While soap’s original objective — to remove dirt and germs from users’ skin — remains its primary function, in recent years there has been a mini-revolution of sorts, resulting in a plethora of soap choices. The array of soap types, scents and textures all must be considered when it comes to keying into customer preferences. From conventional soaps to foams and powders, cleaning contractors and end users have many options to choose from, including:

• Conventional soaps that are activated by the action of an alkali on fat or fatty acids. They come in liquid, bar or powder form.
• Lotions that are applied externally to skin for conditioning or treating skin ailments.
• Antimicrobial soaps that destroy or inhibit the growth of microorganisms.
• Antiseptic soaps that fight bacterial invaders of the body. An antiseptic handwash agent has antimicrobial activity and is designed for use on skin to remove bacteria.
• Foam soaps that are infused with air, creating a lather for more thorough coverage. Less water is used for lathering, which cuts hand washing time.

Know Thy Customer
A more informed public has been a major catalyst in soap’s evolution. “The public, in recent years, has become aware of pronouncements about the importance of hand washing as the best way to cut down the spread of disease-causing germs,” says Gordon Elliott, president of Inland Supply in Reno, Nev. "Soap sells well when you take that approach.”

To sell effectively, you have to know the products that you sell, how they work and how they affect your customers, says Charles E. Barnes, Sr., president of Memphis Chemical and Janitorial Supply, Memphis, Tenn. He suggests having material safety data sheets on hand to show customers.

Armed with thorough knowledge on the products they carry, distributors also need to be diligent in informing themselves on what their customers need.

Even though soap sales account for only 10 to 12 percent of his company’s business, Barnes keeps close tabs on his customers’ needs.

“When we make regular customer visits we ask questions about soap and all other aspects of their business,” Barnes says. “We’ve found that their foam soap supplies last them two times longer than plain soap, and we’ve seen our foam soap business increase 50 to 60 percent in the last year.”

Sales reps at Birch Industries check in with customers regularly and ask about their soap supplies, to ensure that they are providing good customer service, according to Bill Egerton, director of marketing for Birsch Industries, Virginia Beach, Va.

“We usually check monthly, but it really depends on the size of their normal order and their usage,” he says.

“Every facility is different. There’s no rule of thumb on this.”

At Inland Supply, Elliott, too, relies on his sales reps to stay on top of his customers’ soap supply needs.

“They’ve got to know our customers and their buying patterns,” Elliott reiterates. “They call on our customers weekly and always ask them what they need. We take into consideration the kinds of customers they are. Do they have public restrooms? Are there a lot of private restrooms?

Customers’ Options
Birsch Industries services a wide range of facilities, including nursing homes, hotels, jails, restaurants, office buildings, educational institutions and maintenance shops.

To meet these facilities’ needs, the company carries regular, lotion, antibacterial, foam [normal and antibacterial] hand and body soaps, along with grease removing soaps, and sanitizers with and without moisturizers. “We don’t handle powders, however,” Egerton says.

Inland Supply sells to schools, casinos, municipalities, counties, and general industry. “We service just about anybody with washroom facilities,” says Elliott.

Elliott also believes powder soaps have fallen by the wayside, and his company carries primarily liquid soaps. However, he also sees a clear economical benefit to facilities that use foam soaps.

“It seems these soaps last forever in some places,” says Elliott. “Some customers who used four cases of liquid soap per month now use about one-and-a-half cases of foam soap.”

Memphis Chemical, which serves a wide variety of customers, including churches, restaurants, day cares, educational facilities, government agencies and health care institutions, sees most of its sales in soap in foam soaps — both with and without antibacterial properties. The company also sells sanitizers, specialty soaps that require automatic dispensers and lotion soaps.

Different Soaps For Different Folks
All facilities rely on soap — as part of proper hand washing — to stem the spread of illness-causing germs. While regular soap and hand washing have been proven effective, some facilities require that their soaps be antibacterial.

“Hospitals, of course, want antibacterial soaps,” says Barnes. “These come in degrees of effectiveness, but, at their request, we sell them a soap that’s at the top of antibacterial efficiency, to ensure them a germ-free environment.”

While the use of antimicrobial soaps in hospitals is standard practice, using these extra-strength soaps that promise to fight germs may not deliver the results expected when used in educational facilities.

According to Elliott, his school customers lately have been pressured by parent groups and other groups to use antimicrobial soaps. Some of these schools insist on purchasing antibacterial soaps, but Elliott believes antibacterial soaps can’t make a big dent in ridding most schools of germs.

“The kids still have many potential germ contacts after they use the soap, such as doorknobs,” Elliott warns. “Schools claim they disinfect all surfaces, but they don’t really accomplish this very well.”

While the general public is now aware that hand washing is a key way to prevent disease, antibacterial soaps should not be sold as a “cure-all” solution at any facility, says Egerton.

“I usually discourage purchasing antibacterial soap, but the marketing of that product has been so strong that it’s hard to move people away from it,” says Egerton.

Egerton feels that sanitizers, which have long been used in jails and medical facilities, may help school facilities be more effective in controlling the spread of disease.

Municipal buildings haven’t yet requested antimicrobial soaps in his area, Elliott says. “Their female employees request certain soaps, so they buy a medium grade of scented soap. They also purchase hand sanitizers, which are used at their desks.”

Distributors have found that other facilities place far less emphasis on antimicrobial soaps. Barnes cites a recent study that found plain soap could be as effective as antibacterial: “We try to sell regular soap to most types of facilities — to save them money and to help our profit margins.”

The ‘Anti’ Antibacterial
Some facilities are looking for soaps that will please customers or employees — and requests typically do not focus on a soap with antibacterial properties.

Choosing soaps for casino customers can be a gamble. Facility managers prefer economy grade soaps, but if the soap appears to be too cheap, customers will complain, Elliott says.

Private industries generally request high-quality soaps with essence smells or natural scents, because employees use washrooms several times a day, he adds.

One of Barnes’ customers — a multinational corporation — uses an expensive lotion. “But they’ve recently purchased a foam soap because they’ve come to realize that they can get as good a quality foam soap that has the fragrance that their executives like,” he says.

Most customers are looking for the best deal possible and typically turn to “middle-of-the-road” soaps, Barnes says. “Most of our customers like to find a deal. But our restaurants usually buy antibacterial soaps for their kitchens; however, they like the least expensive foam soaps for their public restrooms.”

Jordan Fox is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.

Scents and Sanitizers
In an age of soap innovation, bar soaps are often seen as a breeding ground for germs, and plain liquid soaps are losing favor with some customers as well. Two relatively recent soap trends — scented soaps and waterless hand sanitizers — are, in some cases, pushing old-fashioned soaps out of facilities and out of the marketplace.

Bill Egerton, director of marketing for Birsch Industries, Virginia Beach, Va., has seen scented soaps on the market for the past 10 years or so. “They sell for the same reason that all cleaners with good color and good scent smell. It’s pleasant to use. In my area, cherry and almond fragrances are selling the best.”

“Scented detergent soaps are pretty popular,” Gordon Elliott, president of Inland Supply in Reno, Nev., says. “With the exception of antimicrobials, I haven’t really seen a soap that wasn’t scented. The natural, essence oil types of fragrance sell the best — almond, cherry, vanilla.

Charles E. Barnes Sr., president of Memphis Chemical Supply, Memphis, Tenn., doesn’t see a significant scented soap market in his area. “I think it’s a small market and one that we haven’t really gotten into,” he says. “Fragrances like rose might be good for a small office, but I believe scented and specialty soaps are more for the consumer market, to be sold in supermarkets, and the like. We do sell a major brand of soap with a scent, but it’s more of a medical smell rather than a fragrance.”

Some customers place far less emphasis on fragrances. The rise of antiseptic hand sanitizers — alcohol based gels and foams — have provided a way to disinfect hands when conventional soaps and water aren’t available.

The effectiveness of these sanitizers as opposed to conventional soaps, which aid water in washing germs down the drain, is a matter of debate. Several studies have shown that the use of sanitizers on hands that aren’t visibly soiled seems helpful in curbing the spread of bad stomach and intestinal bugs. Another study found that at least one brand lacks a knockout punch for germs. It contains significantly less than the 60 percent minimum alcohol concentration that is necessary to kill most harmful microbes.

Egerton believes that the best soaps for most types of facilities are normal or lotionized products. “But for the germ-conscious, we sell a hand sanitizer with a lot of moisturizer in it. We’re cautious, as I said, about antibacterial soaps,” Egerton says. “These kill bad germs, but they also kill the natural oils in a person’s hands. [When] your hands dry out, you’re not able to fight off infections as well.”