Hoping To Clean Up In A Growing Market

September 03, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

HAVRE DE GRACE -- After working all day as a salesman for Grow Group Inc., a company that makes private-label cleaning products, Keith Williams would go home to his bachelor apartment in Rochester, N.Y., and a dirty, smelly, garbage disposal.

He tried home remedies: Lots of water. Lemon peels. Bleach. No good. He went to the store: Nothing on the shelves promised to clean his disposal.

So Mr. Williams called the chemists at the Grow Group factory here with his idea for a disposal cleaner that would dislodge en

crusted and rotting food from hard-to-reach places.

Now, two years and several prototypes later, local workers are shipping out cans of Foam & Fresh -- billed as America's first garbage disposal cleaner -- to local grocery stores in time for an introductory advertising campaign that will kick off Tuesday.

And Grow Group managers are rubbing their hands over the prospects of the company's first brand-name cleaning product: They say they've found a need, and plan to fill it with foam.

There are 41 million disposal units in American homes, and most of the units develop an unpleasant odor from time to time, said William Rogers, president of Grow's consumer products operations in Maryland.

The household hints columnist Heloise, who does not comment on brand products, agrees that millions of Americans are bothered by smelly disposals.

"It ranks in the top 20" topics covered in questions and suggestions she receives, she said.

Grow Group's cleaner -- a white shaving cream-like foam that fills up the disposal unit and is washed down the drain after about 15 minutes -- has won praise from consumer focus groups, Mr. Rogers said.

"We are very excited," he said. If sales are as strong as Mr. Rogers expects, the local plant, which already has 225 %o employees, will hire dozens more people and build another warehouse here.

Foam & Fresh is selling on local store shelves for about $3.50 a can. Each can contains enough cleaner for eight to 10 uses.

"This could be a $20 to $30 million business" annually within a few years, he said.

And that could mean a big difference to the New York-based paint and cleaner maker, which reported profits of $14.1 million on sales of $402 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Its stock closed yesterday at $15.25, down 62.5 cents on the New York Stock Exchange.

Jeffrey Putterman, an analyst who follows Grow Group for Stephens Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based brokerage, noted that the consumer products division, which has factories in Maryland and Texas, chalked up revenues of more than $77 million last year.

Since Foam & Fresh isn't very expensive to make, Mr. Putterman said he believes the product could nearly double profits from the division.

"I get real excited about Foam & Fresh, even though if I tell people Grow is coming out with a garbage disposal cleaner, they say 'Why?'" Mr. Putterman said.

Mr. Putterman, who says he has first-hand experience with smelly garbage disposals, knows why: "People don't want to put their hands down" inside a disposal, for fear someone will mistakenly turn the blades on.

Disposal owners aren't the only ones worried about a mistake. The launch of a new brand is a risky move for Grow Group, which, until now, has been a low-profile company.

Since Grow bought the factory here in 1978, it's been quietly cleaning up by making knockoffs of brand name cleaning products.

Grow fills orders from grocery stores for private-label versions of popular cleaners. Grow chemists take brand-name products, analyze them, figure out what chemicals to mix to make similar products, and then design packages to the grocery store's specifications.

That's why the factory lines here pump out lemon-scented furniture polish in a yellow can similar to the Pledge brand, blue-colored window cleaner reminiscent of Windex, and fine-washables soap in a blue-and-white bottle like Woolite's.

But in developing and marketing a new product and brand name, a company has to spend a great deal of money on consumer research and marketing, warns Jeff Metzger, editor of Columbia-based Food World.

Noting that 98 percent of all new products fail, Mr. Metzger said many grocery chains won't put a new product on their shelves unless the manufacturer pays a "slotting" fee, or promises to advertise heavily to bring shoppers into the stores.

Foam & Fresh appears to be winning acceptance in local grocery stores: The product is already being sold by Giant, Mars, Weis and other local supermarket chains.

Barry Scher, spokesman for Landover-based Giant Foods Inc., said the chain's buyers receive pitches for thousands of items billed as "new" each year. But most are rejected because they are really variations of existing items, such as reformulated spaghetti sauces.

Giant has put Foam & Fresh in all area stores, however, because "There is no other item like it on our shelves. This is a truly new item."

Giant, which doesn't demand slotting fees, will give Foam & Fresh shelf space for several months before reevaluating the product's shelf allotment, he said.

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