Nonfood

What’s Hot in General Merchandise?

The pandemic drives sales in cookware and cleaning products
Photograph: Shutterstock

In the past year, consumer habits have changed, at least temporarily. Most Americans have been cooking and eating at home more, and at the same time, with more time on our hands and a fear of germs, we’ve taken cleaning to a new level.

So it’s not surprising that in the general merchandise category, both cookware and cleaning products are doing well.

In fact, according to NielsenIQ data available to GMDC|Retail Tomorrow members, within the cooking category for all channels, there have been huge increases: Sales of countertop pantry products were up 37% for the year ending in mid-April; cookware rose 29%; tableware jumped 22%; bakeware 16%; and kitchen gadget sales increased 11%.

“With consumers spending less on dining, travel and entertainment, they have more money to spend elsewhere, and a significant amount has been spent on the home,” says Patrick Spear, president and CEO of GMDC/Retail Tomorrow in Colorado Springs, Colo.

While the pandemic has fueled much of this, sales of kitchenware were already strong, with sales growing 5.9% annually between 2016 and 2021, according to IBISWorld.

Festival Foods of De Pere, Wis., doesn’t carry a lot of cookware in its 34 stores but business is strong for products such as Pyrex, baking pans, storage containers and kitchen gadgets.

“There was a dramatic upswing in sales last year as people had time on their hands, so we started to see a spike in baking pans, muffin pans and similar products,” says Bert Magnuson, director of health and beauty care/GM for Festival Foods, who points out that this increase is maintaining. “People are reluctant to make multiple stops and to go out to eat and are probably socializing more at home.”

Festival Foods is not aiming to be all things to all people, but instead hopes to fill the gaps. “There are some simple things people need, like measuring jugs and pancake flippers. We’re not going to set up your first apartment, we’re not going to make a statement, but for the basics, we’re pretty good,” Magnuson said.

For the summer, Festival Foods is boosting grilling implement business and has added a couple of cast iron items. Over the past year, it has changed its Rubbermaid assortment to larger containers since customers are making and storing larger quantities of food, Magnuson explains.

The general merchandise category at Family Fresh stores is trending strong, growing 5% over the past year, driven by seasonal products (43%), cleaning supplies (11%) and kitchen accessories (17%).

Cookware, bakeware and foilware sales are trending 10% higher than last year, “with foilware leading the way,” says Rich O’Keefe, VP, center store merchandising for parent company SpartanNash, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Metropolitan Market in Seattle has made general merchandise a destination by creating stores within a store. “They create a destination out of the department by offering premium, high-quality brand-name products rather than typical, generic private label items,” says Amanda Lai, senior manager with McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago-based retail consultancy. The eight-store company also creates excitement around the housewares category by hosting a twice-yearly kitchen sale, offering 20% off.

“There needs to be a sense of newness, seasonality, strong merchandising and a compelling offering to create a destination within general merchandise,” she says. “This requires dedicating the time and space to win with this category.”

"There needs to be a sense of newness, seasonality, strong merchandising and a compelling offering to create a destination within general merchandise."

Cleaning Up

Along with at-home cooking and baking, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a renewed emphasis on cleaning, which appears not to be waning.

According to NielsenIQ data, there was a 12% increase in total dollars spent between April 2020 and April 2021, and an 8% increase in total units. Quick cleaning products were up 17%; mops and brooms by 16%; sponges by 9%; and cleaning gloves by 21%.

At Family Fresh stores, cleaning supplies are also trending 10% higher than last year, “even as we begin to overlap with our COVID timeframe,” says O’Keefe, who points out that there’s a growing demand for sponges and cleaning implements.

With customers spending more time at home, they’re also spending more time cleaning. In fact, many customers are shifting from ‘quick clean’ behaviors into a ‘deep clean’ mentality,” he says.

Alison Matz and Linda Sawyer launched Skura Style in 2017 but have seen sales of their products soar during the pandemic. Their primary product is the Skrubby sponge, which claims to be more sanitary than other sponges and alerts customers (through a fading monogram) when it’s time for a new sponge.

“We wanted to elevate the experience at the kitchen sink,” says Matz, co-founder and president. “There are very few branded products in the category and most people don’t even know the name of the sponge they use.”

Skrubby sponges launched on the brand’s website and in 2018, debuted on Amazon. They’re also sold in Sur La Table and pm Walmart.com and hopefully, soon, conventional grocery stores.

The pandemic’s actually helped business, says Sawyer, co-founder and CEO, pointing out that sales are up 50%, especially due to the growth in online shopping.

Before the pandemic, Matz and Sawyer ran some popup shops “which is a great opportunity for awareness trial,” Matz says, adding that they could also work well in brick-and-mortar grocery stores post-pandemic.

Not surprisingly, sales at CleanWell, a Denver-based company that sells disinfecting sprays and wipes, were eight times higher than normal last year, but they were also constrained because the company couldn’t keep up with demand. “We had an infinite demand,” says CEO Stew Lawrence.

He believes sales of disinfecting products will remain high, as consumers now have a much greater understanding of germs and cleaning. “There’s much more awareness to cleaning with efficacy and more awareness to products.”

CleanWell’s products have been mostly sold in the natural channel but Lawrence expects to see them enter more conventional retailers like Kroger and Wegmans, in which it already has placement.

Mostly, he says, customers find CleanWell’s products on the shelf in-stores, but print campaigns and social media will restart again soon, along with some in-store promotions, mostly coupons.

General (Cross) Merchandise

Cross-merchandising is an important part of any general merchandise set, except cleaning products, which should be kept together, “so consumers can quickly access essential products in a shortened, efficient shopping trip,” says Spear of GMDC/Retail Tomorrow.

Cookware items, he says, should be cross-merchandised “near food items with which they’re associated.”

All cookware or bakingware promos that Magnuson runs at Festival Foods are outside the general merchandise department. He merchandises grilling items like tongs in the meat and seafood department— cedar planks and butter warmers also do well there­—avocado scoops are in produce, food storage is throughout the store, “virtually year-round, but especially near [party occasions],” he says. “You need to present a solution to guests and my items are key.”

Since general merchandise aisles “are usually not a destination,” cross-merchandising “is key,”  says O’Keefe of SpartanNash, especially for high-margin items. They’re particularly a driver around holidays or events like spring cleaning.

Family Fresh includes a gadget rack in the produce department year-round, a BBQ tool rack near the meat department in the summer and a turkey tool rack during the winter holidays. Foil pans are also displayed in the meat department all year, with special displays depending on the season or holiday. But to make them easy to find, the cookware category is also a destination “with metal grid racking and overhead signage making the section stand out,” O’Keefe says.

On the cleaning side, there are sponge displays in several areas of the store, primarily near dish detergent and household cleaning.

There’s another way to cross-merchandise cookware, too, says Lai of McMillanDoolittle, and that’s during food and beverage samplings, which are starting to return. “This is an opportunity to say to customers, ‘Here’s a delicious product you can purchase in our stores, and you can purchase all the tools you need to cook it at home in our stores as well,’” she adds.

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