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Twenty million vacs -- excuse me, floor-care products -- were bought last year. Even more important, 20 million vacs were sold last year.

The distinction is an important one, in fact, critical, as the housewares industry gathers this week in Chicago for its annual ritual of the us-versus-them, buy-'em-if-you've-got-'em, new-products-on-parade charade. Because while customers did, in fact, buy all of those vacuums, it was really the vac industry that sold them all. And that's the big difference.

It's safe to say the world didn't need another 20 million vacuums last year. The number of new households formed, homes built and aged vacs put out to pasture combined probably doesn't come to anywhere near 20 million.

The vac boys moved 20 million units last year because they know how to sell.

And sure, they will beat themselves up and say they didn't do a good enough job. In fact, the industry beat itself silly this past year with an unusual number of executive changes and mea culpas on everything that didn't go quite according to plan.

But you tell me: Is there any other non-high-tech product (like DVD players or digital cameras) that has doubled its unit sales in the past 15 years? I sure can't think of one.

But that's exactly what the vac guys have done. In 1987, the industry sold about 10 million units, give or take a DustBuster or two. The final numbers for 2003 show unit sales of 20,415,286. Most people in the home business can't even count that high, much less imagine selling that many units.

Think about it this way: There are about 100 million households in United States, again give or take a few midtown hideaways kept by soon-to-be-indicted corporate executives. That means one-fifth of all the households in the country purchased a new floor care product last year. Can you name any product that has that kind of household penetration? Again, I can't.

How do the vac guys do it? First, they innovate. They constantly come up with new features, needed or not, designed to improve the product (or at least give the impression it's improved).

Then they design. We're not talking Ferrari, but vac shapes, colors and silhouettes are consistently among the freshest things on the home furnishings selling floor. This from a product designed to suck up dirt.

And then they market. There are probably more advertising dollars spent on vacuums than just about any other single home furnishings category out there, with the possible exception of mattresses. Most small appliances only show up in ads around the holidays. Cookware ads are rarely seen outside of food magazines. Categories like textiles and lighting are rarely seen anywhere.

But vac ads are on TV and in magazines on a year-round basis, and the campaigns used to sell the products are creative, memorable and, often times, pretty damn funny. When was the last time you saw a funny appliance ad (Jesse White and Gordon Jump rest in peace)?

And yes, vac unit prices are declining and the industry is facing its own sourcing crisis as production starts to move offshore in a bigger and bigger way. But everybody in the home business is dealing with those issues and the vac business would be much worse off if they weren't doing all the good things they are.

So to the rest of the housewares industry -- hell, to the whole home business -- it's about time you sucked up some of the stuff the vac industry is doing. They've created a mighty fine clean business machine.

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Title Annotation:floor products
Author:Shoulberg, Warren
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004

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