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Introducing the latest over-the-top baby product for overwhelmed parents

By Roya Wolverson

As if parents weren’t faced with enough tedious, time-sapping choices about how to care for their children, the laundry detergent industry is offering them another.

Dreft, the popular baby-clothes detergent brand owned by Proctor & Gamble, has split its best-selling product into a full line of detergents meant to “meet every baby life stage” and address “the changing needs of a family’s laundry journey,” the company explains.

There’s now one Dreft product for newborns, one for the slightly older “active baby” who makes more messes, and a washing machine “scent booster” for even older babies, to “help bring back that nostalgic, amazing baby scent with every wash.” (In other words, you can make your baby smell more like a baby—or at least more like a baby laundry detergent.)

The new Dreft strategy, which follows P&G’s announcement last year that it would shed more than half (paywall) its brands to boost earnings, reflects the boom in highly profitable (paywall), niche baby products, which now include extravagant baby cosmetics (paywall), designer diapers, and pimped-out strollers.

As the average age of first-time parents has risen, so has their buying power and willingness to spend on every aspect of bébé. But even for these parents, there is such a thing as too much choice.

According to the Food Marketing Institute (via ConsumerReports.org), the number of products in the average supermarket has risen roughly fivefold since the mid-1970s. At one supermarket visited by Consumer Reports, the consumer watchdog found 27 varieties of Crest toothpaste, 10 versions of liquid Tide detergent, and 25 types of Head & Shoulders shampoo. It’s very doubtful that that anyone—but especially a harried, exhausted parent caring for an infant—has the time or inclination to research the distinctions. When it comes to deciding what makes it to the checkout line, familiarity and price often tend to win out.

The big consumer products companies are partial to the variety because newfangled, pricier versions of basic products often require minimal investment, and they secure more shelf space for the brand. This is especially true for detergent manufacturers, which have long profited from turning basic, powdered soap into ultra-concentrated, liquid detergent varieties that consumers tend to over-pour. Companies charge an even heftier premium for pre-measured liquid pods; P&G’s Tide Pods capsules (paywall), for example, cost about 25 cents a load, versus 20 cents a load for liquid Tide detergent.

A quick price check at Procter & Gamble’s online store shows no difference in price for 100 oz. bottles of regular Dreft and Dreft “Stage 1 newborn liquid detergent.” Both sell for $16.99. (Although if your little one has graduated from the infant stage, adding that familiar baby scent to your regular detergent will cost you extra.)

So why is Dreft complicating things? Were too many stain-fighting agents being wasted on too many newborns wearing clothes that were washed with regular Dreft? Were toddlers pitching a fit about stains left on their clothes from the weaker old formula? We’ve reached out to P&G for answers, and will update this post if we hear back.