,” Marlowe Leverette explained. “As detergents become more concentrated or formulated for low suds, consumers will need to be re-educated. Unfortunately, I doubt that is going to come from detergent manufacturers who want to sell as much detergent as possible.
“Laundromat owners can lead the way with in-laundry signage, such as ‘Suds Do Not Equal Clean – Less is Best!’ or ‘Use Less Detergent or Pay for An Extra Rinse!’”
Visual examples of how much detergent to use could be very helpful, with images of actual measuring spoons or cups, she added.
Mark suggested placing a sticker on the front of each machine, as opposed to a sign.
“We sell tons of them,” he said. “It’s a round sticker that has a picture of a measuring cup.
“Oversudsing exists more with customers who bring in their own products, as opposed to what you’re selling over the counter or through your vending machine, because those products are more maximized.”
No matter how you choose to educate your customers, that education is paramount.
“You need clear, concise instructions for both powders and liquids,” Schwaikert said. “With the different types and sizes of equipment, equipment manufacturers and store owners need to provide easy-to-follow instructions for proper use, to include what happens if the recommendations are not followed.
“We need to be mindful that many consumers believe more product used will achieve a better result. They need to see that this is not the case and what actually transpires.”
The Future of Cleaning
Where is the detergent industry headed?
“The manufacturers are delivering sustainable, safe products to help simplify and save time,” Sansoni said. “That’s where product development is going. It’s a high priority for our industry, and that’s where it will continue to go.”
And, with all of the new types of dissolvable packaging – such as the pod-type products – it seems there is more opportunity there down the road.
“Detergent and softener in one – a one-shot product.” Mark said. “To me, it makes a lot of sense. If we can translate that into a vending box, that offers a lot of potential. Plus, there’s more control from the laundry owner’s standpoint.”
“Are we at the point where we’ve made detergent as chemically effective as it can be, with the smallest amount we could put in it?” Gardner questioned. “I don’t think so. Some companies are making products where as little as four ounces of detergent can tackle an 80-pound load of heavily soiled linens.
“I think there is still some movement in the ability to come up with chemistry that’s even more efficient. Of course, the challenge for the detergent industry is to continue to teach consumers how effective this stuff is – and how to properly use it.”