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Artisan soap's sudsy success

1211_Soap_02Oregonians are buying artisan, whether it is gloves they purchase from a crafter on the website Etsy, home-brewed beer they buy from a co-worker, or specialty cheese they pick up at a farmer’s market. Add to the list: handcrafted bar soap.

By Jennifer Roland

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Tim Ledford of SLAB Handcrafted Soaps in Salem.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina

Oregonians are buying artisan, whether it is gloves they purchase from a crafter on the website Etsy, home-brewed beer they buy from a co-worker, or specialty cheese they pick up at a farmer’s market. Add to the list: handcrafted bar soap.

The growth in the number of Oregon’s artisan soapmakers has been impressive over the past 25 years. In 1986, when Laurie Fiesel of Laurelstone Soaps in Oregon City began selling her handcrafted soap, she found only two other soapmakers in the state. Now there are 125 active businesses registered with “soap” in the name in the state. The industry’s only trade association, the Handcrafted Soapmakers Guild, has seen steady national growth of about 150 members per year for the past six years, says Marie Gale, former president of the guild and owner of Chandler’s Soaps in Broadbent. Oregon is a national player in the handcrafted soap market; the guild’s 2012 conference will be held in Portland in May.

Oregon’s soapmakers sell their wares at craft and county fairs, retail locations and on Etsy. Although Etsy is only one channel in the market for handcrafted products, it has been a poster child for the handcrafted movement. The company doesn’t take credit for creating the movement, but it serves as a representative snapshot of the market. Since it launched in 2005, Etsy sales have grown to more than $300 million each year and are on track to top $400 million this year. Handcrafted soaps make up about 6% of the products currently offered for sale on Etsy.

Within this market niche, variety has grown with the number of producers. Fiesel’s flagship soaps are made with goat’s milk, and Gale’s are known for including no animal products. The price point for most handcrafted soaps is similar, about $4–$6 per bar, compared to as low as $1 for other bar soaps, so consumer preference for a particular formulation or fragrance is usually the deciding factor. Jamie Futoran, owner of Soap Dreams in Medford, which is known for the use of beer in its soaps, says she initially worried the market was oversaturated, “but once I got to a certain point, it just didn’t feel like competition.”


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Ledford pours soap into a mold at SLAB, which uses palm, coconut, olive oil and exotic butters in its handcrafted soaps.
// Photo by William Bragg

The growth potential of the handcrafted soap market has brought larger companies into the mix. And that, not competition from other small soapmakers, is where the real threat to this burgeoning industry lies, according to Tim Ledford of SLAB Handcrafted Soaps in Salem. “When large companies come in and buy smaller companies, they can dilute the brand and the organic and natural concepts.” If these companies sell inferior mass-produced products as handmade, he continues, they can turn customers off from real handcrafted soaps. To combat this influence, Fiesel, Ledford, Futoran and Gale continue to connect with customers and demonstrate the benefits of their products.

They also continue to look toward the future, refining their recipes and responding to consumer demand. Fiesel recently introduced vegetable oil–based soaps to her line of tallow and goat’s milk soaps as a result of consumer demand. Ledford, who has added two employees to his operation, will soon be moving to a larger production facility so he can keep up with his customers. He predicts the handcrafted soap industry will follow in the footsteps of microbreweries, creating a market that can withstand pressures from large corporations and continue to grow through innovation and creativity. And creativity is the hallmark of soapmakers, says Fiesel.

“There are a lot of creative avenues you can employ in trying to pursue that perfect bar,” she says. “It is a never-ending quest for the best.”

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