Dial soap is holding steady, but retailers are cutting the space for bar soap in favor of gels.

Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

TOM SWEENEY, Star Tribune

Here today, gone tomorrow?

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT
  • Star Tribune
  • August 9, 2011 - 9:25 AM

Ever walk into a drugstore and find that an item you've bought for years has vanished? Or been downgraded to a bottom shelf?

That scenario could be happening more and more often.

As retailers start shrinking stores and consumer preferences and technology change, former top sellers such as bar soap, antiperspirant spray and powdered laundry detergent appear to be slowly joining the products of extinction.

The popularity of store brands, such as Target's Archer Farms and Cub's Essential Everyday, is also cannibalizing name brands.

The trend toward private labels in a recession means more money in the retailer's pocket and less out of the consumer's. "Consumers see store brands as lower-priced substitutes for name brands without sacrificing quality," said Ted Vaughan, retail and consumer-products analyst.

Consumer expert Paco Underhill predicts more favorites will start disappearing as big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy experiment with smaller versions of their stores.

"As we shrink the size of stores, a number of products will disappear," he said.

No one wants to lose a favorite product, but many consumers might agree that there are already too many choices. More than 1,000 consumer products are introduced each year. Crest, for example, has nearly 100 different formulations.

Manufacturers try to gain an edge in the fight for valuable shelf space by adding more variations, said product-design expert Karl Ulrich. "Sales volume is remarkably proportional to shelf space allocated to the product," he said.

No one is saying it's time for stockpiling these items (although hoarding of incandescent lightbulbs has been reported), but when a favorite gets removed from the shelf, try eBay or stores specializing in closeouts such as Big Lots.


Americans live in a germ- conscious world where bar soap is perceived as less hygienic than bath gels or liquid hand soap. Buyers of bar soap probably haven't noticed yet, but the space allotted to the bar is dwindling in favor of gels. It has lost 85 percent of its sales in the past 20 years, although Dove, Dial and Irish Spring are holding steady, said Flickinger.


If you're trying to find Right Guard antiperspirant spray at a discounter, look down. It's almost always on the bottom shelf, where third- and fourth-tier products are relegated. "Eye-level shelves are for bestsellers," said Burt Flickinger, a retail analyst and managing director of Strategic Resource Group. "If it's on the bottom shelf, it's either heavy, like a bag of sugar, or a slow seller." Sprays make up only 20 percent of the antiperspirant market, he said, although Axe deodorant spray, marketed to young men, is a strong seller. Spray sales also suffer from bad PR, from causing global warming to being used by miscreants as mini-blowtorches to incinerate ants.



Sometimes a new product trumps an old one because its offers more features, said retail analyst Nikoleta Panteva at IBISWorld Inc. Laundry detergent manufacturers can combine several products in one with liquids. Tide Total Care, for example, claims to maintain garments' shape, color, finish and softness while preventing pilling. Oh, and it cleans, too. Plain Jane powders, incapable of such multi-tasking, are almost a footnote in a long line of liquids.

Although sales of powders rise in recessions, Flickinger said, liquids still make up 70 to 80 percent of the laundry detergent market.

Incandescent light bulbs

Sometimes government can regulate a product out of business. Some but not all incandescent lights are being phased out between 2012 and 2014. Half of the lightbulb aisle at Target is now stocked with compact fluorescents. And even they might soon fall from favor as mercury-free LED light technology improves and becomes more cost-effective.


Green products are taking shelf space away from traditional products that are not biodegradeable or sustainable or made from recycled materials, said Vaughan. But consumers turn against products if the green cred is questionable. In 2006, bamboo sheets and towels were common on shelves. Now the only place to find them is online. Once greenies learned that bamboo isn't so pesticide- and fertilizer-free, many switched to organic cotton.

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