Household Wipes: Looking For The Next Clean Sweep

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | February 11, 2009

economic woes, market maturity and a slackening in new product introductions are just some of the challenges facing wipes in household segments

Five years ago, the household wipes market seemed unstoppable. Procter & Gamble continued to expand its Swiffer cleaning brand with new product introductions, creating new categories for cleaning seemingly overnight. At the same time, sales of all-purpose cleaning wipes continued to soar as niche products like toilet cleaning wipes, glass cleaning wipes and stainless steel cleaning cloths rolled out, meeting consumers’ insatiable need for products designed to make their lives easier.

    In just a handful of years, the market for household cleaning wipes zoomed from nearly nothing to more than $1 billion and everyone was looking for a piece of this action. New spunlace lines ramped up in the U.S. and beyond and it seemed converters of wipes were popping up out of nowhere. Wipes not only created a new opportunity for household cleaning companies looking for new ways to boost profits, they gave nonwovens a front-row seat in the lives of consumers.

    As 2009 begins, the market for household wipes is not so bright. The world is undergoing an economic crisis of unprecedented proportion that has forced consumers to tighten their belts. At the same time, the wipes market has gone a couple of years without the introduction of a huge blockbuster product, like Swiffer, to propel sales. Today, most wipes users have been using them for a while and the market has done little to reel in new users. Add to this severe pricing pressure from the private labels and you have a pretty tough business environment for the household wipes market.

    Despite this, major household goods companies continue to innovate, hoping to create a product with the right combination of features to woo consumers. For instance, in 2008 Procter & Gamble introduced Mr. Clean disinfectant wipes with Febreze freshness. With a towel-like texture for strong scrubbing power, these wipes contain the refreshing scent of P&G’s Febreze deodorizer.

    Meanwhile, Clorox, who first entered the disinfectant wipes category in 1999 and has since been a leader in that category, has launched a biodegradable wipe to its Green­Works line of environmentally-sensitive cleaning products. Additionally, at the niche level a number of products—ranging from cat nip wipes to toy cleaner wipes—continue to emerge. However, the rate of these introductions has dropped off considerably since the household wipes market was at its peak earlier this decade.

    “In developed markets, increasing competition from private labels in 2007 forced brands to  compete more on price, which in turn led to less dynamic innovation in core product areas, especially in household care wipes,” said Euromonitor re­search manager Mag­dalena Kondej. “Cur­rently, innovation is mainly occurring in niche product areas as companies try to find new usage for wipes and new target groups. However, the majority of these applications can be considered luxury-orientated and so it is only in the most developed markets of the U.S., Japan and Western Europe where these products are likely to be offered for sale. In emerging markets such as Russia and Brazil, where wipes are registering the highest growth rates, the innovation focuses around more basic features such as larger packaging.”

    According to Euromonitor, the global wipes market, including household cleaning, personal care and baby wipes, was about $7.9 billion in 2007. Forty one percent of these sales were in Western Europe; 34% in North America and 17% in the Asia-Pacific region. Remaining sales were spread across the globe.

    The household cleaning wipes market includes electrostatic cleaning cloths, all-purpose disinfectant wipes, wet floor wipes, window cleaning wipes, toilet cleaning wipes and furniture dusting cloths and together, sales of these items are only slightly behind the baby wipes market. According to industry estimates, global electrostatic cleaning cloth sales were about $580 million last year; all-purpose cleaning wipes were $600 million; and wet floor wipes sales totaled about $300 million. Also contributing $100 million-plus each were window cleaning wipes, toilet cleaning wipes, furniture dusting cloths and miscellaneous cleaning wipes including metal wipes and other products for household usage.

    During the past year or two, dollar sales of household wipes have mostly stayed flat or suffered slight declines but that does not mean companies are selling fewer wipes. Volumes have continued their upward trend as competition from private labelers has intensified, driving down retail prices in the segment. According to Euromonitor, the share of private label products in the Western European household wipes market increased from 6%-17% from 2002 to 2007. At the same time, private label marketshare increased from 2%-7% in North America.

Change Is Good

The leader in the all-purpose cleaning wipes market, Clorox has not rested on its laurels. Despite the fact that its share of the North American cleaning wipes market was a reported 48% last year, the company relaunched its disinfectant wipes with new nonwoven substrate technology. Featuring increased thickness and better texture, the new disinfectant wipe was reportedly based on PGI’s Spinlace nonwovens, which use proprietary imaging technology to bridge the gap between value and performance in wipes.

    Beyond value, ecofriendliness is another trait becoming more valued in wipes. Just this month, Clorox launched a biodegradable wipe in its Greenworks line of ecofriendly cleaners. The biodegradable wipes, housed in recyclable packaging, have with them a seal of approval from the Sierra Club.

    “Sierra Club has joined us with the shared conviction that corporations and NGOs should work together to bring about real progress,” said Don Knauss, chairman and CEO, The Clorox Company. “Sierra Club has been a supportive sounding board for a number of Clorox’s initiatives, including recycling Brita filters and product ingredient disclosure. We hope our contribution to its environmental programs will enhance their good work on behalf of our communities.”

    Sourcing alternative raw materials and solutions is nothing new for green cleaning products company Method. The company has been making cleaning wipes since 2003 and since then has developed a full stable of ecofriendly wipes that use 100% natural fibers and are completely compostable. These include all-surface wipes, specialty surface wipes for steel, granite, wood and leather and flushable bathroom cleaner wipes in eucalyptus mint.

    Its two most recent products, a floor cleaning cloth made from polylactic acid and a bamboo-based cleaning wipe, have continued to improve the eco-profile of Method’s wipes offerings. The company will continue to look to new materials to continue this.

    “We are continually exploring materials and processes to improve our products, in terms of both consumer experience and environmental impact,” said Rachel Goldberg, Method spokesperson.

    Searching for new raw materials, improving performance, uncovering niches and battling price pressures all seem to be in a day’s work for wipes manufacturers looking to keep their market afloat in today’s economic uncertainties. As one wipes expert said, “Wipes have definitely become a major part of our life—how much so will be determined by how well the market performs,” said Susan Stansbury of Converting Influence. “The economic crisis will be the ultimate test.”                    

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