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Paper Towels v Hand Dryers

Monday 30th November -0001

Who’s winning the war to change our washrooms?

Well where shall we start this article? Do we go back in history and look at the market itself and how it has developed? No, I think it should really begin with the most recent history. So here we go in 2005 a marketing consultant George Campbell was headhunted. What relevance has this got to the title? Well it was an interview for Dyson, a company secretly preparing to launch a new hand dryer. He believed Dyson to be a company with the iconic quality of Apple. This and the fact they had the ability to take a basic product like a vacuum cleaner and make an 80% margin. “Clever Business’.

In 2006 The Dyson Airblade was released, but this was no ordinary hand dryer. It had what many considered to be a futuristic body that asked for hands to be inserted into its mouth. The real difference was this was the first high speed dryer. So futuristic it was used as a set dressing for Star Trek in 2009.

Its brash marketing that has changed our washrooms. This really was the era that of the hand dryer fight back in the washroom. Their foe for supremacy in the washroom the world’s most powerful hand-drying lobby. ‘The Big Paper Towel Manufacturers.’

Most public bathrooms or washrooms will offer one of the five following options to dry your hands.

  1. The pleated paper hand towel this can be recycled or virgin paper and comes in several folding styles Z-Fold, N-Fold, C-Fold and the very cheap V-Fold. There is also a wide variety of colours available although white seems to be the dominant colour along with blue in the food industry. 

  2. The Paper Roller Hand Towel, these are also made from both recycled and virgin paper and are usually found in more up-market bathrooms.

  3. The Linen Roller Towel is made usually from cotton and is more times than not on a rental agreement in large industrial industries. In recent years the roller towel business is not as a dominant a player in bathrooms.

  4. The old-style warm-air dryer ‘Usually dating back to the seventies’ that indestructible metal hand dryer that, very slowly blows down on your hands and takes an eternity to dry them.

  5. And finally, the super jet hand dryer the sort Dyson and other manufacturers make ‘I don’t want this turning into an ad for Dyson hand Dryers’. These are the new breed of hand dryers whose gale-force winds and heat will dry your hands in less than 8 seconds. 

In the war to dominate the washroom, it really had become a head to head of paper towels v jet hand dryers. The old slow speed hand dryers of yester year are slowly becoming obsolete, as for the linen towels very few businesses use them now. This battle of Hand Towels V Hand Dryers is very much about business strategy, marketing, advertising and public relations. It really is on par with Coca-Cola v Pepsi-Cola.

The main area of battle has always been public hygiene. Depending on who’s paying for the research science has tried and proven both arguments for the use of Hand Towels and Hand Dryers. So it could be argued that science has failed to give us a decisive winner as to whose product is superior. The biggest fears with these studies really centre around the spreading of bacteria in public areas. Giving journalists plenty of headlines ample opportunities to spread fear and panic about washroom hygiene. when it comes to public hygiene in a hospital environment we have to pay attention to research. In 2018 a microbiologist from California stuck a petri dish inside a blade style Hand Dryer for three minutes and then incubated it. Within next 48 hours the fungi and bacteria deposited on the dish by the hand dryer multiplied, growing into a thicket of grunge. When the photo was posted on Facebook over 500,000 people shared it within a week. One or Two Dryer manufacturers argued the experiments methodology was too vague to have meaning, but was it?

Going to the beginning the paper towel was invented before the hand dryer but is not really much older. The Scott Paper Company, from America and now owned by the tissue giant called Kimberly-Clark, developed the first washroom paper towel in 1907. Whilst the earliest Hand Dryer was patented by the Airdry Corporation from New York in 1922. So really not a lot of years between the two, but the Paper Towel was by far the most dominant force of the 20th century.

The battle for the control of the washroom has never been more fervent than now in the 21st century with the arrival of the new breed of super jet hand dryers from the likes of Wipeout, Viper, Air Force, ATC and many more. Although the figures still weigh heavily in favour of the big paper towel companies. According to market research by Technavio $4 Billion worth of Paper Towels will be purchased globally in 2020, they also reckon hand dryer sales will hit $856 million that is a 12% growth every year since 2012. This has had quite an impact on paper towel revenues some reckon as much as $1 Billion over the past 7 years, although I am not quite so sure about that claim. This is why it is such an immense battle when you consider the money involved.

The fact of the matter is Hand Dryers have come a long way when we consider only 5 in every 100 toilets had a hand dryer in 1965 according to ‘The Good Loo Guide’ by Johnathan Routh.

Those involved in the decision making process of buying paper towels and hand dryers compete on various dimensions:
  • Cost
  • Product Dimensions
  • Eco-friendliness
  • Hygiene
  • Cleanliness
  • Maintenance
  • Servicing
  • Running Cost 
The decision is not always an easy one when we start to go.

An awful lot of the hygiene issues in the washroom rest on the so called ‘Holy Grail’ the contactless bathroom. In the industry belief is where our hands need not touch anything that someone else’s hands have defiled. Maybe this would explain the rise in sales for these chamber style hand dryers, but we still have to think about the initial cost and maintenance of these jet style dryers. But the Paper Towel industry is fighting back with more and more automated vending of paper towels in roll format, where we have very cheap running costs.  Our obsession with hygiene where we don’t wish to touch something some else has touched is already very evident. Take for example some airport bathrooms now opt for a switchback of walls, so that we don’t even need to touch a door handle. When inside the bathroom, sensors eliminate the need to flush the toilet, turn the tap, press the soap dispenser button or pull a paper towel from the dispenser. The modern hand dryer, with no buttons to push, also neatly fits into this fantasy of the zero-contact loo.

For decades the leading manufacturer World Dryer a company founded by George Clemens in 1948 and responsible for the release of the Model A Hand Dryer in 1951. This robust baked enamel white hand dryer with its shiny round steel button and many variations was the answer to a post-world war wood shortage causing a severe shortage of paper towels. Right up to the 1990`s World dryer believed that it could still dominate the market, mainly down to the fact they signed a contract with McDonalds across the USA in the 1970`s This convinced them they was winning the war. During this time both hand dryer manufacturers and linen towel suppliers enjoyed a huge up surge in sales. Ultimately the linen towel industry was probably biggest casualty to be effected by this war between the paper suppliers and hand dryer manufacturers. Even the hand dryer manufacturers were struggling as recently as the late 1990`s as they failed to invest in R&D when they was at their peak.

In the 2000`s the fundamental superiority of paper never looked to be in doubt though.  Ultimately no need for huge investment in R&D with paper you don’t wait some 30 seconds the dryer to do its job, no worries about malfunction. I mean think about it that famous scene in the restroom where Mr Bean drenches his trousers. The paper towel dispenser is empty so in a matter of desperation he gets caught humping a hand dryer after climbing onto a bin to dry his trousers, would he have got caught if the paper towel dispenser was full?

So back to where we started with and how the market is starting to change with the introduction of the modern turbo hand dryers.

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