Consumers’ Stepped-Up Cleaning Habits Poised to Outlive Pandemic

Consumers’ Stepped-Up Cleaning Habits Poised to Outlive Pandemic

Disinfectants, sanitizers likely to outperform traditional all-purpose cleaners for some time
Barbara Sax
Contributing Editor
Barbara Sax profile picture
Consumers’ Stepped-Up Cleaning Habits Poised to Outlive Pandemic
Thanks to unprecedented cleaning and disinfecting during the pandemic, consumers have become more discerning category shoppers with a better handle on germ management.

Cleaning was a big part of pandemic survival strategy. Driven by fear of contracting COVID-19, consumers cleaned and disinfected like never before and sent sales of household cleaning products through the roof.

“Disinfectants and sanitizers remain top of mind for consumers and could become long-lasting habits,” says Kathleen Kemmet, an executive for Information Resources Inc. “Products with these claims are likely to outperform traditional all-purpose cleaners for some time.”

As an example, Lysol, famous for its disinfecting products, saw its spray product sales grow by almost $296 million during 2020, according to IRI data. “Major brand names, which are known for their performance and efficacy, are the products consumers turned to during the pandemic, and we expect to see continued high use going forward,” observes Kemmet.

Consumers who were stuck at home concentrated on cleaning as well as disinfecting, and Reckitt Benckiser reports that sales of its Air Wick and Finish products were also particularly strong.

This obsession with disinfecting led to shortages that lasted for months, and retailers were forced to cope with empty shelves. Key manufacturers in the space say that they’re working to correct supply and demand imbalances.

“We have largely restored inventories across the bulk of our portfolio,” says Linda Rendle, CEO of The Clorox Co. “We do have some additional work to do.” Rendle adds that the company took the opportunity to simplify its product assortment, which helped retailers optimize their mix and leverage their store shelf space and online mix during the pandemic. Typically, stores have continued to offer smaller brand assortments.

a close up of a bottle
Lysol is looking at ways to improve germ killing, cleaning speed and ease of use to serve consumer needs.

Germ Theory

“When products were not available in store, many consumers turned to purchasing home cleaning products online,” says Kemmet. “This may become a routine, as consumers have grown accustomed to the benefits of products delivered directly to their home. Retailers should be prepared to not only support in-store product availability, but products available via their e-commerce platforms.”

The hyper-focus on cleaning has also created some longer-term trends in the category. Consumers have become more discerning category shoppers with a better handle on germ management. “Increased knowledge about bacterial and viral hazards and how to both prevent and remove these microscopic threats will impact category engagement,” notes a recent report from Mintel. Consumers are looking for products with enhanced “germ-killing, cleaning speed and ease of use,” according to the consumer research firm, and higher engagement will drive category sales going forward.

The rise of variant strains of coronavirus indicates that the focus on disinfecting isn’t going away any time soon. “We continue to see germ sensitivity,” says Laxman Narasimhan, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser Group. “The majority of consumers still are concerned about COVID.”

“Consumers feel disinfecting is a priority in cleaning, and 35% prioritize using disinfecting/sanitizing cleaning products,” observes Kemmet. “We expect consumers will continue to take a heightened approach to cleaning. In fact, consumers are continuing to buy household cleaning products above historical levels.  Average weekly sales for household cleaning products are almost 23% higher — an increase of almost $50 million more per week — in 2021 versus 2019.”

Emerging Innovation

The timing was right for Procter & Gamble’s launch of Microban 24, a line of antibacterial home sanitizing products that kills 99.9% of bacteria on contact and continues to fight bacteria for 24 hours. The brand launched in February 2020 and delivered more than $143 million in retail sales in year one.

“Microban 24 was a major disrupter in the home cleaning aisle in 2020 and remains a threat to bigger- name products,” asserts Kemmet. “This is a brand to watch long term.” She adds that several other new brands/manufacturers that found their place during the pandemic, such as Libman, Bactive and Redi Wipes, are also worth watching.

Innovation is a focus for Reckitt Benckiser’s Lysol brand, and Narasimhan says that the brand is looking at ways to improve germ killing, cleaning speed and ease of use to serve met and unmet needs for consumers. Consequently, retailers can expect a broad suite of innovations from Lysol.

a bottle of items on a table
Procter & Gamble's 9 Elements laundry and home care products feature vinegar and plant-based ingredients.

The Natural Choice

Product shortages gave a boost to the natural cleaning segment. Mintel research indicates that natural brands saw sharp sales growth when they became the alternative for consumers who couldn’t find their regular cleaning products. As supply issues subside, natural cleaning products have new opportunities. Trial drives adoption of natural products, and many consumers who may not have been inclined to try natural products may now find them preferable to more traditional brands. Price does remain a hurdle in this segment, but research shows that there’s an upside opportunity in the natural cleaning product segment.

Research from Mintel reveals that compared with 2020, fewer consumers are abandoning natural for mainstream products, particularly disinfectants, and 24% of all consumers and 36% of parents of children age 5 and under resolve to use more natural products once the pandemic is over.

Mintel experts believe that green will evolve to stand for better convenience as big brands acquire successful natural brands or launch natural brands of their own. For instance, Procter & Gamble recently launched 9 Elements,  a line of laundry and home care products with vinegar and plant-based ingredients. The line’s home cleaning products are made without artificial preservatives, dyes, thickeners and synthetic fragrances, and include a bathroom cleaner, a multipurpose cleaner and dish soap.

“Increasingly, consumers will expect green niche brands to be more innovatively nimble,” notes Mintel’s report. Small green brands that can make the leap to natural formulas that deliver unique benefits will shape the future of natural home care, the research predicts.

Kemmet points to the rising interest in reducing waste through concentrates and tab/pod refill options that allow the consumer to reuse bottles. “Although the category size is still very small and these products tend to be sold more online, it’s a trend worth watching,” she says. “Grove Collaborative, a direct-to-consumer products company which recently hit shelves at Target, is a company focused on ‘clean’ products for the home that also don’t spoil the earth or our health. They are creating a reality where household essentials of every kind are actually good for you and the world.”

While consumers are always looking for innovation — and the pandemic heightened the desire for products that do more, Mintel’s research shows that price is still a major factor in purchasing decisions. More than 60% of consumers cite price as their most important purchase criteria, followed by “familiar brand” (47%) and “products that are safe for the whole family” (44%). Retailers need to stay sharp on prices in this category.

“We are starting to see promotion frequency increasing, but depth of discount and investment levels are still deflated compared to 2019,” observes Kemmet. “Given the increase in demand for cleaning products, compared to 2019, retailers should look to increase displays of cleaning products.”