Liquids Move Up in the Soap Market

November 9, 2005

Not long ago, the morning shower was simply a way to get clean. Today the shower experience is anything but routine. Current consumer demand for multi-sensory products which offer additional benefits, such as relaxing, energizing or moisturizing properties, has taken root in the bath and shower amid a plethora of innovative new cleansing products, confirming a holistic trend that seems to have picked up speed in recent years.

Liquid soap unit sales increased 4.3% for the year ended September 10, according to Information Resources, Inc., Chicago. The category rose 7.7% to $900 million in sales for the period. At the same time, bar soap sales fell 4% to $1.4 billion, confirming a general decrease in bar soap popularity as body washes and gels have stepped up to the plate.

The total unit sales for liquid soaps—a 4.3% increase over last year’s numbers—would seem to correspond directly with the bar soap industry’s 4% decline for the year and confirm a general decrease in bar soap popularity as body washes and gels have stepped up to the plate.

Bars Move Aside
Once looked upon as luxury or occasional-use items, the relative expense and rarity of body washes, bath beads and scrubs as compared to bar soaps made them more apt to be purchased as gifts than daily-use items in the past. However, today’s more easily-accessible and consumer-friendly market for these product lines has eased their way into the forefront of personal care. In the process, the familiar bar or “toilet” soap has had to move aside to make space on the shelf for innovative new cleansing products which, though still a smaller category, are moving up fast.

The movement toward muti-beneficial and sensory-pleasing personal care is, of course, not new. For more than a decade, manufacturers and suppliers of personal care products have been answering the call for gentler and more natural ingredients with an ever-growing supply of items that promise mildness, purity and a host of holistic benefits such as energizing, relaxing and stimulating effects. Customers look for products that will not only perform their traditional functions but will offset today’s hectic pace, giving a full mind- and body-sensory experience.

Pioneers in this category—primarily smaller, specialty companies—have leaned heavily upon the idea of quality versus quantity, infusing makeup, candles and personal cleansers with botanicals and other natural items that initially were difficult to replicate on the grand scale major soap manufacturers required. As naturally-derived ingredients have become more readily available, however, the major players in the soap industry are introducing tie-ins to their existing products, or improving upon old favorites.

It would seem that ordinary bar soaps were no longer enough. In the process of adjusting to a new public attitude toward personal care, bar soap use has become only a portion of a given shower experience, flanked by what are perceived as superior cleansing methods.

Bar Soaps Continue to Slide
Unit sales of bar soap declined 4% for the year ended Sept. 10, according to IRI. This is a sharper decline than last year’s 0.4% drop and confirms the general trend toward a decrease in popularity for the category. This is hardly surprising: industry experts agree that most consumers utilize a cleansing routine that alternates bar soap use with specific cleansers designed for various parts of the body, rather than relying entirely on traditional toilet soaps. Long-trusted brands such as Lever 2000, Caress, Zest, Ivory and Safe-guard all suffered decreases in unit sales for the year.

However, customer loyalty, convenience and a sense of tradition can offset almost any trend, and in many cases new ideas can act as a supplement to a basic line, especially in household-name brands. Unilever Cosmetics International, for example, though the year’s leader in overall cleansing product sales according to IRI, experienced the expected bar soap sales decrease over the past year. However, a combination of the company’s expansion into the body wash/gel segment and the continued success of its Dove beauty bar and other products resulted in an overall unit sales increase for the industry giant, putting it in the lead as the top soap vendor for the year ended Sept. 10.

Dial Corporation and Colgate-Palmolive recorded significant increases in the sales of Dial and Irish Spring bar soaps, respectively, continuing each company’s long history as top industry contenders and verifying a population segment that continues to rely on the trusted products they grew up with. Dial’s unit sales increased 6%, while Irish Spring rose in unit sales by 14%, a good sign for the dwindling bar soap category.

Adapting to a Changing Market
It’s a well-known fact, but one that bears repeating: the products that will succeed amidst a changing climate are those which can adapt to current trends, while still maintaining a solid and trusted platform that consumers can continue to relate to.

Amidst troubles with flagging sales in general, Dial Corporation is drawing attention back to its original Dial bar soap concept by including fresh new fragrances and user-friendly applications. During the past two years the company has introduced Mountain Fresh, Spring Water and Crystal Breeze scents to its anti-bacterial soap, and in 2000 it reformulated the product in keeping with the current trend toward gentler, friendlier applications.

“The base Dial soap has moved to a richer and creamier product,” said Cindy Demers, vice president, corporate and government affairs, Dial Corporation. “The lathering and cleansing feel are just great. Customers definitely prefer it.”

Dial also introduced a line of opaque body washes, but recently reformulated these as well. Ms. Demers explained, “The body washes are now clear, rather than opaque, which brings purity to mind.” The shower cream combines an ultramoisturizing body wash with vitamin E lotion for the preferred new cleansing experience.

The potential success of the product hinges on a combination of better skin-feel and the desire for a product that has bacteria-eliminating potential, according to the company. Anti-bacterial products in general continue to be in demand as “consumers are concerned about germs in the home and look to antibacterials to combat them. We definitely feel this demand will continue,” stated Ms. Demers. “What’s great about our reformulations is the combination of high efficacy and the creamy delivery system, so you don’t feel like you’re using an ‘industrial’ soap even though it states ‘antibacterial’.”

Dial hopes for a product capable of reassuring consumers of its health benefits, while at the same time retaining an appealing look and user-friendly feel, a balancing act that many major soap manufacturers are dealing with in a changing market.

Dove Beauty Bar, the No. 1 selling bar at $107 million in sales, is another tried-and-true bar product whose basic tenant has remained the same, with a few updates and modifications, since its inception. The product is advertised as a specially formulated cleanser which “is not a soap,” according to company officials.

One of the first on the scene to advertise a “beauty bar” as opposed to a soap, Unilever’s Dove is currently expanding on its body wash line with Dove Nutrium Age-Defying and Dove All Day Moisturizing body washes. Like the original bar product, the body washes are said to help replenish the skin’s natural moisture and leave it soft and smooth. Company officials maintain that Dove is the no. 1 dermatologist-recommended body wash. These simple but powerful statements of purity, efficacy and luxury have helped the line remain on top of the bar soap category in a sea of products promising multiple uses and holistic benefits.

Upscale Additions
Interestingly, despite negative bar soap figures in general, the introduction of a bar soap into a high-end product line can in some cases add to the line’s appeal. John Paul Mitchell Systems, long known for its hair care expertise and availability through a select market, has blended a high-end concept with a convenience product in its new Modern Elixers soap line. Just in time for the holidays, the company has released the triple-milled soaps in three eye-pleasing colors—ivory, sage and aubergine. The soaps are packaged in a box suitable for gift-giving. The soaps boast a detergent-free rich lather infused with the light, fresh botanical fragrance of the Modern Elixers hair care line. The box of soaps retails at $13 and will be available at professional hair salons nationwide during the holiday season.

Unilever is currently working to expand consumer perspective as well with two new tie-in luxury bath lines: Truth Calvin Klein Bath Luxuries and Nautica Latitude/Longitude. The lines cater to the newer body-wash/shower gel market while adding the trusted tradition of a bar soap and incorporating the popularity of two leading fragrances for a sensory bath/showertime experience.

Truth Bath Luxuries includes a shower gel, soap and bath grains. “The Bath Luxuries are based on the very fresh, lush part of the signature fragrance,” company officials said. “Bath Luxuries bring the clean, fresh aspect of Truth Calvin Klein into the bath, offering women a new fragrance experience.”

The men have their day as well: Latitude/Longitude offers the ever-growing male personal care market a refreshing body wash and soap to complement the men’s fragrance. The soap is enriched with olive oil and sea salt to smooth and exfoliate, cleaning the skin without drying and leaving it fresh, clean and conditioned, company executives said. The Nautica Clean Adventure gift set features a 3.4 oz. eau de toilette spray as well as a 10 oz. soap and retails at $45.00.

A Personal Touch
Specialty-product companies seem to have found a niche as well, maintaining a personal touch in spite of nationwide growth. Though generally higher-priced than standard soaps, these unique products have attracted an ever-growing consumer market.

Primal Elements, a Garden Grove, CA-based company headed by founders Faith and Scott Freeman, promises an eco-friendly, fragrant product with exciting visual appeal. Although the products are eye-catching, the company also prides itself on the quality and high standards of its products and its ability to hand-cut soaps to order. Each soap contains vegetable glycerin which moisturizes the skin with a luxurious lather that rinses cleanly away, the company said.

This holiday season Primal Elements is highlighting its successful Special Occasion soap line, offering such festive items as holly berry, a minty/floral scent; snowflakes, which sports an intricate snowflake design and shining stars, a combination of creamy vanilla and sensual musk. The soaps retail at $6.50-$9 per bar.

In addition, the company offers gift packages including the Color Bowl and Soap gift set, a 6-oz. bar of the company’s handmade glycerin soap with a matching color bowl candle in a clear drawstring bag. The set is available in four fragrances: holiday, a traditional orange peel and dried fruit scent; ginger bear, with the warm scent of freshly baked gingerbread; cherish, a juicy blend of mixed berries with sweet vanilla and winter wonderland, a citrus and fresh mint blend. Each retails for $25. “Our new gift sets were designed exclusively for the upcoming holiday season. They are perfect for the person who wants to celebrate the holidays by presenting an attractive gift set for the home,” said Scott Freeman, company president.

The Royal Soap Company, Irving, TX, whose 1998 release of the Holiday Soaps line as an addition to its already-popular catalog experienced resounding success, is expanding its line this season with seven new additions: candy cane, frosty, Santa’s helper, angel, Hanukkah, star of David and dreidel. The company is also re-releasing its original holiday soaps, including nutcracker, which features a ballerina and has a fruity floral scent; gingerbread man, a tasty-looking gingerbread scented bar and sleighbells, sporting a clean melon scent and the image of Santa and his reindeer. The innovative designs infused into each bar make for an attractive presentation, while the components of the product—glycerin, along with aloe and other botanical extracts—meet consumer demand for a moisture-rich, skin-soothing product. The product retails for $7 a bar and is available in three-bar gift packs, as well as individual sale.

As for what is next for Royal Soap, the company plans on appealing to everyone’s sweet tooth. “Our Ice Cream line will be debuting this spring,” said Delma Hernandez, the company’s president and founder. “We find that the trend in personal care scents is going toward foods and desserts.”

The line is predicted to be a hit. “We distributed samples to stores, and the feedback that we got was very positive,” Ms. Hernandez revealed. “What we’re seeing, in soaps as well as in other products, is that people want a scent that figuratively ‘tastes’ as good as it smells.” The Ice Cream line will include such tempting flavors as banana, banana nut and raspberry sherbet and will also include candles, lotions and a shower gel.

Bridging the Gap
Amid the plethora of high-end–and higher-priced–personal care products, a few companies are combining customer demand for a unique cleansing experience with an equal pull for a more economical product, or adding bar soaps to already-extant personal care lines.

In January Unilever will introduce its value-based Suave bars, which will be available in two varieties: a yellow antibacterial soap and a green deodorant soap. The bar is an expansion of Unilever’s popular Suave personal care line and will retail for about $2.50 for a three-bar pack. The product is geared toward price-conscious consumers and follows on the heels of a revamping of Suave’s hair and body lines, with new botanical fragrances and actives and a more modern packaging style.

Also new to the scene is Procter & Gamble’s Olay Daily Renewal Body Wash, which is slated for release in January. The product contains petrolatum, the no. 1 moisturizing ingredient preferred by dermatologists, company officials said.

A company spokesperson insists the product is both skin-beneficial and pleasant to the senses.

“Women tell us they sometimes have to switch between ‘scent only’ body washes and a true ‘skin benefit’ body wash to moisturize and care for their skin,”explained Bobbie Jo Ehlers, Olay’s personal cleansing brand manager. “This suggests there is an opportunity for a brand with true skin expertise to bring experiential benefits to consumers in a meaningful way with products that help bridge that gap.”

Olay has also introduced its Daily Facials cleansing cloths as a soap alternative. The product removes makeup, deeply cleans and moisturizes, according to company executives.

The Daily Facials cloths are available in normal to dry and normal to oily formulations and are specially textured to both deep clean and moisturize the skin. This dual-action is unique within the facial cleansing sector, according to company officials, and the time-saving factor should appeal to today’s consumer.

Is all hope lost for the future of bar soaps? Probably not, though they may never see the degree of popularity they achieved in the past. “Consumers need a variety of forms to meet their showering needs,” Ms. Ehlers observed. “For example, we see not only new forms of body wash but new application tools, new shower forms and broader interests in mists and scrubs.” Even in the midst of such a daunting array of products and methods, bar soaps are likely to remain a part of the equation as manufacturers continue to try to meet customer demand for more than a good old-fashioned clean.