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Sanitizer sales spike spurred by flu worries

‘Name of the game’ for industry: H1N1

LOS ANGELES – Silvia Cordero eyed the row of disinfecting gels, soaps and hand sanitizers at a Rite-Aid in Culver City with the intensity of a drill sergeant preparing troops for a skirmish with the H1N1 flu virus.

“They’re going in my car, in my desk at work, and in my sons’ backpacks,” said Cordero, 28. “I don’t really like the way any of them feel on my skin, but they might help keep us healthy.”

Concerns about the contagiousness and severity of the H1N1 flu strain have generated a boom in the hand sanitizer market. Sales of gels and wipes have soared by 70.5 percent, from $69.4 million to $118.4 million, in the 24 weeks that ended on Oct. 3, according to data from the Nielsen Co.

Driven in large part by businesses seeking to protect employees and customers, sanitizers boosted earnings at bleach maker Clorox Corp. and were a bright spot in an otherwise difficult period for Johnson & Johnson, whose Purell subsidiary is one of the main producers of alcohol-based gel cleaners.

Demand for antivirus products has also spawned a cottage industry in personalized sanitizers. Consumers can go online to order them in fur-trimmed pump-bottles on one site or with their company names printed on the front at another.

Pier 1 Imports is selling holiday-themed sanitizers with such scents as cinnamon and cilantro, packaged as nicely as perfume offerings.

About one-third of businesses are taking precautions against H1N1, about the same number that prepared for avian flu and SARS when those viruses were of concern, according to a recent survey by the consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. But unlike those earlier scares, the H1N1 pandemic materialized – and sanitizers and disinfectants now seem to be popping up all over.

At Ventura Transfer Co. in Long Beach, all employees have been furnished with hand sanitizers, and the company has also stocked up on the N95 particulate filter, respirator and surgical masks.

Bottles of Purell sanitizer sit on every desk at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where signs pronouncing, “clean hands save lives” greet visitors at every turn. The hospital complex has been ordering 2,200 liters per month of the clear gel, nearly twice the amount that it used before the spread of H1N1.

Wall Street analysts like Nik Modi of UBS are telling investors that H1N1 is giving businesses a boost in what would have otherwise been another set of dreary, recession-battered earnings reports.

“H1N1, that’s the name of the game,” Modi said.

Last week, Clorox Corp. reported a 23 percent rise in net profits to $157 million in the fiscal first quarter that ended Sept. 30. Most of it was driven by record sales of its Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, said Donald R. Knauss, Clorox chairman and chief executive.

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