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Wipeout! Lazy or convenient?

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Judy Shaw uses Clorox Disinfecting Wipes to clean her kitchen counter, Pond's facial wipes to remove her makeup, a Swiffer wipe to mop her floor and Shout Wipes for laundry-stain emergencies. All told, Shaw, a 48-year-old secretary at the University of South Carolina, figures she has at least six types of wipes in her home in Columbia, S.C.

Throw out those germy sponges. Forget about soap and water. Consumer-products companies such as Unilever, Clorox Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. are rushing to develop new generations of wipes — a product once reserved for babies' behinds and lobster suppers.

"Almost anything that can be made a wipe has been over the last six months," says Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Productscan Online, which tracks new products. About 55 new wipe products hit store shelves in 2000, and 30 more have joined them so far this year, he says.

Facial wipes barely existed as a skin-care category two years ago. Now, they account for 10 percent of skin-care shelf space at Duane Reade, a New York drugstore chain. If Fluffy is looking flaky, there are dander-zapping cat wipes by Pal Supplies Inc. For Buster, there's a dog-bath wipe from International Veterinary Sciences. Armor All's Protectant Wipes are designed to buff interior car vinyl.

North American consumers spent $835 million on face and home-care wipes last year, says John R. Starr Inc., a consultant on the "nonwoven" fabrics used in wipes. The Naples, Fla., firm predicts sales of wipe products will rise to about $1.5 billion in 2005.

Marketers latched on to the idea after noticing how people appropriated baby wipes for uses other than child care. In 1998, 36 percent of baby wipes were purchased by consumers who either didn't have children or had kids older than four years old — and thus out of diapers, according to ACNielsen.

Keith Milks, a 30-year-old Marine Corps staff sergeant in Arlington, Va., always takes baby wipes with him on missions and training runs because he might have to go without a shower for up to a week. The tip gets passed along to the new Marines.

While many users concede that wipes are the lazy person's solution to cleaning, marketers prefer to present wipes as convenient and more hygienic than communal soap or the old wash rag — a logical next step in the antibacterial craze.

But wipes, priced as high as $7.99 a box for the facial variety and $4.29 for clean-up types, are a costly convenience. Forty-four new wipe products swamped the market back in 1990, but most of them fizzled when consumers thought they were too expensive during a recession. This time around, says Michelle Waldgeir, marketing manager for Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, companies have repackaged and targeted wipes toward the way busy Americans clean, promising to kill both germs and the drudgery of regular cleaning. "Convenience remains the mother of all trends," says Stephen Milton, a spokesman at Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company that makes Dove, Pond's and Lever 2000 wipes.

In the 1990s, Americans also became more ambivalent about the environmental impact of a disposable society, says Peter Hsia of Swander Pace & Co., a food, beverage and consumer packaged-goods consulting firm in San Francisco. Companies note that the disposable wipes are biodegradable.

Not all shoppers are convinced that the pricey specialty wipes are better than the old baby variety. Diane Byars, 49, another University of South Carolina employee, keeps wipes around to clean her hands after pumping gas or touching door handles. "But to be perfectly honest, I buy whatever is on sale," she says. "And you can use baby wipes for everything."