Hand-held vacuums are still the consumer’s choice for cleaning convenience

In millions of American homes, when a little sugar spills on the kitchen floor, or when the dog has been sleeping–and shedding–on the couch, chances are the tool consumers grab for a quick clean-up is a hand vacuum.

Compact and convenient, with the power to handle most small cleaning jobs, hand vacs have become a virtual necessity for a growing number of consumers. And while the hand-vac market today may not be skyrocketing, the category has established itself as a stable and steady one, with dollar volumes expected to top $145 million at wholesale this year.

In fact, the total hand-vac business, including AC corded and DC cordless products, has represented a sales volume of between approximately five million and seven million units annually for the past 11 years–with a high of 7.2 million units reached in 1990, according to industry sources.

Considering that the category did not even exist before 1979 with the launch of Black & Decker’s DustBuster, and that corded models burst on the scene only in the mid-’80s with Royal’s introduction of the Dirt Devil, the volume certainly underscores the strong and immediate consumer acceptance of the hand-vac concept.

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Still, as household penetration has increased, sales, not surprisingly, have reached something of a plateau.

Said John Hoppe, vice president of marketing for The Eureka Co., “The hand-vac business is not declining drastically, but it does not represent the volume it was at a few years ago. And that is simply an issue of saturation. If you look at the number of hand vacs that have been sold each year, and look at the total number of households in the country, it’s obvious there would reach a saturation point.”

As Dave Gault, vice president of marketing for The Hoover Co., put it, “The industry had undergone significant year-on-year growth for seven or eight, maybe 10 years, but has now leveled off–albeit at a very high level. So while the business is not showing the growth it did, it is still much bigger than 10 years ago and has plateaued at a very good level.”

Going back to 1985, around the time that corded models were first introduced, cordless represented a full 98 percent of the market. But as the awareness, appeal and availability of corded hand vacs grew over the following five years, so did their piece of the pie. Increasing by an average of nearly 86 percent in each of those years, AC-powered hand vacs quickly jumped from just 4 percent of the market in 1986 to 31 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1991.

From 1992 until today, the business has stabilized, with the proportion of units sold remaining virtually unchanged at about 60 percent corded and 40 percent cordless. However, what most in the business see happening is some renewed strength in the cordless hand-vac market, reflecting in part the introduction of new products, as well as some renewed advertising support by manufacturers.

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“Last year, we saw a lot of cordless activity,” noted Jim Krzeminski, vice president of sales at Bissell. “There were some nice entries from some of the key companies and some greater advertising, which drove consumers back to the stores more than in maybe the last five years.”

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Agreed Bruce Gold, president of White Westinghouse, “The rechargeables are a growing business. There are a lot of new products around in that end…and the pricing is spreading out a little, also.”

One major factor continuing to drive the hand-vac business is consumers’ desire for time-saving and convenience.

Terry Carlson, product general manager of cleaning and cooking products for Black & Decker Household Products, stated, “Our line is positioned toward convenience cleaning, since our studies show that consumers are searching for ways to do housework more quickly and more easily. Since many people don’t have much time, they’re relying on convenience cleaning products like our DustBusters, which pick up everything from errant Cheerios to dust bunnies in a flick of the switch.”

Indeed, the level of household penetration achieved by the category supports the thesis that hand vacs fill a distinct consumer need. According to a recent study by one of the leading vendors in the business, household penetration for cordless hand vacs stands at nearly 37 percent, and at 33 percent for corded hand vacs. Those numbers compare with 74.2 percent for full-size upright vacuums and 39.8 percent for canister vacuums.

At the same time, those saturation levels, hovering at only about a third of all households, also point to the strong potential still remaining for the category.

That strength will only be helped by the development of new products and features that manufacturers are bringing to the market. For instance, in the cordless arena, some newer models feature more powerful batteries, batteries that remove for more convenient recharging, newly designed storage bases and narrower suction openings to better fit into tight spaces and corners.

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In the corded segment, among the recent innovations are swivel nozzles that make it easier to clean hard-to-reach spots, more powerful motors and “tools on board” that allow consumers to quickly work with a crevice tool or other special-purpose attachment. Those new features complement such standards as a revolving brush, easy-empty dust bag or cup, and long-reach cord.

“There have been a few innovations over the last couple of years,” noted Jim Holcomb, vice president of marketing and strategic planning for Royal Appliance. “But the basic market is sustained by two configurations that generate 85 or maybe 90 percent of the volume in the industry: the pure and simple, straight-suction, cordless hand vac, and the AC hand vac with revolving-brush roll, with or without attachments. …And I don’t see it changing very much.”

The need for dramatic change may be moot, as long as hand vacs perform to consumers’ satisfaction–and stay within current prices and value levels. The most popular price for cordless models today is $24.99 to $29.99, according to most vendors, with corded falling primarily in the $34.99 to $39.99 range at retail.

Hand vacs enjoy a wider distribution than full-size vacuum cleaners, stated White Westinghouse’s Gold. At do-it-yourself retailers, some drugstores and hardware stores, hand vacs are more of a factor than full-size vacuums would be.

Added Eureka’s Hoppe, “Do-it-yourself retailers have gotten into the hand-vac business more aggressively in the last two or three years and have done very well with it. They hadn’t really pursued floor care before, but have gotten particularly involved in seasonal items before Christmas.

“We also see hardware stores doing pretty well with the category,” he continued. “And if you combined hardware with do-it-yourself, those retailers would probably represent the next-largest channel of distribution behind the mass merchants.”


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