When it comes to soap, the bar is back.
Thanks to a lot of mass marketing, liquid soap has become the suds of choice over the past 10 years. But market data suggest that more Americans are raising the bar, or at least incorporating it into their daily routine. Mass-retail sales of bar soap increased 4.7%, to $1.2 billion in 2011, from $1.1 billion in 2010, according to Chicago-based market-research firm Mintel. That's more than double the growth of body-wash sales, which were up 2% year over year to $1.9 billion.
The rise in bar soap now playing out in the luxury and specialty space indicates that the shift isn't being driven by recession-induced penny-pinchers. And it's not a shift driven by marketing, but almost anti-marketing: With the rise of overly fragrant body washes such as Axe, bar soap seems to represent something, well, pure.
"People try handmade bar soap for different reasons -- [for] some, it has to do with allergies, sensitivities to [mass-produced] fragrances," said Cathleen Timberlake, president of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based Handcrafted Soapmakers Guild. "But I also think there's just a big interest in products that are homemade." The trade group has seen its membership increase to 1,700 soapmakers from 1,242 in 2010.
Boutique apothecary chain Space NK -- almost a Sephora for niche brands, with stores across the U.S. and in Europe -- added multiple soap SKUs over the past year. "Bar soap evokes a sense of tradition and craftsmanship that you simply do not get with a hand-sanitizing utilitarian liquid soap in a pump container," said Space NK founder Nicky Kinnaird. It also helps that the formulas are better than before. "They've improved beyond measure," said Ms. Kinnaird. "Antioxidants and skin hydrators are being added to triple-milled vegetable bases."