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Andrew Jergens Co., Dial Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and Unilever are all crowding into the shower.

The four package-goods Brobdingnagians are getting ready to converge on shower gels, a tiny $54 million category in the U.S. now virtually owned by Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Softsoap.

In late March, Jergens, a subsidiary of Japan-based Kao Corp., will start a $50 million introduction of Jergens Refreshing Body Shampoo. Support includes $17 million in network TV and print ads from Bloom FCA, New York.

Right behind Jergens is Dial, which just began a test via DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, in the Tucson-Phoenix and Minneapolis markets of Moisturizing Dial Plus Gel and Dial Gel, a pair of antibacterial shower and bath gels.

And P&G is looking at a U.S. introduction of Oil of Olay Moisturizing Body Wash, now sold in Europe, while Unilever is said to be working on Lever 2000 Body Wash.

With more and more liquid hand soaps popping up on sinktops, there's a feeling U.S. consumers may finally be ready to be weaned away from goopy bar soaps in the shower, too.

Ultimately, believes Jergens New Products Marketing Manager Richard C. Goheen, body washes may do to the $1.8 billion soap market what liquids have done to powder detergents.

Since their introduction more than 15 years ago, liquid detergents have shot up to a $1.6 billion segment of the detergent category, while powders have shrunk to $2.5 billion, down 7.2% in 1993.

Karen Hendricks, exec VP-general manager of Dial's Personal Care division, isn't that gung-ho yet, but she's ready to become a convert if the new tests pan out.

"The big question," she said, "is if the time is right now for American consumers to convert from bar soaps to liquids in the shower and bath."

Cosmetics and specialty marketers have built bath sundries, including everything from gels to oils and aroma therapy, into a $300 million-plus market. Though the category was really hot two years ago, consumer demand has not matched the flood of products and a shakeout is under way.

Package-goods marketers such as Dial and Colgate are also mindful of "the plunging factor." In Japan and Europe, where body washes are now used by roughly 33% and 60%, respectively, of the populations, baths are more popular than showers, so consumers are more accustomed to gels. Americans, a nation of shower lovers, may prove harder to woo.

Jergens may have found a way around this, though. Its body shampoo comes with a special hollow-center sponge that, when squeezed a few times, lathers up just like a bar of soap. And unlike soap, it doesn't slip in the shower.

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