Canister vacuum market a work in progress

In times of accelerating change, consider these numbers: Sales of canister vacuum cleaners in the late 1980s were about $300 million — 60 percent in power nozzles and 40 percent in straight suction. Sales in 2002 were $328 million — 60 percent in power nozzles and 40 percent in straight suction.

“The market is very, very stable,” said Dave Baker, Hoover’s vice president of marketing. “There are no major trends.”

That in itself is a story. There are several developments in this category, none of which has created any excitement. Most of the world cleans with cans, but about 85 percent of Americans continue to prefer their machines straight.

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The choice became overwhelming decades ago, but little has been done to alter it. As a result, to say “the canister market is underdeveloped is an understatement,” observed Baker. “It’s not a consumer issue; it’s an industry issue.”

With the singular and notable exception of Sears, leading chains have followed rather than led. “Most retailers are carrying a limited selection in this category, reflecting the percentage of total dollar sales,” said Mike Best, Bissell’s vice president of sales and consumer service.

Some leading vendors felt opportunities exist to improve that, if only there’s a will. Baker cited the old Fantom, his own WindTunnel and now Euro-Pro as examples of canisters that did make an impact. This is a category that responds to infomercials.

If there is a current trend, it’s the market’s split almost in two, added Baker. Once, products at $59, $99, $149, $199 and up were readily available; now, portables go for less than $100 and “there’s not much until $300.”

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J.P. Collins, Sharp’s associate director of sales, predicted straight canisters “will continue at ranges from $39 to $99, depending on the features. There will be consumers who still prefer power nozzles over uprights and will be willing to buy at retails from $199 to $499 and even higher.”

Rather than price, changes tend to relate to demographics. As Best pointed out, canisters continue to sell better in the Northeast and Southwest, “where bare floors are more prevalent.” But Bissell, like competitors, did not emphasize hard-surface cleaning in its latest machine, the DigiPro.

There was talk of a shoulder strap as a convenience, especially as ProTeam expands from commercial into consumer markets. Sharp also plans a unit for autumn at $99.

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Collins said the design was well received in focus groups and by retailers. But Baker said Hoover’s research found men embracing the idea as women “look at you like you’re from Mars.”

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There also were suggestions consumers would like space-saving canisters. Collins, for one, said shoulder vacs and smaller models designed for wood floors “will be the future trends.” Baker said targeting canisters for hard surfaces “would be a great opportunity.”

Meanwhile, leading suppliers concentrated their attention on upscale machines. Hoover is introducing its first bagless canisters, two WindTunnel Electronic models, with a multitude of features. Bissell’s DigiPro uses “thinking” sensor technology to detect hard and soft surfaces, and measure air flow to adjust suction.

Eureka’s featured Home Cleaning System has variable speed control and a mini-turbo nozzle. Royal continues to offer Vision and Breeze Vision canisters.

There are numerous other contenders in the market. Sanyo offers mini-cans and upscale machines. Aerus is making the transition from its historic Electrolux badge. Even Metropolitan has a metallic line.

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