September 8, 1996 in Nation/World

A Dirty Business Rival Companies Lock Horns Over Shrinking Local Market For Cloth Diapers

Grayden Jones Staff writer
 

Like the product they deliver, Spokane’s diaper service companies offer a lesson in contrast: On the surface, the companies are as sweet as a newborn. But under the fold, where they compete for customers, there’s a stink.

Battling for the bottoms of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene’s babies, veteran Babyland Diaper Service and newcomer Diaper-Tyme Diaper Service are quick to dump on each other with threats of lawsuits, intimidation and stories of mischief.

“Diaper Dan” Anderson, owner of diaper-service leader Babyland, says he’s offered several times to buy out Diaper-Tyme owners Richard and Sandy Ogle to “get them out of my hair.” Anderson and Richard Ogle are old drinking buddies, and Anderson doesn’t believe Ogle has the stomach for staying in the business.

But the Ogles have steadfastly refused Anderson’s offer, saying they don’t want to give him control of the diaper market. Their determination comes, in part, from a pledge to carry on the diaper business in honor of Sandy’s late father, Bill Shaw, who helped found the company. Shaw was delivering diapers in 1994 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

“We’re just a small company trying to make a buck,” Richard Ogle says from the Crestline Laundromat, his business that doubles as headquarters for Diaper-Tyme. “We’re not trying to hurt anybody.”

The hissing match might make sense if the two owners were vying for a market flush with customers and cash. But it’s a struggling industry that locally is big enough to employ just 13 people.

The two competitors combined keep just 5 percent of Spokane and Kootenai county’s estimated 16,000 babies dry. The rest are wrapped in disposable diapers produced by companies based in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

“They (Diaper-Tyme) haven’t had any effect on me at all,” Anderson says from his Trent Avenue office, where 35,000 diapers spin inside giant computerized washers. “Right now we’ve got just 5 percent of the market, so I ask them, ‘why are you picking on me?’ The real battle is against the disposable market.”

It’s a battle both companies seem to be losing. Babyland, the clear leader in the delivery of cloth diapers, has 700 customers, half of what it said it had in 1993. Diaper-Tyme has garnered about 100 customers after five years in operation.

Babyland charges $12 for 80 diapers a week. As the underdog, Diaper-Tyme charges slightly less: $10.80. If each customer pays an average of $11 a week, the entire market generates less than $500,000 in annual revenue.

Anderson says Babyland supplements its diaper service sales by cleaning and delivering rags to car lots and mechanic shops, providing adult diapers to nursing homes and towels to athletic clubs. Diaper-Tyme supplements itself with the Crestline Laundromat’s 50-cent washing machines, and an espresso and snack bar.

Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble and other disposable diaper makers are pocketing millions each year on the convenience of their throw-away products. From doctor’s offices to toy stores, they promote disposables and combat charges of environmental degradation.

John Shiffert, executive director of the National Association of Diaper Services in Philadelphia, said a city the size of Spokane could support two diaper services if the companies maintain the industry average of 10 percent of the baby market. Less than that, he said, and the companies likely will struggle.

But rather than joining forces against the disposable giants, Babyland and Diaper-Tyme are shaking rattles at each other.

Sandy Ogle, a cheery former securities clerk, says her company had to change its name from Diaperland to Diaper-Tyme after Anderson threatened to sue. She claims Babyland makes covert phone calls to Diaper-Tyme to obtain information on prices and market share.

Dan Anderson doesn’t deny Ogle’s claims, but says he has no respect for a competitor who misleads customers. He says Diaper-Tyme’s advertised “accredited laboratory” is a sham. The testing laboratory, which amounts to a soap and chemical distributor checking the wash water, can’t be compared to Babyland’s laboratory, which tests washed diapers for bacteria and chemicals, Anderson says.

“If you lie, then I can’t trust you,” Anderson says.

Sandy Ogle says Diaper-Tyme uses the same 13-rinse, hot water cycle used by Babyland to clean diapers.

“There simply can’t be any bacteria,” she says. “It’s impossible.”

Most customers are oblivious to the dispute between Spokane’s diaper companies. They generally could care less who tests what, and what name a company uses, so long as they receive a fresh bundle of soft, white diapers delivered to their home each week.

“He’s like the garbage guy; every Tuesday he was there at the door,” says Holly Gonseth, a Babyland customer for five years. “Their service is wonderful, but, of course, it’s always a thrill when you graduate.”

Ken Hamm said he has been a Diaper-Tyme customer ever since his wife gave birth to twins last year. He says the service costs about the same as disposables, but believes cloth diapers are easier on the environment - and his garbage bill.

“That’s 140 diapers a week, 20 a day, 10 apiece changed every couple of hours,” Hamm says. “I can’t imagine what we’d do if we were buying them and throwing them out all the time.”

Babyland and Diaper-Tyme replace their customers’ dirty diapers each week with a bundle of clean ones. A diaper pail and deodorant bar usually are included in the service.

But many parents are too busy to mess with pins, pails and brawling between diaper services. Janelle Babinski in Spokane said she tried a diaper service for one month, but hated it. Babinski says it was too inconvenient and the fabric seemed to chafe her newborn’s legs.

“I used them (diapers) for spit up rags,” she says.

To attract customers, Diaper-Tyme spends just $300 a month on advertising and promotion, mostly for a Yellow Page listing, Sandy Ogle says. The company keeps such a low profile that some moms such as Gonseth say they did not know there was a second company.

“We know from experience that either you want cloth diapers or you don’t,” Ogle says. “It’s not worth trying to talk people into it.”

Babyland, however, has built one of the most highly recognized business names in Spokane. The name is so catchy that some customers believe the 66-year-old company is part of a national chain.

Anderson, who bought the company in 1969, gets company exposure from his fleet of delivery trucks, and through various promotions. Babyland’s community relations representative, Muriel Cleveland, promotes company services by conducting classes on the environment and childbirth preparation at area schools and medical centers. Whenever possible, Cleveland visits expectant mothers to demonstrate diaper changing and proper hygiene.

“The only thing we don’t do for our customers is change the baby,” Anderson says.

In addition, Helen Anderson ducks into the company’s Dydee Bear mascot costume for charity events, and Babyland hosts the Diaper Olympics at the Spokane Interstate Fair. At this event, fathers compete for the crown of fastest diaper changer, while mothers can use a private booth to breast feed their newborns.

“We’ve got more time than money so we spend a lot of time at the fairs and in classes,” says Dan Anderson, who budgets about $1,000 a month for promotions and has a contract with four Rosauers Supermarkets to sell diaper service at the stores. “We’re not some huge organization.”

Kris Fisher, program coordinator for birth classes at Sacred Heart Medical Center, said she was surprised to see the Ogles challenge Babyland given public preference for disposable diapers. Her instructors rarely get information from Diaper-Tyme, but equally distribute literature they receive from diaper services and the disposable diaper companies to class members.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has no position on which type of diaper is better for babies, Fisher said, so birth class instructors let parents decide for themselves. However, Sacred Heart’s maternity ward uses cloth diapers.

Diaper-Tyme arrived in 1991 at the height of an environmental push to rid landfills and waste-burning plants of disposable diapers and human feces. But most companies, says Shiffert, the diaper service association executive, have since folded or consolidated as interest in cloth diapers diminished and disposable makers saturated the public with promotional campaigns about their products.

Diaper-Tyme, however, held on. Richard Ogle, a long-time delivery driver for American Linen in Spokane, used to drink beer with Anderson at the Lucky Penny Tavern in Spokane. The two were friendly, Ogle says, until he announced plans to open a competing diaper service.

“We’re determined, we are not going to give up,” says Sandy Ogle.

Adds husband, Richard: “We used to be pretty good friends until he turned ornery.”

But Anderson, who quit drinking a decade ago when he received a liver transplant, says he expects the Ogles to eventually quit the business.

“I don’t think they have the same enthusiasm as their (late) father did,” he says. “So I’m not going to let them hold me back.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHO’S WHO Babyland Diaper Service 1520 E. Trent 535-2997 or 800-628-9023 Owners: Dan and Helen Anderson Founded: 1969. Primary service area: Spokane and Kootenai counties. Number of customers: 700. Number of employees: 11. Monthly marketing budget: $1,000. Strength: name recognition, experience and service. Weakness: price.

Diaper-Tyme Diaper Service 3010 N. Crestline 484-BABY (2229) Owners: Richard and Sandy Ogle Founded: 1991. Primary service area: Spokane County. Number of customers: 100. Number of employees: 2. Monthly advertising budget: $300. Strength: price and service. Weakness: name recognition and experience.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHO’S WHO Babyland Diaper Service 1520 E. Trent 535-2997 or 800-628-9023 Owners: Dan and Helen Anderson Founded: 1969. Primary service area: Spokane and Kootenai counties. Number of customers: 700. Number of employees: 11. Monthly marketing budget: $1,000. Strength: name recognition, experience and service. Weakness: price.

Diaper-Tyme Diaper Service 3010 N. Crestline 484-BABY (2229) Owners: Richard and Sandy Ogle Founded: 1991. Primary service area: Spokane County. Number of customers: 100. Number of employees: 2. Monthly advertising budget: $300. Strength: price and service. Weakness: name recognition and experience.


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