The world is indeed shrinking. And for many U.S. manufacturers of brooms, brushes and mops, that prospect isn’t at all appealing. Products — especially mops — imported from exotic locales such as Indonesia, China and Sri Lanka are making competitive conditions increasingly difficult for U.S. manufacturers. And while non-U.S.-made products have had a presence in North America for years, manufacturers told Sanitary Maintenance that the inroads these products are making are having a greater impact on the overall market than ever before.

The more intense competition, however, has produced some unintended benefits: the manufacturers SM spoke with are now working twice as hard to up the ante when it comes to product quality, as well as the education required to convey the importance of product quality to distributors and end users.

Quality Rules
Why are imported products so popular? Simple: they’re cheap. But because of the inexpensive materials and labor used to construct them, quality is often poor. On the quality issue specifically, U.S. manufacturers are able to draw the line between their products and the rest.

The only accepted quality-related standard out there is “Made in the USA,” according to Pete Demetriades, president of Henderson, N.C.-based ETC of Henderson, a manufacturer of pads, brushes and mops. People expect to get a high-quality product when those words are printed on it, he says.

And, the problem with imported products has less to do with the their quality/price relationship, and more to do with the misleading portrayals of where imported products are actually produced. Manufacturers contend there are plenty of customers still willing to shell out extra money for productivity-enhancing, U.S.-made tools and products, he says.

But with little in the way of recognized industry standards in place for quality or labeling, the brooms, brushes and mops markets have become a virtual free-for-all. The manufacturers SM spoke with bemoan misleading labeling as one of the most common sore spots in their industry. For instance, a manufacturer may buy its mop heads from a Chinese supplier, then label its assembled mops “Made in the USA.” The end customer is unknowingly getting what many manufacturers say is a lesser quality product, and that manufacturer takes business away from manufacturers who take pride in straightforward labeling and marketing.

“Overseas manufacturers are becoming a factor. They’re becoming a factor because some U.S. manufacturers are shipping product made overseas and misrepresenting the products — leaving them unlabeled or saying it’s manufactured in the United States,” Demetriades says.

John Lindstrom, president of Zephyr Mfg., Sedalia, Mo., believes standardization afforded by the relatively new ASTM standards related to mops will help manufacturers differentiate themselves in the marketplace — at least in terms of quality. These standards for wet mops, which are less than two years old, address the type of yarn used to construct mops as well as their weight.

“I think it will have a big impact on the industry. We’re in the process of properly labeling the products that meet the standards,” says Lindstrom.

Rick Shapiro, president of Culicover & Shapiro Inc., Bay Shore, N.Y., says the breadth of products offered by U.S. manufacturers also helps companies compete against imported goods. The imported products may be inexpensive, but they’re often less specialized than what companies such as Shapiro’s can offer.

“U.S. manufacturers can offer a lot wider variety. People order whatever they want from U.S. manufacturers,” says Shapiro.

Dick Johnson credits his company’s product diversity for its success, as well. Johnson, southern division manager for ACS Industries, Woonsocket, R.I., says distributors have been able to consolidate their buying because of ACS’s product diversity, allowing the company to appeal to a variety of customer needs in the competitive marketplace.

Lowering the Bar
Still, imported goods are affecting every broom, brush and mop manufacturer. Johnson blames imported, mislabeled products for the recent decline in quality in the U.S.-made products he’s observed.

“A lot of [the manufacturers] cut quality to try to compete with some of the overseas people,” he says. “They’re importing more than manufacturing,” Johnson says.

Demetriades agrees. He says acceptance of lower-quality products is lowering the bar with respect to end-user expectations about product effectiveness.

“I have no problem with where it’s made; I do have a problem with a product being imported and implying that it’s made in the USA,” says Demetriades.

Lindstrom believes the quality slip isn’t necessarily attributable to the predominance of overseas products, but instead to the downturn in the economy. However, he doesn’t feel the trend is irreversible.

“I do believe there have been some positive steps to correct it.”

Either way, the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality is not part of a successful business plan, according to the manufacturers SM interviewed. In fact, manufacturers cite the large divergence in quality as what makes their products stand out and remain competitive. Though manufacturers admit there will always be a portion of the market that buys based only on price, other market sectors are willing to entertain the possibility that spending more now will save them money down the road.

Manufacturers especially tout the labor-saving attributes of their more-expensive, but higher-quality mops. If an end user is using a mop that puts lint down instead of wax, that requires more labor to use, and that ruins a floor’s finish, it wastes time and eats up costly labor.

“Ultimately, it costs you a lot of labor and money to use an inexpensive, inferior product,” says Demetriades.

“We try to communicate the differences in the quality of our products vs. what is brought in from overseas,” adds Todd Leventhal, president of O-Cedar Commercial, Springfield, Ohio. “Many customers understand and appreciate that and are willing to pay for that.”

Additional Influences
The push by U.S. manufacturers to differentiate their products from foreign goods is not the only market trend apparent in the broom, brush and mop industry today. Manufacturers are also contending with a number of trends, attempting to make sense of how they will affect their businesses.

The manufacturers SM spoke with have noted a change in the way their products reach the hands of end users. Lindstrom says re-distributors or wholesalers are becoming a more viable option as distributors attempt to consolidate their source for supplies.

“A number of prominent re-distributors are able to serve that function,” he says.

Demetriades agrees that the volume per purchase, per customer, is going up. The small distributors are buying products from master distributors and the larger distributors and wholesalers who are buying mops tend to be buying more, he explains.

Even the smaller distributors are more often turning toward wholesalers to fill their broom, brush and mop orders.

“Smaller distributors in years past would buy directly from the manufacturer, but now they’re satisfied with turning the order around quickly and buying from re-distributors,” adds Leventhal.

Leventhal also predicts that consolidation at the manufacturer level will be more common on the commercial side in the next five to 10 years. It’s already happening at an increasing rate on the retail end, he says.

“I think that there’s consolidation in the broom, brush and mop business, so there are fewer manufacturers,” he adds, “and it remains a very competitive market so there will probably be some changes in the future.”

Looking To the Future
Broom, brush and mop manufacturers are under great pressure. Inflationary increases have hit manufacturing hard in recent months; the cost of raw materials — gas and cotton, for example — has seen a recent price hike, and the effects of the recession are residual.

“You will see every manufacturer — this year some time — bringing out some price increases to the market,” predicts Leventhal.

Margins are also under constant pressure due to the influx of cheap, foreign goods. Health-care and worker’s compensation costs are skyrocketing, and there is the always-constant challenge to hire and retain good employees.

Still, the manufacturers SM spoke with are optimistic about the future of the product category.

“The distributors are the critical part of getting products to the end users and if the distributors inventory product, put together systems, train the salespeople to go out and sell systems based on total cost for the job and not the cheapest price per unit, then we will continue to have a very strong industry,” says Demetriades.

Even so, foreign products will continue to be a competitive factor in the industry, and more — especially large manufacturers — will continue to gravitate toward what are for some, irresistibly low prices.

Broom Corn’s U.S. Origins

Broom corn is a plant that grows a much longer tassel at its top than other varieties of corn. The corn that it grows is not considered fit for humans to eat, although it can be fed to farm animals. Broom corn was first grown in Hadley, Mass., in the 1790s by Levi Dickinson, although another farmer may have been growing it there as early as 1773. Dickinson began making and selling brooms made from the corn throughout the county, but for several decades the industry was small. In the mid-1820s, it took off, and by the 1860s broom production was a substantial part of rural agriculture in Hampshire and Franklin counties. These brooms were widely distributed: most of Deerfield's products in the 1830s, for example, were sold in New York City. But after the Civil War, superior quality broom corn from the Midwest cut into the Massachusetts market, and by the 1880s the industry was in steep decline and had basically disappeared by 1900. Broom corn was one of the many agricultural commodities of the 1800s that was widely sold and replaced locally made items. Prior to the broom corn industry, brooms were made from local materials, such as split birch twigs.

Microfiber Sweeps In, Cleans Up

It seems like every jan/san manufacturer has a line of microfiber products these days, and most do. After years of European popularity, the United States has finally been turned on to microfiber’s impressive dust and dirt-conquering capabilities.

“They have superior cleaning ability and the weight is less than half that of a traditional mop,” says Aileen Cleary, assistant marketing manager for Unger, a global company with U.S. headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn.

(Unger also incorporates a telescopic pole with its flat mops to make cleaning less physically challenging for workers.)

Springfield, Ohio-based O-Cedar Commercial’s latest microfiber offering is a microfiber mop with a container on the handle made to release diluted chemical in a controlled fashion. It eliminates the need to cart around a mop and buckets, and the pads are washable.

“The materials cost more but save time and labor,” says O-Cedar’s president, Todd Leventhal.
While many manufacturers speak of microfiber products, others worry about companies misrepresenting products as microfiber.

“There will be people out there that represent products as microfiber and they aren’t, so that’s a challenge,” says John Lindstrom, president of Zephyr Mfg., Springfield, Ohio. His company has responded to North American acceptance of microfiber products with a full line of microfiber wet cloth and damp mopping tools.

Zephyr is looking at the health-care segment as a strong candidate for its microfiber mopping products, but admits there is a challenge in winning over customers — even though the products work phenomenally.

“It involves a complete retooling of the way a hospital would clean their hard floors.”