Bare floors seen pushing canisters

Manufacturers are citing the trend toward floors au naturel as a sign that the market for canister vacuums may see growth, but many major retailers are hard-pressed to predict anything but flat, if not further declining, sales.

Traditionally sought for bare-floor and above-floor cleaning, canisters have been falling out of favor since upright vacuums with on-board tools blurred the demarcation between the two vacuum types upright vacuum cleaner, industry sources agreed. In 1992, 1.9 million canisters were sold; last year, 1.67 million canisters found homes, according to HFD statistics. In comparison, 9.3 million uprights were sold last year, up from 8.3 million in 1992.

With a few exceptions, large retailers have lost their enthusiasm for canisters. Kmart boasts two canisters versus 10 uprights; a recent trip to Wal-Mart revealed one canister and 14 uprights; Best Buy and Sears offer a one-to-10 ratio.

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“I think that the business will probably flatten out about where it is now but might go down,” remarked Kmart floor care buyer Dennis Dorn. “It depends on manufacturers. As they bring uprights that are more versatile and can do more jobs, then there will be [fewer] consumers that go for canisters. If you’re a canister customer and you bought it because of its ability to clean above the floor, that choice isn’t limited anymore.”

Attached-tool uprights “hurt canisters, but in the long run, it will help them, too. On-board-tool uprights aren’t as convenient as canisters,” a vendor explained. He added that changes in floor covering will continue to dictate consumers’ preferences.

While a few manufacturers said canister sales in the first five months of this year were up to 25 percent higher than in the same period in 1992, vendors doubt sales will climb above 2 million units a year.

Lagging consumer interest has caused companies such as Regina and Sharp to forgo canister lines. “Right now we’re concentrating on the uprights, where 75 percent of the market is,” said Sharp product manager Debra Labruna. She added that the company is, however, leaving the door open for a return to the product line that marked its entry into the U.S. market.

Retailers–some of which planogrammed a nearly equal split of canisters and uprights only a decade ago–have attributed the squeeze to declining sales and demand for “hot” floor-care cate-gories, such as extractors.

But service-oriented retailers are more positive. Although Sears carries fewer canisters than it used to, floor-care buyer Ray Brown and interested manufacturers have noted that the general merchandiser’s canister sales are going well. Sears, with its Kenmore private label, has traditionally been strong in the canister market.

“We’ve seen some surprising strength in the first quarter of 1994,” Brown said, adding that he has continued to emphasize the units. “It caught quite a few people off guard. I don’t think you’re going to see any growth that rivals that of the upright business, but I do not anticipate a continued retraction.

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“When you are buying a $300 to $400 canister, from a consumer perspective, it is a lot different than buying a $69 upright. People want consultations with salespeople, to be shown the latest features and benefits of the machine. They deserve to be shown that.”

Independent vacuum dealers–known for their ability to demonstrate machines–also reported less of a decline than their mass merchant counterparts. One major vac dealer reported that, while his floor reflects the now typical ratio of 10 percent canisters to 90 percent uprights, his sales continued to be 20 to 25 percent canisters.

“When they come in shopping for a cleaner, we ask them what type of cleaner…. If they used a canister, we ask them if they have been pleased. If they haven’t, then we switch them to an upright or we switch them to a combination canister and upright,” the dealer said, explaining that he still believes above-floor cleaning should be done with canisters.

“Uprights don’t have nearly as much suction as canisters,” the dealer said. “We show them the difference. We demonstrate the machines and if they want one with tools on board, we have them. Then, we’ll let them know if it does clog and if they want to trade it in on something better, we’ll take it on trade.”

Often, he noted, customers leave the shop with their uprights and a $130 canister. He has seen little fluctuation in canister sales since the introduction of onboard tools.

Consumers who are buying canisters are primarily on the Northeast Corrider, which runs from Washington D.C. to Boston, as well as down the West Coast, according to industry sources. Among the reasons cited by manufacturers and retailers: Electrolux’s dominance of New England in the ’50s and ’60s, which has sparked return sales; space-crunched apartment dwellers who need canisters that will fit in cubby holes; canisters are more convenient for cleaning stairstudded apartment buildings and private residences; European and Asian immigrants are more likely to purchase canisters, which are preferred in foreign markets.

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Industry sources also pointed to the increase of bare floors. According to statistics compiled by the Carpet & Rug Institute, 1992 sales of broadloom carpets were $7.5 billion, up 9.3 percent from the previous year. (1993 figures are not yet available, although spokeswoman Katheryn Wise said another increase was expected.) Sales of area rugs, which customarily cover hardwood floors, were up 12 percent to $713 million in 1992. Purchases climbed another 16 percent, to $758 million, in 1993, according to HFD figures.

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The National Wood Flooring Association also showed an increase in bare wood flooring. Ten years ago, bare floors held 3 percent of the market against wall-to-wall carpeting, linoleum and ceramic tile; wood floors are now 5.5 to 6 percent of the market, with aspirations toward a 10 to 12 percent share by the year 2000, according to Tim McCool, the organization’s director of technical services.

“Hard-floor cleaning is certainly one of the biggest issues,” Brown said of canister sales. “Bare floors as a whole continue to increase, so who knows, there may be a day when canisters are, quite frankly, a nationwide seller.”

With the advent of on-board tools, other retailers see it differently. “There are more hardwood floors and tile, but uprights can do that part of job,” countered Dorn.

Spurred by success stories–as well as die-hard canister purchasers–a number of manufacturers continue to cater to what one described as the “very, very viable” canister market. While completely overshadowed by uprights, 9.3 million of which were sold last year, canister purchases are roughly on keel with the 1.8 million stick vacuums purchased in 1993. Additionally, 1.8 million extractors were sold last year.

Eureka vice president of marketing John Hoppe called compact canisters “a huge part of the market” and said the units are used in such non-traditional venues as mobile homes. Eureka replaced its Mighty Mite I with Mighty Mite II last year. The new canister is smaller and more compact than its predecessor, the bag is easier to change and the tools store on-board.

Sanyo Fisher introduced five new canisters at this year’s housewares show. While the company is expecting to enter the upright market later this year, it still has faith in the category.

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