The keys to a profitable ice melt season? Education and preparation

By Maureen Conklin

When it comes to ice melt products, fall can be a missed opportunity for hardware and home retailers. Many retailers figure that all salt is the same, so they stock a few kinds of basic ice melt products to arm homeowners for winter. And most homeowners wait for the first snowfall and then grab the first bag of ice melt they see on a retailer’s shelf.

Within the past decade, however, the variety of ice melt products has greatly increased, which means consumers can find blends that meet their specific needs for price and performance. But it also means that what used to be a simple salt purchase can become a confusing choice between salt, salt alternatives and salt blends, particularly for consumers who are used to thinking that “salt is salt.”  

All ice melt products melt ice, but at varying temperatures depending on the formula, and with different features. Some products highlight safety for plants, concrete and pets. Others promise not to cause problems when tracked inside. An educated store owner is better equipped to educate consumers and guide them toward the most appropriate ice melt products for their unique needs, generating increased customer loyalty and profits. 

“Melting” through the ice melt clutter

The variety of ice melt products available can be simplified into three main categories: rock salt, salt alternatives and salt blends.

Rock salt (sodium chloride) has always been a reliable and economical choice for keeping walkways clear and safe. It melts down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is particularly good for moderate climates and is safe to handle and store. But homeowners should manage it properly if they use it around landscaping, as too much sodium chloride can harm vegetation. 

As sodium chloride melts ice, it creates brine that refreezes at a higher temperature than other ice melt ingredients or blends. This freeze/thaw cycle can cause damage to concrete driveways and walkways. To limit any concrete damage resulting from melting and refreezing, you can recommend that your customers remove slush and brine before it has a chance to refreeze. 

Salt alternatives offer increased melting power and other benefits compared with sodium chloride, so they can be better suited for colder climates or for customers who have landscaping or concrete concerns. 

For example, magnesium chloride is an excellent choice for homeowners. It melts down to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit and has the fastest melting speed above 0 degrees. It is also safe for homeowners to handle and friendly to landscaping, vegetation and concrete when used as directed. Magnesium chloride is available to consumers as a 100% magnesium chloride product or as part of a blended product.

Calcium chloride, like magnesium chloride, has superior melting power and can melt ice down to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it is important that consumers wear goggles and gloves when working with 100% calcium chloride, as it can burn skin. It can also harm landscaping and concrete. Studies have shown that calcium chloride can cause significant damage to concrete by chemically “attacking” it, even before freeze/thaw cycles take place. 

Ice melt blends typically contain sodium chloride mixed with magnesium chloride, calcium chloride and other additives to provide additional benefits such as enhanced melting power, extended freeze/thaw cycles to protect concrete surfaces, safety for pets and coloring to assist with even application. Depending on the ingredients, they can be economical choices that may also provide some additional benefits beyond simply melting ice.

Tips for maximizing the season

This variety of ice melt products is a boon for customers and retailers alike. Customers now have more choices that deliver some of the “extras” they may need. And retailers have additional premium products, which command a higher margin. The challenge for retailers is to guide their customers to the ice melt choices that are best for them.

Talk to your suppliers about which product mix will work best to meet the spectrum of needs of your customer base, and educate yourself on the specific needs that each product meets. You’ll be able to ask the right questions when customers enter your store, and guide them toward the right solution.

Consider late fall as the ice-melt pre-season. Don’t wait until winter, or worse, after the first storm hits. If you do, your customers will likely buy the first bag of ice melt they see. Instead, start merchandising your ice melt products and educating your customers in late fall. This gives consumers the opportunity to thoughtfully stock up on premium ice melt products that meet their specific needs before winter. You’ll generate advance rather than last-minute sales, while increasing customer loyalty and profits.

Take advantage of point-of-sale materials from your vendors. Many of these tools help with customer education. For example, at North American Salt Co., we offer a point-of-purchase website where retailers can order free signage, banners and other materials to help sell our Safe Step® line of retail deicers.  And, don’t overlook the power of packaging.  Our research has found that packaging is the primary source of information that consumers use to make ice-melt buying decisions, so selecting products with clear and informative packaging can help boost sales. 

Whether your customers are looking for low melting temperatures, environmental friendliness or a combination of both, today’s variety of ice melt products can meet those needs. With a bit of education, planning and assistance from your vendors, both you and your customers can have a safe and beneficial winter.

Maureen Conklin is the director of consumer sales at North American Salt Co., which manufactures and markets the Safe Step® line of residential deicers.