Both reusable and disposable hygiene products have certain strengths and weaknesses.

Often, a product which is just right for one application will be less suitable for another. More and more textile rental businesses are including disposable products in their ranges, while producers of disposable products constantly strive to produce fabrics which “feel” and “perform” like more traditional materials.

If you want to maximise sales of both reusable and disposable products, it’s important to consider the situation from the customers’ viewpoint. Nothing is more powerful than the market, so if you can understand how your customers think it will give you the competitive edge.

What do customers want from most products or services? The list below has been distilled from a number of surveys carried out over the past two years. The top five buying criteria are:

• value for money (no change there!)

• security of purchase – that is, reduced “losses”

• ease of use and application

• user preference

• environmental concerns.

We’ll take a look at each of these in turn and see how both methods shape up.

Value for money

Value can be defined as the relationship between the cost of the product and the amount of effective use the customer gets from it. Here, a reusable product such as a rented wiping cloth scores very strongly. With this system, there is no capital outlay, so a customer’s money remains in their business, supporting cash flow. The second point to mention is that rented cloths are extremely strong, and won’t break up in use, meaning one cloth can be used for a very long time.

In terms of value for money, mixed rag can turn out to be more expensive than at first glance. Although the price of a 10 or 12.5kg box is about £10 to £15, the amount of usable material varies considerably. That’s because in many boxes you’ll get a mix of material – some cotton, but also nylon, denim, rayon, silk and so on. These materials are non-absorbent and so are virtually useless on the shop floor. This waste must be borne in mind when calculating the average cost per wipe.

“White” rag, which is 100% cotton, is far more expensive – sometimes double the price of its more colourful team mate.

The most common criticism of disposable wipers in the area of value for money is their length of effective use. Paper wipers are there to be used when one wipe will ‘destroy’ the wiper – for example, cleaning out the brake drums on a heavy goods vehicle. That’s a strong selling point. However, many “manufactured” cloths still don’t offer the user the strength they want on certain tasks.

Many years ago, I recall a mechanic taking a laundered cloth in both hands, and running it backwards and forwards through a bolt hole in the side of an aircraft. When he tried it with my disposable wiper, it simply fell to pieces. The cost per individual wiper was almost identical, so I didn’t get the sale on that occasion!

Security of purchase

In this area, textiles again score well. By security of purchase, I’m referring to the amount of ‘losses’ that can occur through products leaving the customer’s premises via an unauthorised route, for example, in someone’s bag or sandwich box.

A reusable product such as an auto roll is usually stored in a lockable cabinet, and bolted to the wall, making attempted theft extremely difficult. The problem with paper towels, disposable table cloths and wipers is that they make good dish cloths and dusters – what a purchasing manager once described to me as a “high nickability factor”. They can usually be removed from the customer’s premises in small quantities, with certain exceptions – an employee would look rather conspicuous with a cabinet towel secreted inside their T-shirt.

On the workwear front, disposable coveralls are just right for changing the oil in the Austin A40 over the weekend. Again, they can be folded down into a small space and easily “liberated” from incarceration. They also afford ideal protection when redecorating the cellar prior to the impending visit of the mother in law.

One company in Staffordshire was using mixed rag for the wiping down of machinery and parts. A salesperson for a large paper company won the account by exposing the amount of waste material in each box, and then by doing a simple cost comparison, making his disposable polypropylene wiper cheaper on a piece for piece for basis. The decision was made to swap to disposables.

Within six months, the company had switched back to rag. Why? The wiping bill had soared, thanks mainly to the amount of product being pilfered by staff. The result: easy win for reusables.

Ease of use and application

It’s in this area that certain reusables struggle, and that disposables come into their own. Many disposable products have a number of strengths, while reusables have some distinct weaknesses.

Let’s look at the rented wiper service. It’s a sound enough idea – clean cloths delivered, dirty ones collected and taken back to the laundry. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, if you speak to a printer who’s just used a cloth that was previously used in a factory, he may be in a very bad mood. Rented cloths can pick up swarf (metal shavings), which can damage the surface of printing equipment. It’s for this reason that some rented cloth companies only service the print trade – so there’s no chance of contamination.

Disposable cloths won’t damage delicate equipment, but they can leave traces of lint on a print surface, resulting in a poor quality job. It’s for this reason that aircraft manufacturers are especially fastidious about lint-free wiping. The thought of a Boeing 747 having a blocked fuel line at 35,000ft is enough to make most decision makers go down the rag or rented cloth route.

There are some disposables that are effectively lint-free, but there’s a compromise – a lower absorbency rate. I recall coming across one such wiper in the mid-’90s. Sure, it was lint-free, extremely strong, but it tended to “move” oil and cutting fluid as opposed to acting like a sponge.

Mixed rag also scores poorly in this area, mainly because the wipers aren’t of a uniform size and because of the mix of materials, as already mentioned.

That brings to mind an ex-colleague’s experience. She was trying to sell in a disposable wiper against mixed rag to a coal mine in the north of England. Part of her pitch was to go through a couple of boxes of rag with the members of staff, including the safety officer. In one such box, they came across part of the leg of a pair of denim jeans.

Nothing unusual there, you might think. The interesting part was that the safety officer found a half full box of matches in the pocket. From memory, it was my ex-colleague’s largest ever order.

In the washroom, paper towels can result in a litter problem, so bins need to be provided which results in less floor space. If there’s no bin, some well meaning soul will flush the towels down the toilet, but as towels don’t break up in water it could well be a case of “pass the plunger”.

User preference

Opinion is divided on this one. As far as workwear is concerned, the vast majority of wearers prefer a polycotton coverall to a disposable one. Put simply, conventional coveralls are both stronger and thicker, offering protection over the long term, whereas disposable coveralls are still perceived as having a limited lifespan. Also, conventional workwear seems more “natural” to wear for many people – it’s just like normal clothing, whereas disposables can look a bit like a space suit.

Another point to mention is that some disposable coveralls don’t breathe, making them extremely hot and uncomfortable to wear.

When it comes to hand drying, a paper towel and an auto-roll appear to be equally popular. Unlike many warm air dryers, they’re both quick and they don’t push out warm air which encourages the breeding of bacteria.

On the wiper front, disposables have become very popular, despite the points already mentioned. Users like the idea of having a “brand new” wipe each time, and the different types of disposable wiper now mean that there’s one for virtually every wiping task.

Environmental concerns

  The environmental advantages are a strong selling point for reusables. In fact, I’ve never understood why textile rental companies don’t make more of this.

The amount of recycled disposable material as a percentage of the overall total increases year on year, but it’s still not as environmentally friendly as the reusable option. As well as trees being cut down to produce the product, there’s the question of how waste material is disposed of. The amount of land potentially available for landfill sites in the UK decreases every year, and environmentalists claim that a major factor here is our move towards a “single use” society.

As mentioned both disposable and reusable products have their part to play in the hygiene market. Consumer preference, cost, and

environmental issues all play a part in deciding which way any customer will go. As you can see, though, textile rental/reusable products still hold their own.