Vacuum makers review top merchant strategies

What are the strategies of the nation’s five leading floor care merchants? HFD asked the major vacuum cleaner manufacturers to analyze the winning formulas at Sears, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Service Merchandise and Montgomery Ward.

Sears

“Sears almost owns this category,” manufacturers said unanimously. Thanks to a highly trained sales force (which works on commission), and the Kenmore brand name, Sears brings in nearly 20 percent of the floor care dollars in the United States. In Canada, vendors claim that percentage is even higher–perhaps 25 percent.

Sears prides itself on its sales force, which is “out there on the floor every day, starting demonstrations or helping customers,” said one vendor. “When you’ve got employees making 6 to 13 percent commission on a sale, there’s no way you can compare that to other stores, where a clerk is making minimum wage.”

Sears demonstrations create attention in the department, and draw in customers. Demonstrations also help sell the more expensive vacuums, as customers are more likely to trade up “when they see that product in action,” noted one vendor.

The Kenmore name is another element in Sear’s winning formula. Manufacturers stressed that the brand, made primarily by Whirlpool, connotes quality, and customers instantly trust it. One manufacturer, however, said that Kenmore is a “mixed blessing” for the retailer. “A lot of people will shop Kenmore,” he said, “but I think certain customers would like to see Sears carry a wider variety of brands.”

The retailer has been trying to expand its assortment in recent years, bringing in different brands–including Hoover and Singer–under the Brand Central format. Sources said Sears had been losing market share to independent specialty stores–which traditionally offer a wide selection of products.
A catalog also allows shoppers to first review the details of a vacuum in the privacy of their own home, without dealing with a pushy salesperson, or a crowded parking lot. After making a decision, customers can then go into a Service Merchandise to touch the best rated upright vacuum cleaners and handle its features. “It’s not very often that a salesperson is there to help them,” said one manufacturer, “and some customers like that.”

Service separates itself from other catalogs in floor care by offering an incredible selection. “My experience is that Service does a good job in presenting choices,” said one vendor. Sources at Service said the retailer carries over 65 SKUs in its vacuum cleaner department, including Black & Decker, Bissell, Electrolux, Eureka, Regina, Royal, Singer, and Hoover. “You’re not going to find that breadth of assortment at a Kmart or a Wal-Mart,” the source said.

Montgomery Ward

Montgomery Ward ranked number five amoung manufacturers, but many vendors said the retailer could be a growing force in floor care. Montgomery Ward does a lot of advertising, it positions its vacuum at popular price points, and most importantly, Montgomery Ward is patterning itself after Sears.

“They’re very similar to Sears,” said one vendor. “They commission their salespeople, so Ward’s employees have an interest in the product.” Though Ward’s doesn’t have a “Sell! Sell!” atmosphere, its employees are trained to specifically promote vacuum cleaners on a 3 to 4 percent commission.

Like Sears, Montgomery Ward has its own line of vacs, as well as brand names to round out the assortment. Wards recently implemented electric Avenue, the equivalent of Sears’ brand Central. “I don’t know if Electric Avenue is going to be on a large scale, but I do know they have become a major account for us–and they haven’t always been,” a vendor noted. Through Electric Avenue, Montgomery Ward sells vacuums from Eureka, Hoover, Electrolux, Regina, and Genie, including others.

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