Wet-dry vacuums may not generate the same excitement as the newly reborn

Wet-dry vacuums may not generate the same excitement as the newly reborn category of extractors, but they represent a solid day-in, day-out segment of floor care that is not likely to go away any time soon.

While numbers with which to quantify the business are hard to come by, one estimate places wet-dry unit volume at retail in the 2.9 to 3.1 million range for 1997. That level represents at most a slight uptick over the year before.

Dollar volume is even more difficult to determine, with the bulk of the business being done at either the low end or the high end, and very little in between. Assuming an overall average price point of about $45 to $50, that would put retail sales at around $130 million to $155 million for last year, according to industry executives.

“I would say the wet-dry vac category is relatively stable and healthy,” states David Baker, vice president of marketing for Hoover. “Whatever the market size is, we predict 1998 will see another increase in dollar volume, albeit small, and maybe a 2.5 percent increase in units.

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“But more significant is the fact that the average price point has grown 3.7 percent since last year,” he adds. “So the business is still showing some growth — and it’s certainly not a market that anyone should ignore.”

A number of factors continue to set the wet-dry category apart from other floor care segments, manufacturers agree. One of those factors is the disproportionate strength of two key players.

“The wet-dry business is really dominated by two companies: Shop Vac and Sears,” says John Hoppe, vice president of marketing for Eureka. “Shop Vac dominates in the low price points, and Sears dominates at the other end of the price spectrum. Then you have the Eurekas and Hoovers in the middle.” Another unique aspect to wet-dry is its predominantly male customer base, as opposed to other floor care product segments, which are bought primarily by females. And because of that, the retail positioning of the category is dramatically different — whether manufacturers believe it should be or not.

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“We’ve actually been noticing a larger percentage of female purchasers of wet-dry vacs than has traditionally been the case or than one might expect,” says Baker. “We have numbers showing that over 50 percent of purchasers are female. And while some of them may be making the purchase for a male, it certainly raises the question whether to cross- merchandise wet-dry vacs at retail from hardware to floor care.” A more traditional floor care positioning of wet-dry vacs is not something anyone predicts will develop on a full-scale level. The huge success of Sears with its Craftsman brand wet-dry products, merchandised solidly in the midst of its power tools, might deter other retailers from exploring a dramatically different tack.

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Even more significant, if the business is going to break out of its current mode of flat to slight increases, the boost will more likely come from product innovation — of which even manufacturers agree there are few and far between right now.

“There has really been very little true innovation in the wet-dry business over the years,” Hoppe states. “[The wet/dry segment] could really stand a shot in the arm. Accessories have helped — things like extra hoses, bigger wands, add-ons that retailers can make some money on. And manufacturers, including us, have tried things like adding leaf blowers, which you’d think would offer a good added value, but which hasn’t exploded the business either.

“The best analogy would be the addition of on-board tools on uprights, which initiated a replacement cycle with consumers,” he adds. “It would take something like that in wet-dry — but so far, nothing the industry has tried has really rung consumers’ bell. Also, with products flying out at $29 and $39 for so long, it would take something really outstanding to get people excited about spending $69 or $79 for a wet- dry vac.” Baker agrees that wet-dry vacs are currently at a status quo, with no strong new reasons for consumers to buy. Yet he does see the potential for trading consumers up, citing the 3.7 percent rise in average price point over last year.

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“It’s a question of positioning,” Baker says. “We’ve proven the upscaling strategy works in uprights and extractors, and I don’t know why the same couldn’t be true of wet-dry vacs. It’s a matter of presenting it that way.

“For example, while we haven’t added any new wet-dry models to our line this year, we have improved our graphical presentation on our packaging, as well as our motor rating, to give consumers a point of comparison,” he explains. “If retailers adapted their focus and presented that comparative story, it would not be difficult to turn a $39 sale into a $59 one, or a $59 sale into a $79 one. And with that presentation, the industry could see considerable growth — if not in units, at least in the retail value of the category.”

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