Feminine Hygiene: The Untapped Market
Beyond the walls of a women’s restroom, feminine hygiene products get very little attention. While jan/san distributors and facility managers may not think much of this low-volume product category, it’s very important to 50 percent of the population.
“Frankly, I think this issue gets ignored,” says Louis Salazar, CEO of American Chemical and Sanitary Supply in Anaheim, Calif. “It’s just not something we guys think of naturally. Consciousness needs to be awakened to make business owners more sensitive to women’s needs.”
Many businesses don’t offer dispensing or disposal devices for tampons and sanitary napkins. Some have never considered the option, while others expect women will bring their own supplies and dispose of them in the regular trash. Businesses that do offer the items often consider only price (not quality or selection) when choosing products.
Purchasing agents aren’t solely responsible for this oversight — distributors also share the blame. Dispensing and disposal devices are a one-time investment and feminine hygiene products are a low-volume, low-profit category. Because of this, jan/san salespeople often fail to suggest the items to customers. Also problematic: The industry is still dominated by men, who don’t entirely understand women’s issues.
“Men don’t realize the inherent problems that women have for obvious reasons,” says Harvey Hiller, president of Liberty Paper and Janitorial Supply in Bayonne, N.J. “It’s a matter of educating the customer on the importance of this and letting them know these items are available. They think about everything else but not this.”
Distributors say dispensers are often installed only after female employees band together and demand them. And the increasing number of women in purchasing positions has also helped.
“As women get in those buying positions they are making a statement that they are going to use better products and better practices,” says Mike Wright, owner of Upstate Facility Solutions in Rochester, N.Y.
While feminine hygiene products will never be a big moneymaker for distributors, they can go a long way in creating goodwill with half of a building’s users or occupants. That’s why it’s important that everyone in the jan/san industry, particularly men, learn what’s available.
There isn’t great variety in the coin-operated dispensers that distribute tampons and sanitary napkins. Most are wall-mounted stainless-steel cabinets that include one or two slots for tampons and one or two slots for pads.
Distributors also provide the product that goes in the dispenser because retail packaging does not fit in the units. While not a profit center, facilities typically break even on their purchases from the coins collected by the machine.
Despite this return on investment, many facility managers still purchase refills based solely on price. Instead of national retail brands most women are comfortable with, many machines offer proprietary brands from jan/san manufacturers.
“As women enter the procurement industry, they are starting to take a look at the quality and going with brands that they would buy on the shelf of the retail market,” Wright says. “They are looking at this category and getting better products.”
Dispensers typically last 20 or more years with very minimal maintenance. The most common problem is theft, which tends to increase during a weak economy.
“We see a lot of vandalism in high schools and colleges,” says Ron O’Brien sales representative for Eagle Maintenance Supply Inc. in Pennsauken, N.J. “The older units you couldn’t get into but some of the new ones are made out of cheap metal that you can get into. It’s important to secure them well with locks to avoid vandalism.”
Dispensers are commonplace in restrooms at large businesses. Companies with fewer than 50 employees, however, typically don’t offer dispensers. For a small investment of just a few hundred dollars, these businesses could offer a customer convenience that creates goodwill.
“I do believe that there’s a market that could be tapped,” Salazar says. “I just don’t think it comes naturally to business owners to think of it.”
The most important feminine hygiene product is the disposal unit, which collects used and discarded materials until a janitor can remove them from the restroom.
There are a few basic types of disposal units available (most come in stainless-steel, chrome or baked white-enamel finishes). The first option is a recessed receptacle that is installed in the restroom stall partition, either as a single-stall unit or a double unit shared by users on either side of the partition. These units, favored by high-profile buildings, are sleek and inconspicuous, but repairs can be costly.
Another option is a single- or double-stall unit that sits on the floor. Some floor units are able to be opened using a foot-pedal or motion-activated sensor. These units can eliminate the need for hand contact but they take up floor space, which can be unattractive and makes cleaning more difficult.
The most affordable receptacle is the wall-mounted unit designed to service an individual stall. While they are affordable and slim, the units can service only one stall and require the user to touch the lid.
Units typically use anti-leak plastic or wax-coated paper liners to collect waste. The wax option sits up straight in the unit and looks tidier, however, it can’t be tied up when thrown out. The plastic liners collapse and must hang over the edge of the unit, but they can be tied up when trashed and now come in biodegradable and perfume-impregnated varieties. Some units themselves even feature a deodorizer.
Not surprisingly, popularity of disposal units is related to price; wall-mount receptacles are most widely used and in-wall units are least common. What is surprising, however, is how few buildings offer disposal units at all. To avoid plumbing issues, disposal units should be available in every women’s restroom, but many companies (even those that offer dispensers) skip it.
“A commissioned sales guy stands to gain $1 to $2 of profit off selling an item like this so it’s not something they focus on,” says Salazar, who reports as few as 40 percent of his customers have the units. “But conscientious salespeople will look for items like that for credibility.”
Facility managers often assume women will dispose of sanitary products in the regular waste receptacle. But in reality, many women flush them down the toilet, potentially leading to clogs. The distributor salesperson should help customers understand that a $20 receptacle can save hundreds or thousands of dollars in plumbing bills.
After a recent $300 plumbing bill for snaking out sanitary napkins, an Upstate Facility Solutions customer finally decided to put in a disposal unit with signage.
Next time customers ask about restroom care products, think beyond the towels, soap and chemicals. Feminine hygiene products are integral to overall cleanliness and should not be left out of the mix.
Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.
Safe Clean Up
Although feminine-hygiene waste includes blood, their cleanup does not fall under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) bloodborne pathogens standard. Red-bagging is not required, however, OSHA does “expect products such as discarded sanitary napkins to be discarded into waste containers, which are lined in such a way as to prevent [janitor] contact with the contents.”
To avoid odor problems, waste should be collected at least once a day. Janitors should wear gloves when collecting the liners from disposal units. Those bags should then be placed in the regular waste receptacle before being thrown into the garbage. As always, use caution when reaching into a container.
“Many years ago I cleaned the ladies’ room and we found syringes and stuff in those disposal units,” says Ron O’Brien of Eagle Maintenance Supply Inc. in Pennsauken, N.J. “If you have a clear bag you can see what’s there.”
The disposal units should be cleaned, inside and out, with a neutral disinfectant before the liner is replaced. Likewise, dispensing units should be cleaned daily with a disinfectant; they are touch points that can cause cross-contamination problems if overlooked.