When it comes to vacuums, end users want two things: they want something that works exceptionally well, and they want it to cost next to nothing.

Vacuum manufacturers know that this is one tall order, yet they’ve made great strides in creating products that fit just such criteria. Many of the manufacturers SM interviewed for this article have rolled out new models that achieve the tenuous balance between cost and performance.

All of the manufacturers are attempting to respond to end-user demands by developing vacuums that boost productivity, make less noise, and provide greater overall filtration in response to indoor air quality (IAQ) concerns.

Aiming High
Cost will always be a prime consideration for end users. The challenge, then, is to break down the “value” side of their purchasing decision.

A few manufacturers have directed recent efforts toward filling the “middle of the road” product niche that so many customers are looking for today. Tennant Co., Minneapolis, is one. While in the past the company focused on producing extremely durable vacuums that were heavy and built for longevity, it recently developed and is marketing a line of upright vacuums that fit into the moderate price category, says Jeff Fystrom, senior product manager with the company.

“The trick is to find the middle ground — where [a vacuum] holds up well, is easy to use and performs well, but can be made and sold at a competitive price,” says Fystrom.

End users have a lengthy check-off list when it comes to choosing vacuums that meet their facility’s unique requirements.

“The first thing you want to know is what kind of surface the end user is cleaning,” says Tony Van, national sales director of the commercial division for Electrolux, a manufacturer headquartered in Bloomington, Ill. “If it’s carpets, you want an upright; if there’s a combination of carpets and hard surfaces, maybe an upright and canister, or a vacuum with tools on board. For hard surfaces, backpacks are also a good choice.”

Uprights, he says, are often well suited for carpeted areas, because they have an agitator or a beater bar that can loosen deeply embedded dirt. If the vacuum will be used in a health-care setting, a HEPA unit or one with micron filtration may be in order.

“You have to understand what type of floors the end user is cleaning, and if they have specific filtration needs,” Van adds.

The list doesn’t end there. Manufacturers say the following should be analyzed in order to help customers find the best vacuum for their needs:

  • Type of facility and surfaces to be cleaned
  • If carpeted, what type
  • Square footage
  • Time of cleaning (day vs. night)
  • Number of employees (productivity)
  • Cost of the vacuum
  • Filtration (IAQ concerns)
  • Cost of upkeep for the machine

Answering these questions helps customers determine the true “cost of ownership” of a machine, says Dave Ditty, sales trainer for Nilfisk-Advance, headquartered in Plymouth, Mich. He says cost of ownership is his company’s main sales thrust nowadays. He wants end users to understand what it will actually cost to operate a vacuum over its lifetime, taking into account replacement parts and wear and tear.

[Customers] look at the purchase price and don’t think about replacement costs,” Ditty says. “They have to go further than just the paper bags — they have to look at the wear items.” Secondary filters, brush strips and brush rolls, cords, vacuum motors — all these replacement costs add up, he explains.

Fystrom agrees there are many variables in a decision. “Some people will really look into performance,” says Fystrom. “You want to pick up the dirt — that’s a given, so you can start there. But a lot of facilities are really looking for the best vacuum with regard to filtration, productivity, ease of use — those are some of the big ones.”

On the other hand, price can be the key driver when it comes to a vacuum-buying decision, he adds.

“Many purchasers simply have what I call the ‘disposable’ attitude. They’re going to buy a vacuum, perhaps not the best quality, but they’re willing to spend a little less on the front end.” They may replace a couple belts or other parts along the way, he says, but they end up throwing it away in six months to a year.

“Other people look at a life-cycle analysis. They’ll spend a little more on the front end to purchase a better quality machine that will last longer and perform better. Ultimately, this lowers the life-cycle cost,” says Fystrom. Getting them to understand the true cost of a vacuum is essential.

Patrick Marsh, president of Eagle Power Products, Mendota Heights, Minn., reminds distributors to help customers make decisions based on productivity. For instance, he says, if a facility has three people vacuuming, and a distributor introduces a method that allows them to reduce that to two, they’re saving the cost of one person. End users will quickly see a return on their investment.

Be There For Them
Vacuums make up a large portion of a distributor’s sales — and they’re arguably one of the most important cleaning tools end users have. So it only makes sense that distributors make sure their customers get the right machine. A happy customer becomes a repeat customer.

“Customers today don’t have time to do research,” says Marsh. “They’re going to count on the distributor to bring them all the different avenues of cleaning. It’s the DSR’s responsibility to consult on all the different methods, not just take orders.”

Gareth Mason, president of NaceCare, Toronto, says distributors sometimes miss the boat when it comes to providing customers all the information they need to make an informed buying decision.

“They look at it and say ‘it’s a vacuum,’ but there’s a lot more information out there. You can lead a conversation [with end users] if you understand filtration and IAQ,” Mason says.

“Most distributors have good equipment, but they’re not always in the position to go explain to the customer what the advantages are to buying it,” he adds.

Billy Mitchell, director of marketing for Pro-Team, Boise, Idaho, says that if distributors can talk about all the features and performance of their vacuums, they become “value added” in the customer’s mind.

“It’s like buying anything else; if the salesman knows what they’re talking about, the customer feels better about the purchase. If they can do some legwork for the end user, they’ll come out better in the end,” Mitchell adds.

Distributors’ jobs don’t end with the sale. Once the customer has the equipment, distributors should help them develop a comprehensive preventive maintenance plan, suggests Doug Scouten, head of sales and product development for Cleanfix Cleaning Systems, Wycoff, N.J.

“One of the things I’d like to see with any cleaning equipment is a preventative maintenance program,” Scouten says. “Distributors should be educating them to check the equipment and make sure everything is in working order.”

New Orders of Business
The quest for improved productivity has made battery-powered vacuums and backpack vacuums increasingly popular choices for customers.

One popular model for Marsh’s company has been its 24-inch battery-operated machine, which is getting 2-1/2 hour run times. “It’s small enough where it can get under tables, but big enough to do wide areas,” Marsh says.

Although uprights still account for the lion’s share of vacuum purchases, backpacks are making substantial inroads, says Kevin Morey, vice president, product development, for NSS Enterprises, Toledo, Ohio. In team-cleaning situations, especially, backpack vacuums help cleaning organizations achieve productivity gains.

“The biggest shift has been toward team cleaning and vacuum specialists,” Morey says. “The use of the backpack has been a revolution in vacuuming.”

NSS just released its battery backpack vacuum, which uses two battery packs that allow it to complete a four-hour shift. In field tests with the product, one person has been able to cover up to 30,000 square feet in one hour.

“The big trend that we’re on the cusp of is the cordless vacuum,” says Morey. “Battery technology has advanced to the point that you have more power available to you at a weight that’s acceptable.”

The backpacks were especially effective in vacuuming places like stairwells and places without an outlet. Productivity gains were substantial.

That’s why it’s important for distributors to understand how productivity is influenced by the vacuum they supply.

“When you factor in the cost of the batteries, it’s a relatively expensive unit. Unless you can help them realize the productivity gains, you’re not really saving them any money or [improving] productivity,” he says.

Cords have also been a focus for Hoover. The company recently came out with its answer to unnecessary end-user downtime. Detachable “pigtail” cords on its vacuums prevent breakdowns caused by running over cords and pulling them out of sockets.

“We’re putting the pigtails on so that if it gets damaged, they just plug a new one in,” says Bradley Nyholm, director of commercial sales for Hoover, a business unit of Maytag, North Canton, Ohio. The company plans to add this feature to some of its other products, as well.

Hoover also has over 70 service centers, and Nyholm says end users appreciate the quick turnaround when repairs are needed.

If The Filter Fits…
As the demand for “green” products increases, vacuum cleaners’ air-filtering qualities have become another big industry trend. Manufacturers say the move toward environmentally preferable or green cleaning will drive purchases of highly filtered vacuums, such as those with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtration.

Mason has been attuned to IAQ concerns for much of his company’s history, but, he says, interest in higher levels of filtration has been growing at a more rapid pace recently.

Schools, nursing homes and other health care facilities, day cares — all are leaders in a big trend toward meeting more stringent IAQ goals, he says.

Pro-Team has been a leader in the IAQ arena for years. Recently, the company developed a green-cleaning program that extends to every link in the supply chain. After conducting extensive research, the company released a complete overview on how end users can implement a successful green-cleaning program.

“We’ve developed our program on how our products can help people who want green,” says Mitchell. It helps that the products’ filtration standards exceed every green-related industry standard available today, he adds.

Minuteman Intl. has observed the trend, as well. In 2004, Minuteman introduced HEPA filters for its MPV line of vacuums. A good, quality commercial upright vacuum has three filters — primary, secondary or tertiary, and a third for fine particulates, says William Koeppel, director of corporate education for the Addison, Ill.-based company. That’s where HEPA can come in.

“A traditional HEPA filter is put onto the vacuum as part of the last filter process. Ours is built into the filter itself that you throw away. A new one is put in every time you replace the bag.”

Koeppel says this simplifies the process for operators, and they know they’re getting HEPA filtration at all times. It also requires less service, saving customers time.

High levels of filtration also lead back to productivity gains.

“The dust has to go somewhere,” Mason says. “If you use a good vacuum, you don’t dust as much.” Once people really understand recovery and retention, it becomes more apparent how filtration affects productivity, he adds.

Manufacturers continue to beef up IAQ-boosting product lines. Electrolux has designed a sealed system for maximum filtration.

“We have provided high-filtration commercial products for many years and are looking at expanding our product line when it comes to HEPA and micro filtration,” says Van.

When it comes to IAQ, opinions differ on how much filtration is enough.

While Scouten admits there are many more customers today curious about HEPA, he cautions that some customers might not really need the capabilities of a HEPA filter. With HEPA comes added cost, he says, and many customers will achieve their cleaning goals with regular filters, which provide good filtration already. Hospitals, clean rooms, hazardous materials cleanup — these call for HEPA vacs. But Scouten says other facilities can get by with regular filter. Customers must weigh actual need vs. cost.

Lighter, Softer, Better
With day cleaning becoming more common, there has been increased demand for vacuums that produce less noise. Day cleaning makes it easier for employers to hire and retain employees, it alleviates security risks, and the conversion saves businesses money in the long run.

As building managers become more cognizant of energy costs — namely, the cost of leaving lights on for cleaners at night — they often opt for day cleaning. Mason says his company has products suited to day cleaning. “We’ve had a machine that was the quietest in the world since 1991. You could run it in the middle of a meeting, and it wouldn’t interfere.”

Nilfisk-Advance has responded to demand for quieter models, as well. Last year, the company came out with a canister vacuum that is 56 decibels at the user’s ear — a perfect answer to the increase in day cleaning, Ditty says.

Not only are quieter vacuums more conducive to day cleaning, but workers appreciate less noise, too. Many other vacuum innovations have stemmed from manufacturers’ desire to make cleaners’ jobs easier. That includes design modifications with the worker in mind. Many manufacturers are introducing models with lighter handle weight — or lighter weight in general, so users can maneuver them more easily.

“You want everything in a more natural position,” says Marsh, “so you don’t want your thumb pointing straight out and your wrist at a bad angle.” More natural positioning, and designs that put less weight in the handle, help alleviate stress on joints and muscles.

User friendliness will continue to be a hallmark of vacuum design, manufacturers say. After all, it’s another solid way to provide value.