Can SC Johnson succeed with its venture into the fledgling concentrated refills market? The Wisconsin-based household cleaner giant has little choice. Crude oil’s rise to over US$150 a barrel in 2008 rattled many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, because the companies were suddenly faced with rising energy costs to ship their products, which are often just clunky jugs of water, across the country. Despite the recent dip in oil prices, they are now faced with spiking energy costs again. The rise of scrappy startups like Replenish and their refillable bottles adds to the pressure.
The pitch for concentrated household cleaners and refills is a tough one to make. But SC Johnson could succeed on this attempt with its release of its concentrated Windex solution that will roll out online.
The business case for concentrated household cleaner products is an easy one to make from a company’s perspective. Less packaging, reduced energy costs, and decreased water consumption all add to the triple bottom line. SC Johnson made the point that its “Windex Mini” will use 90% less plastic and avoid the transport of the 22 ounces of water that fill up a 26 ounce bottle that currently line store shelves. The Minis’ online availability could also be a winner with online shoppers who may love to buy products on sites like Amazon.com or Drugstore.com–but uncheck those items once they hit the shopping cart because even with “free shipping,” customers are socked with fees since those bulky bottles of cleaner are expensive to ship.
The hurdle, however, is the consumer, as old habits die hard. Consumers view refilling as “inconvenient,” or end up wasting product as many of us are accustomed to dumping a cup of product in that dishwasher or washing machine. SC Johnson is taking the go-slow approach. The company will gather consumer feedback, and tweak the packaging and formulas for the long haul.
What SC Johnson has got to do is work with retailers. The company can take a twist of the old Ocean Spray strategy from the 1960s that pushed cranberry juice into the mainstream: cajole the supermarkets and big box stores to snag that coveted middle, eye-level shelf space; hire students and retirees to demo the benefit; and pass out coupons like mad. Hiring Michael Constantine, the whose fatherly character from My Big Fat Greek Wedding who used Windex for everything from psoriasis to poison ivy, as a spokesman could be a winner. The upfront costs would cause some frowns in the Racine office, but will pay off in the long run–for SC Johnson and its competitors.
If I were at SC Johnson, I would fly in “mommy bloggers” for a few days of Lake Michigan fun in Racine and take them on a Laverne & Shirley day trip to Milwaukee in order to get the word out, and not bother to invite one sustainability or “green” writer to the event. Those influential shoppers, along with retailers, are the key to the success of consumer education on this issue, and with the benefits to shareholders, the environment, and yes, mommies, the opportunity is too important to pass up.
Leon Kaye writes and consults about sustainability issues around the world and corporate social responsibility. The Editor of GreenGoPost.com, he also contributes to The Guardian Sustainable Business; you can follow him on Twitter.