Ditch the Drawer Part I: Laundry Care Innovation Ditches the Drawer

When it comes to HE washing machines, which compartment does the detergent go in? What about fabric softener? Washing machine drawers bring confusion to many. While some consumers research this problem online – a quick search of ‘washing machine drawers’ brings up plenty of queries, hints and instructions – plenty will rely on guesswork, and more
industrious souls might read the instructions that came with the machine, if they can find them. With many of the symbols used on washing machine draws having little consistency between brands and also the labels on detergent and softener brands themselves, it is little wonder consumers get confused.

This is also an indication of the lack of connection which still exists between the software (brand) and hardware (appliance) providers in this corner of the fmcg industry. In these days of convenience-driven innovation in both consumer appliances and laundry care, there is surely opportunity for detergent manufacturers in collaboration with machine manufacturers to simplify one of the most confusing parts of the laundry process, innovation that may also herald an opportunity to do away with the mysterious drawer all together.

Recent innovation in laundry care with the more widespread usage of single dose tablets has already begun to eliminate the need for a drawer on HE machines. While the marketing to date has not mentioned confusing compartments, it is perhaps not a coincidence that some of the most successful laundry care innovations in recent years have done away with the need to use the drawer altogether – Procter & Gamble’s Tide Pods and Henkel’s Purex 3-in-1 are two such examples.

Some consumers may still use the drawer in combination with monodose tablets to add fabric softeners or laundry aids to the wash, but as tablets develop and more chambers are added to the tablet itself, the drawer will likely become increasingly redundant.

Intelligent washing machines failed to take off

Innovation in consumer appliances has, however, taken a different approach. In 2011, German manufacturer Siemens launched its self-dosing i-DOS washing machine which intelligently dispenses the appropriate amount of detergent and softener from a central reservoir. While the added convenience of pre-loading is clear and the manufacturer claims an impressive 7-litre saving on detergent usage over a typical year when compared with manual dosing, consumers still need to transport bulky bottles home and fill the machine themselves – a difficult prospect for many and a potential inconvenience the monodose format was designed to combat.

These kinds of intelligent washing machine also come with something of a hefty price tag, especially in the current economic climate. Prices are typically two or even three times that of a
standard machine in the UK, costing between £800-1,200 compared to standard formats which are typically £300-500. The price differential is significant; if a consumer were to wash weekly with a premium tablet detergent such as Ariel Pods, it would take 27 years to make up the price differential, and this for a product which is at best only designed to last up to 10 years or so. More frequent washing would close the gap but the cost would still be unlikely to be fully recouped over the lifespan of the machine.

Consumers have very much voted with their wallets as a result, with value sales of washing machines in Western Europe declining by 3% in 2012. With high pricing a clear obstacle to widespread adoption, is there something in the middle ground between appliance and detergent manufacturers which could make a difference until unit prices of intelligent laundry devices come down to more reasonable levels?