Americans have a new favorite way to flush money down the drain: luxury toilet paper.
Sales in the United States of what the industry calls "luxury" rolls — anything quilted, lotioned, perfumed or ultra-soft, from two- to four-ply — climbed to $1.4 billion last year, outpacing all other kinds of toilet paper for the first time in nearly a decade, data from market research firm Euromonitor International show.
The luxury market is one-fourth the size of the standard TP market, but its prominence in Big Wipe is growing faster than many industry watchers expected. Luxury toilet paper sales have grown more than 70 percent since 2000, and they're expected to keep growing faster than all other categories every year through at least 2018.
"Higher growth is expected out of the luxury segment as the improved economy allows consumers to satisfy their desire for comfort," Euromonitor analysts wrote in a recent industry report about toilet paper's "increasing premiumisation." "While the idea of ... luxury toilet paper may be slightly odd, (its) performance suggests otherwise."
This style of bath tissue offers a far different kind of luxury than, say, a $17,000 watch: It's the same ol' stuff, just thicker, softer and more absorbent than other rolls. Though it's a little pricier, analysts said, nearly everyone can still afford it, making it a surprising barometer for how confident Americans are that they can afford a minor splurge.
Before last year, luxury toilet paper's sales growth last beat out the other rolls in 2000 and 2005, both boom years for the U.S. economy and consumer spending. The luxury toilet paper business is expected to grow 9 percent over the next five years, compared with 6 percent for the cheapest "economy" lines.
To compete for the luxury crowd, paper giants are paying heavily to advertise just how luxurious their rolls can be. To promote Cottonelle's new "CleanRipple" design, which spokesperson Bob Brand said would "be a differentiator in the premium bath tissue space," parent company Kimberly-Clark has sprung for TV ads that suggest users of its new high-end blend will be so clean they can "go commando." The firm also paid for reunited boy band New Kids on the Block to play a Cottonelle-sponsored concert last month in New York.
Those appeals to bathroom grandeur seem to be paying off. Sales of the three-ply Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, which last year rolled out improvements to its "silkiness," jumped 30 percent in the United States last year over 2013, said Anna Umphress, a spokeswoman at consumer-goods firm Georgia-Pacific, which makes Quilted Northern and Angel Soft.
The toilet paper maker is pushing more than ever to tailor its offerings more closely to American shoppers. A special line of lavender-scented Angel Soft, for instance, has been targeted to Hispanic buyers, said Vivek Joshi, vice president of Georgia-Pacific's tissue division, for one simple reason: The vast majority of papel confort sold in Mexico is scented. (For the same reason, Charmin unveiled a chamomile-scented toilet paper in August with an endorsement from Ana Patricia González, host of "¡Despierta América!," a morning show on Spanish-language network Univision.)
The struggle for toilet paper chains is convincing shoppers that pricier luxury papers aren't just flushing cash down the toilet. Though even during a recession, analysts said, they saw shoppers who were more than willing to trade up for one of the few indulgences they could afford.
"Even in a down market, people want a little bit of luxury," Umphress said. "They may not be able to take a spa vacation. But they can make their home a little bit more spa-like."
Outside of standard toilet paper, sales of luxury rolls still trail thinner, cheaper economy brands, often bought in bulk for bathrooms in places like schools, malls and gas stations. And in general, toilet paper rolls are shrinking, as paper makers attempt to recoup money lost from dropping sales on other products, like paper towels.
Luxury toilet paper is not without its challenges, of course. It doesn't exactly have the same word-of-mouth power of other high-end purchases. And because it offers mostly superficial benefits, analysts question just how long luxury toilet paper's winning streak can continue.
"Premiumisation is a tool to drive that value, but there are limits to how far that can take you," said Svetlana Uduslivaia, Euromonitor's head of tissue and hygiene. "At the end of the day, for most consumers, toilet paper is toilet paper."