Cleaning up

During years of building and renovating houses in south Louisiana, Robert “Bob” Delaney got to know a lot of construction workers. He also knew many hunters and fishermen. It occurred to him that all these folks, who spent much time outdoors, faced a common challenge: how to maintain their personal hygiene in settings bereft of indoor plumbing.

“On my construction sites, I noticed a lot of the young guys were taking baby wipes into the port-o-lets,” he said. “They told me they just like to be clean.”

Several years ago, as he eased out of a successful real estate career, Delaney started giving serious thought to that hygiene challenge. His musings led him to a new business: the development of a convenient and effective means of dispensing moisture-laden wipes that do a better job than toilet paper — a product that is now appearing on some Walgreens and independent store shelves around south Louisiana.

“Doctors recommend moist wipes because they get you cleaner,” Delaney said, terming toilet paper “outdated.”

In plunging into the “personal wipes” business, Delaney knew he faced competition. Moist wipes of varying kinds, ranging from baby wipes to feminine hygiene products, were already commonplace in the personal care arena.

Their disposability, portability and the perception that they provide a “cleaner” result than toilet paper have won personal wipes a big following. Demand in the United States is rising at a rapid clip, with sales forecast to top $1 billion by 2016, according to Cleveland-based industry research firm The Freedonia Group.

Despite a host of big-name players in the industry, including such stalwarts as Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble, Delaney figured what was missing from the lineup was a device that would effectively keep unused wipes moist and easily accessible.

“The problem with most wipes is, they start drying out as soon as you open the package,” he said.

After a year of consulting with engineers, graphic artists and plastics makers, Delaney felt he had arrived at a winning concept: flushable wipes in a refillable container that provides pluck-out convenience while retaining the product’s moisture. Aiming for the outdoorsmen who initially inspired it, Delaney dubbed his invention Bob’s Butt Wipes.

Delaney said in developing the dispenser he “sat up nights” trying to design a device that would release a single wipe at a time and retract tightly enough to protect the remaining product. He also wanted the container to either stand alone on a shelf or attach easily to a toilet paper roll.

His prototype did both. A user can unseal a packet of 40 or more wipes, plop it into the plastic case and snap the lid closed until a wipe is needed. The container can stand alone or it can slide onto a toilet paper holder and hang below the paper roll, offering users a paper-or-wet-wipe choice.

Delaney worked closely with a manufacturer in China to replicate his design for mass production. In its first iteration, the plastic used in the dispenser was too thin and the device wasn’t tight enough to preserve moisture, he said.

By the time the manufacturer finally met Delaney’s expectations, he had already shared the product among hundreds of people to test their response, and users confirmed his initial assessment: Men were a good target.

“Both men and women like the wipes, but men really chased me down to get more,” he said.

After introducing Bob’s Butt Wipes, with dispensers in a palette of outdoor colors, Delaney expanded his selections to include BouDé flushable wipes with aloe in a pink-labeled dispenser aimed more at the female market. In February he will debut Lil’ Booty’s Adventure Wipes for kids, featuring cartoon characters on the label.

From his office in Slidell, Delaney and a tiny team that includes his wife are scrambling to take the product to a broader market, and they could be nearing a breakthrough.

A regional manager at Walgreens, who initially agreed to test the market for BouDé in a few stores, was impressed enough with the result that he expanded the trial.

Troy Menard, Walgreens district manager for 34 stores on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans and the north shore, said he and other managers saw BouDé as a viable product from the beginning.

“From a health and wellness perspective, it made sense, and when we started it at some stores in Mandeville, it did surprisingly well,” he said.

Menard said while other manufacturers compete in the moist wipe category, BouDé offers an important extra. “What’s unique about this product is the dispensing mechanism that seems to be convenient for customers,” he said.

Walgreens is expanding the BouDé test to include all the stores in Menard’s district, and he has put Delaney in touch with the company’s market merchandiser to evaluate a larger expansion.

Delaney’s company website lists 19 Walgreens locations and six at independent retailers. The independents are Alexander’s Highland Market, Baton Rouge; Acquistapace’s IGA, Covington; Zuppardo’s, Metairie; Robert’s Fresh Market, Metairie; and Breaux Mart, River Ridge and Metairie. The Walgreens include six in Metairie; three each in Kenner, Covington and Mandeville; two in Hammond; and one each in River Ridge and Abita Springs.

Delaney said he hopes sales will be strong enough to convince Walgreens to carry BouDé around the country.

“Once we get to the national level, we can grow really quickly,” he said.

He said he also hopes to snag the interest of executives at Walt Disney World Resort in providing Lil’ Booty’s Adventure Wipes on-site. And he has produced a custom-designed dispenser that he is pitching for possible use by a major hotel chain.

While researchers say the use of wet bathroom tissue as part of a standard bathroom routine is gaining acceptance, a potential hurdle that could slow its growth is its environmental impact. Though many wipes carry the “flushable” label, critics say simply because a wipe can be swept down a toilet does not mean it is “dispersible.” Many wipes don’t break down in sewer systems, they say, and that is prompting some agencies to raise a red flag.

DC Water, the water and sewer authority for the District of Columbia, is among municipal agencies that have urged consumers to pay closer attention to what they flush down their toilets.

“Disposable wipes can clog the sewer pipes in your home or damage the motors in our sewage pumping stations,” DC Water General Manager George Hawkins wrote in a recent newsletter to local customers. “Even if they claim to be ‘flushable,’ it is much safer to bag them and put them in the trash.”

Wipes makers hope to dispel such concern by adopting stricter guidelines for products that are termed flushable. The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, a trade group representing an array of producers that include wipes manufacturers, has developed a set of “flushability” guidelines, along with a “Do not flush” logo for use on products that are not designed to be put in a toilet.

Delaney said his company, Sterling Global Products LLC, has become a member of the association, and he intends to follow the flushability guidelines.

Soon, he will launch a regional advertising campaign touting his wipes as a way to put “freshness within reach.” He said he hopes to reach a critical mass in sales that will enable him to produce the wipes and dispensers in Louisiana.