How do you increase sales in a category where everyone - with a few antisocial exceptions - already uses the products? When it comes to household laundry lines, the retailer's task is to ensure that the customer can find the product that suits their needs in the limited shelf space available, and to encourage them to trade up to the superior products now launching into this increasingly diverse sector.
Valued at £953m last year (AC Nielsen), the category managed only marginal growth in the convenience channel, with Persil holding its position as the top laundry detergent by value. Ariel followed, with Bold showing the strongest growth in the sector. Powders continued to dominate with 45.6% market share, but a detectable shift occurred between tablets (down 2.3%) and the fastest growing format, liquid tablets (up 1.9%).
Fabric conditioners added a further £249m in consumer spend, with Comfort (38.5%) and Lenor (35.2%) leading the field.
In the convenience sector, biological products continue to outperform non-bio by two to one (IRI convenience value share).
If overall growth proved hard to come by, it is certainly not for want of trying on the part of the leading manufacturers in the sector.
"This is a steady market, and one that is non-expandable through penetration," says Procter & Gamble's Louise Erdozain. "But there are opportunities for growth through customers trading up to a more fulfilling experience, or trying something new."
There is also evidence to suggest that the major manufacturers are moving away from last year's price promotions strategies and focusing instead on giving added value to the customer.
Erdozain says P&G's 2007 launches are in line with a growing trend towards fragrancing in laundry. "There's a movement across the home care sector, from bubble bath to air freshening, to introduce scent to established products. Consumers expect their detergents to clean first and foremost, but they are increasingly looking for fragrance to add freshness.
Other brands are following the trend, including Bold - the fastest growing brand in convenience outlets - which has recently added a Crushed Silk and Jasmine variant.
Chris Pote, director of home and personal care at Unilever UK, also highlights the current shift towards scent. "Introducing new variants is important to ensure brands are seen to be offering something new," he says. "This is key for a brand like Surf as it is a 'fragrance delivery' driven product. So a new fragrance such as Cool Fresh communicates innovation to the consumer, helps increase brand loyalty and revitalises sales."
The proliferation of products within brands means that competition for shelf space, particularly in convenience channels, is hotting up. "This is the challenge for c-store owners," says Erdozain. "How much value do you want from your shelf space? It's hard to meet every customer's expectations when you are limited to five - or even 30 - products when the supermarkets are now offering more than 100."
Pote adds: "The secret to achieving great shelf standout is through strong brand identity, simplicity, clear merchandising and clear communication on promotional activity. It's also important to ensure that there's a link between media activity and product appearance on shelf."
The key to choosing the correct stock for your shelves is, as ever, to know your customers. City stores in areas with a younger, affluent population should concentrate on high-value unit dose formats, particularly liquitabs, to take advantage of distress purchases. Stores in rural locations with older customers will find that powder still has the edge.
"Consumers tend to be more loyal to format than to brand," says Erdozain, who points out that most purchasers will choose their preferred form, then a brand, and then select bio- or non-bio, before deciding on a fragrance.
She adds: "Availability is more of a deciding factor than cost - they won't choose to go without clean clothes."
Acdoco head of marketing Claire Berry agrees that the laundry market can expect little more than minimal growth, at best, over the next few years. "A range of factors, including high competition in the market, reductions in household sizes and an ageing population, are contributing to this forecast," she says.
"We are likely to see manufacturers introducing new products to persuade what is traditionally a very loyal customer base to switch and purchase a different brand.
"Research suggests that consumers are now concentrating on convenience and are spending more money on laundry aids and more specialised products, so we will be focusing on developing and marketing this area over the next year," she adds.
Other changes are expected to be driven by environmental issues. As with so many product lines throughout the store, laundry goods are under pressure to clean up their act. While they are not prepared to reveal any changes in formulation, the major manufacturers are taking their responsibilities seriously. P&G says it recognises sustainability as the most pressing issue, and has spread the message with campaigns such as Ariel's Turn to 30 initiative, encouraging consumers to save energy by washing their clothes at a lower temperature.
Unilever's Pote also identifies the areas where a difference can be made. "With more washes per footprint, concentrates are more economical, which means lower transport costs, less packaging and better use of space in stores," he says.
Acdoco offers ACDO Enviro, a more environmentally friendly brand of washing powder, which it says was the first laundry powder in the UK to carry the European Eco label. Similarly, Ecover's environmentally friendly non-biological powder has won over sceptics with comparable performance to conventional formulations.
With bio gel tablets among the fastest growing segments of the laundry category, with 30% incremental sales in 2005/6, persil has introduced new Colour Care Gel Tablets.
The new variant is expected to encourage customers to trade up and gives retailers an improved margin. A new format with more compact packaging both saves shelf space and reduces waste.
Daz is gearing up for a spring launch of an initiative promoting 'sexier' whites with the help of '90s favourites Right Said Fred.
'Daz Said Dance' packs are now on shelves in an initiative to promote a product upgrade and new packaging for greater shelf impact.
The latest extension to the Surf brand, Cool Fresh, came to market late last year with memorable scratch and sniff stickers, reflecting the growing role of fragrance in the category. New pack designs aim to get consumers to re-appraise the Surf brand.
Unilever's Comfort Crème aims to bring females over 45 back to fabric conditioners. Re-introduced as an indulgent treat, Comfort Crème is intended to establish a luxury sub-sector within the fabric conditioning category and, says Unilever, is directly responsible for bringing more than 120,000 new users to the fabric conditioning market, adding 2.7% incremental growth to Comfort concentrate's market share.
A demand for more natural products is the driver for the launch of Fairy Naturals Fabric Softener with Almond Milk and Honey, part of a spring push for the Fairy brand which involves a £5m marketing campaign designed to encourage consumers to 'experience softness inspired by nature'.
The new variant is targeted at purchasers who are concerned about their family's sensitive skin.
After successful multibrand launches in the US, Procter & Gamble has combined Ariel and Lenor with febreze fabric freshener. Ariel and Lenor with Febreze will be promoted by the slogan 'Surround yourself with freshness' in an £8.5m marketing campaign from this month.