Why spray when you can wipe?

Wipes replace cans, bottles as fastest route to a clean home

August 11, 2002|By Greg Morago | By Greg Morago,Special to the Sun

Streaky windows? Give them a wipe. Dusty floors? Reach for a wipe. Tarnished silver, dull porcelain, gray car tires? Wipe 'em bright. Cruddy chrome, old oak, lusterless leather? Wipe, wipe, wipe.

A nation that has learned the joys of swiping (just take a look at your bank balance and credit-card debt) is now reveling in the pleasures of wiping. A cursory glance beneath the kitchen sink tells the story of a wipe-happy America. Where aerosol cans and spray bottles once ruled, we now have handy-dandy wipes -- paper "cloths" infused with polish, cleanser or disinfectant -- to breezily handle everything from small spills to hard-charging cleaning.

No more spritzing Windex, pouring Clorox, shaking Comet or spraying Pledge. We simply reach for a pre-moistened towelette to wipe away dust, dirt and waxy yellow buildup. Mr. Clean's bulky biceps, which once toiled in real down-on-your-knees dirt-busting, look rather useless (and unnecessarily brawny) as we break out our dainty wipes. The bucket brigade can hang up its mops, brooms and bristly brushes. Scrubbing is yesterday's news. Today we wipe.

Why? Because wipes are the new, smart and easy way to clean.

"Consumers enjoy wipes because they are convenient, easy to use and disposable," said Therese Van Ryne, public relations manager for SC Johnson, which has wipe versions of popular brands such as Pledge, Windex, Shout and Scrubbing Bubbles.

Suddenly, it seems, all of our traditional cleaning and chore agents come in wipe form.

"In the last two years, they're everywhere," said Grant Aslett, whose 35-year cleaning career has taken him everywhere from tiny jobs like small homes to mammoth cleaning projects such as the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "We're a disposable society, and we're creatures of habit. We're trained to pull one tissue from the box, use one packet of sweetener for coffee. It's what we're conditioned to do. We're all looking for simpler ways to do things. What's simpler than pulling up one wipe to do the job?"

So how did a product that started out as a jiffy way to clean baby bottoms morph into tools to clean everything from microwaves to toilet bowls?

It all boils down to convenience, said Cynthia R. Cohen, founder of Strategic Mindshare, a retail strategist.

"We have multitasked and overscheduled our lives so much that people are literally doing two things at once. We want ease. We want convenience," Cohen said. "What does it say? Time is money. Time is a currency, most especially for the working mom. Look, I don't clean the way my mother used to. I don't live the way my mother used to, and I'm willing to pay for the convenience."

Paying for convenience is definitely a consideration where wipes are concerned. Most wipes range from about 6 cents to about 12 cents per single-use piece, Aslett said. "Are you willing to pay 10 cents to clean a mirror or a piece of glass in your house?" Aslett asked, adding that a bottle of window cleaner and a paper towel can get the job done for a penny.

Price, however, seems to be the last thing on consumer minds in the great wipes rush. There is also the not-so-unimportant antibacterial issue, Aslett said.

"We're seeing a trend to clean for health, not for appearance. I think that trend is picking up in the household and commercial cleaning industry. The germaphobes of the world are driving it," he said. "Twenty years ago, the push was to have a clean house because it was a reflection on you. Now, it's less about the look and more about survival. We want a clean, healthy home."

Wipes, too, are coming on strong because manufacturers are constantly looking for new packaging ideas. Wipes allow for brand extension without having to develop new cleaning agents. "They don't have to create a new segment," Aslett said. "It's simply repackaging what they're already manufacturing."

Cohen said wipes are also the shiny new players in brand loyalty. "Consumers consistently reinforce their trust in brands, and brands are constantly looking for product-line extensions," she said. Thus, the Lever soap fan might naturally gravitate to the Lever's body-cleaning wipes. Someone who religiously dumps Clorox in the laundry would reach for Clorox's disinfecting wipes (despite their lack of bleach). And the person who Shouts out clothing stains probably would appreciate the convenience of Shout Wipes, towelettes that instantly treat little accidents.

Novelty is also not to be underestimated. Wipes are a clever extension of something Americans understand: portion control. Just as we delight in our packets of ketchup and single-serving cups of pudding, wipes are imbued with just the right amount of cleaning agent.

"With wipes you eliminate misuse. There's the right amount of product in that one-use size," said Aslett, who is developing pre-measured cleaning systems for PortionPac Chemical Corp. of Chicago. "It's part of a trend you're seeing everywhere."

So how long a shelf life do wipes have? Already, they have moved beyond basic household cleaning to deodorant wipes, facial-cleansing wipes and moistened toilet-tissue wipes in their steady march across our consumer terrain. "There's no telling what will appear in wipe form next," said SC Johnson's Van Ryne. Cohen predicts "continual innovation" in this area. Pragmatically, cleaning man Aslett said some wipes will be here to stay, especially those whose benefit extends past value.

"If you have kids, you wouldn't consider using anything but diaper wipes to clean a baby's bum," he said. "No matter what the cost, you're going to use them, given the nature of the job."

Greg Morago is a reporter with the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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