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One century ago, 90% of China's population used leaves to wash their clothes.

Soap, called "foreign alkali," was not common in daily life.

Soap was unpopular due to its high price and people's unfamiliarity with the product. Now, soap and detergent is a mainstay in China's consumer industry.

But for electronic giant Haier Group, history has come full circle. It's facing product prejudice as it tries to sell a washing machine with a twist: no detergent.

On September 7, the world's fourth largest maker of white goods, including washers and refrigerators, started a two-month marketing campaign in more than 100 cities in China to tout the concept of detergent-free washers.

Three years ago, Haier produced the first such washing machine in the world, acquiring 32 proprietary patents for its new offerings.

But there has been mounting difficulty in selling the washers, as people can't believe clothes can be washed without detergent.

"When Haier was applying for a national certificate in 2004, even the experts in the review committee did not buy the concept, so you can see the difficulties in convincing ordinary consumers," says Hao Chun, deputy secretary general of the China Environmental Protection Industry Association and a member of the expert committee.

Haier's first buyer was a 60-year-old man in Qingdao, where Haier is based. His reason for purchasing the unit was that he trusted Haier rather than the technology.

As a result, in the past three years, Haier has sold only 200,000 of its special washers, while total sales of Haier washers is expected to reach five million units this year.

The detergent-free technology is based on a similar mechanism to detergents: it uses the interaction of acidic and alkaline ions to clean dirty substances. But the detergent-free washers need to first electrolyze water to generate such ions, just as alkali in soap is used to neutralize the acid in clothes.

Ding Laiguo, general sales manager of Haier's washer business, believes the product is reaching a tipping point at which it will change from a concept to a heavily purchased item.

One reason, he says, is Chinese consumers are becoming more conscious of environmental protection and are willing to try something new to reduce the pollution costs of using detergents.

Ding says Haier is offering a 30-day free trial period of the product in the next two months to let people test the product. During this period, customers can try the washers with their own clothes to see the results in more than 1,000 shops in the country.

Haier also brought the products to the United States, Europe and South-East Asia. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore, 40,000 washers were sold this year.

The product targets the Chinese washer-makers' biggest challenge to the dominance of foreign brands in the high-end segment, with a price of over 2,500 yuan (US$300).

According to the domestic market intelligence firm CMM Research, Haier took almost 30% per cent of the Chinese washer market, followed by two Chinese peers Little Swan and Rongshida.

Seven foreign brands were on the top 10 list. The average price of washers made by domestic brands was only 1,000 yuan (US$125) in the first half.

Meanwhile, Siemens AG only had a market share of less than 5% per cent in terms of shipments in the first half, but its share in terms of sales volume was almost 11% per cent as the average price of its washers was 3,573 yuan (US$446).

One reason for this disparity is that domestic makers are mainly strong in low-profit turbo-washers, while foreign brands dominate the much more profitable tumbling washers.

From The Star Online

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