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SHRINKAGE IN THE LAUNDRY

As soapmakers reduce detergent packaging to cut their own costs, consumers are left to ponder whether bigger truly is better.

What's with liquid laundry detergent prices swerving higher?

Thanks to packaging hocus pocus that's about to become a lot more visible, it only seems that way. That's because the price per ounce of many popular soaps doubled and tripled as soapmakers woo customers to switch to concentrated, double- and triple-strength potions to save plastic.

In the process, marketers are easing shoppers into paying the same for what's called "2X" and "3X" detergents that come in far less packaging. It's a pitch contrary to the way soap companies taught shoppers to buy for decades: the bigger the package, the less the price.

The new pitch: less package; same cost per load.

It's enough to drive frugal shoppers to whip out a calculator because unit-pricing comparisons are meaningless when soaps come in different concentrations. And it also offers a chance for soapmakers to slip in price increases for raw materials because they aren't passing on the cost savings.

Today, soapmakers offer multiple equivalent sizes of the same clunky, old 100-ounce plastic jug that remains the top-selling size. Double-strength 2X versions that do the same 32 loads, however, come in containers made with 40 percent less plastic and water. And triple-strength 3X versions cost about the same per load, but are one-third as big and use 55 percent less plastic.

It's the first sight of a shift to less packaging that will spread through the packaged goods industry.

"Retailers led by Wal-Mart are driving suppliers to reduce packaging to trim transportation and energy costs and adopt more sustainable practices,'' said Lynn Dornblaser, new products expert with Mintel Inc. "You'll see more reduced packaging, more re-used materials and an emphasis on refills across all cleaning products.''

Whether the trend has staying power or becomes another of the packaged goods industry's fads du jour remains to be seen.

But in an industry where ''new and improved'' is a weekly event, this fad shows signs of permanence.

Eighteen months after Unilever launched Small and Mighty, a triple-strength version of All liquid detergent that comes in a bottle the size of a dish soap dispenser, concentrates grew in June to 15 percent of all liquid laundry detergents sold.

Colgate-Palmolive's Fab and Church & Dwight's Arm & Hammer copied. Now Procter & Gamble, the industry's 800-pound gorilla with 60 percent of the market (Tide alone is 40 percent), said this month it will begin switching all of its liquid soaps to double-strength versions in September. That includes Tide, Cheer, Era, Dreft, Gain and Ivory Snow.

Until now, P&G only put out a 2X version of Tide for high-efficiency front-loading washers and a 100-ounce, 2X concentrated Tide that is the equivalent of a 200-pound jug. Either one handles 64 loads. But until last week, P&G charged a $2.50 premium for the concentrate.

Such pricing differences end as P&G phases in concentrates nationwide. In a test in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, P&G found 65 percent of Tide users would switch to concentrate in bottles half as big if the price per load was the same.

P&G won customer acceptance in less than two months with educational ads, in-store TV demos and shelf explainers.

"It makes sense,'' said Steve Smith, vice president of merchandise for Sweetbay Supermarket in Tampa. "Soap's a commodity, there's a big savings in costs and everybody is seen as environmentally conscious.''

When energy prices soared, Unilever stepped out first aiming to end the arms race of bigger and bigger jugs of liquid detergent that weigh as much as a bowling ball.

"We hear it in research all the time,'' said Helayna Minsk, director of laundry for Unilever. "Mention laundry and the first thing people talk about is struggling to juggle those big bottles.''

Unilever shrunk the industry standard 100-ounce All bottle to 33 ounces. They ditched the handle and came up with a slender bottle that can be picked up and poured with one hand. They shrunk the cap to remind users not to overdose.

While a 3X version saves more plastic, most makers chose 2X to preserve shelf visibility.

They claim a more concentrated 3X version undercuts their ability for new additives that enhance cleaning or other features to separate 300 types of liquid detergent P&G makes.

"The more concentrated formula gives up real estate in the mixture for future innovation,'' said Kash Shaikh, P&G spokesman.

Unilever has taken its success in shrinking All to Wisk. And it will offer both 2X and 3X versions it claims clean equally as well.

"Once consumers accept that small is just as good, they'll realize even smaller is better,'' said Minsk.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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