America Still Cleans Up on Detergent

Let's start the new year by examining that most American product--laundry detergent. This will be a rather superficial examination because, face it, superficial is what this product warrants. Besides, who can examine some five dozen different brands that are basically all the same?

It's important, however, because everyone says America has lost its manufacturing genius, its productive supremacy. We're getting beat out on cars, tools, electronic goods, heavy machinery, light appliances and clothing by the whole free world and offshore, wherever that is.

But we do, too, produce. We produce detergents, in multiple variations and combinations, largely unnecessary, and--here's the real achievement--all selling well.

It's also important because I got so many calls this year about the new detergents on the market. The bad part is that the people calling are all totally confused about the differences, the pricing, the amounts to use. The good part is that these people are all men.

For some years, we've been pretty saturated with detergents, each big manufacturer producing a dozen or more, in liquid or powder, with bleach or bluing, with or without phosphates, periodically changing additives so they'd have something new to advertise. Then this year, they all switched, lemming-like, to a whole new kind of detergent--dozens of brand-new products, plus additives.

Take Procter & Gamble, which had Bold, Cheer, Dash, Dreft, Era, Gain, Ivory Snow, Oxydol, Solo, Tide and some lesser-knowns. Now it has Ultra Bold, Ultra Cheer, Ultra Dash, Era Plus, Ultra Gain, Ultra Oxydol, Ultra Tide, Solo and some Ultra-Lesser-Knowns.

This is confusing. Fortunately, the big guys have toll-free numbers to answer consumer questions about wash-day products. What's more, people have questions: The lines are always busy.

Many are probably questioning the advantages of the new stuff, which is sold as concentrate. The company, says a Procter & Gamble backgrounder, uses less packaging (a smaller carton, of recycled paper) and less energy and fewer raw materials in production, and the consumer uses less detergent per load. We'll all save a bundle.

Naah. Somebody's saving a bundle but not us. Actually, "the price per use is slightly higher," says P&G.; The price per ounce is a lot higher, which may be why P&G; wants us to believe that comparing "price per use" (i.e., load) is "more accurate than the price per ounce."

Comparing's not easy, given all the variables--the myriad brands, their variations, the different box sizes. But take regular Tide, $2.99 for 39 ounces, which measures out into 12 cupfuls, which does 12 loads. New Ultra Tide's smallest box is also $2.99, but for only 23 oz., or about half as much stuff. But it's supposed to go twice as far: One uses only half a cup (a scoop is enclosed) per load and gets 10 loads per box.

Skeptics might believe that the company doubles its money by halving the contents, while realizing all those other savings besides. But this is an industry said to spend $100 million on the introduction of one brand and $50 million a year advertising a staple such as Tide.

Then there's the cost of what P&G; calls the "advanced technology." It must take big money to make "each little granule denser," as they say on one 800 line, to make Tide Ultra "clean down to the very fiber," to make Fab Ultra (Colgate-Palmolive) unlock "locked-in dirt" and "get whites white, colors bright."

But they all do that. What my callers wanted to know was how to tell the difference among products, and I've got it. It's speckles. Almost everything out there is economical, biodegradable, recyclable, concentrated, good at cleaning and/or stain removal and contains bluing, whitening or softening. The only real difference is the speckles. Some are white with blue speckles, some white with green, some white with pink, and some are speckle-less.

You'd think people would prefer the old system to comparing speckles. It was easier and just as flexible when there were a few basic detergents, and people had the option of adding bleach, bluing and softener themselves.

Today's thick field is certainly wasted on the average consumer. I called some and got one who chose a detergent "without additives," one who chose a brand that had "no dye and no scent," two who didn't know why they chose what they used and two who used what their mothers used. And one used Wisk because of a college experiment that judged Wisk the best "because of the precipitating factor." What's a precipitating factor? "I don't remember; this was 25 years ago."

Obviously, the minute differences among brands, even the speckles, don't matter. We're barely aware of them. We just buy.

Obviously also, these folks could sell anything, and do. Probably they could also make anything--look how much they've made out of nothing!

Let's give them cars and electronics and appliances, and put that genius to work. We could jump-start the economy and restore the balance of trade all at once.

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