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Business her way Featured

10:06am EDT July 22, 2002

If you want to increase sales, conventional wisdom says launch a high-voltage marketing campaign with radio ads blaring about 20 percent discounts and coupons offering buy-one, get-one-free specials.

From her first day in business as owner of Ace Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning nine years ago, Sharon Schweitzer vowed she would never offer even so much as a penny off her base price. Discounts, she believes, can crucify a business almost as fast as sluggish receivables or underperforming employees.

It's a contrarian view, to be sure, one of many for the third-generation owner. Her workload has stayed between 700 and 800 jobs per year after her first year, and she's raised prices only three times. Her growth has come from bigger jobs from the same customers. If they're happy with their living-room cleaning, they'll get the whole downstairs next time.

Sales during the last five years have grown a modest 18 percent, providing her with predictable cash flow and unwavering profit margin.

Fulfilling a goal

Sharon Schweitzer worked for five years as an industrial engineer for The Timken Co., focusing on plant efficiency and setting production and piecework rates. Employee incentives were based on her findings-making her unpopular with some but also shaping her into a good judge of the value of time.

Her father, Albert D. Schweitzer, ran Canton-based Ace Carpet, which he had taken over from his stepfather, Leroy Hossler. The company was founded in 1948 and passed to Albert Schweitzer in 1957.

Sharon Schweitzer, who earned her M.B.A. from the University of Akron while working at Timken, says she knew she would one day become the third owner of the small, residential carpet-cleaner. "My long-term goal my whole life was to take over the business," she says.

Schweitzer's layoff from Timken in 1985 pushed up the planned succession, and Schweitzer bought the name, equipment, customer base and goodwill.

Since then, she's been content to keep the company fairly small, with only herself and three employees, two of which are part time.

Taking away excuses

Carpet cleaning is one of those services people get because they need to. If people think they can get a better price next week or next month, that's all the excuse they need to put it off.

Schweitzer aims to take the excuse out of the equation.

"You'll never find a coupon or hear of a discount advertised," she says. "My customers all know that."

Her rationale is twofold: First, she doesn't want people to think they can haggle her down or benefit from waiting. Second, she wants all customers to be charged the same price for the same service. "I don't want to tick anybody off. Everybody gets a fair price."

The one-price strategy succeeds in making her life easier. Further, it helps establish an expectation of quality. She doesn't have to worry about someone thinking she's hurrying through jobs to keep her profit margin up. Discounts are funny that way, she muses. They might increase the quantity of jobs, but you earn less or hurry to save the additional required time.

Even though her flat 25-cent per square-foot rate sounds simple, she still has trouble communicating it to some who rationalize they deserve a discount for multiple rooms or if two neighbors get their carpets cleaned on the same trip. Sure, Schweitzer's travel time and transportation costs are lower on these jobs, but that's figured in her pricing to make up for clients located 45 minutes away with only one room. If she's inclined to reward volume, she makes it up with a complimentary spot-remover kit.

No apologies

Schweitzer often gets requests to submit bids on jobs. If price is the definitive issue, she says she'll almost always lose. Her price seems reasonable and is competitive among the six other certified carpet cleaners in Stark County.

The competition is thicker than that, however; 58 non-certified cleaners are listed in the Yellow Pages and often have lower prices.

"Someone will say, 'I had an estimate for $400, and you'll charge $700. Will you match their price?' I'll say, 'No way. Here's my estimate. Call me if you want me.'

"You get what you pay for," she says. "I'm not price-competitive."

Schweitzer tries to convince people that carpet cleaning is no different from other industries: There are different levels of quality and service.

She points out that some companies might charge extra to move a sofa or treat a spot-basics that she thinks customers should expect to be included.

The three-year freeze

While she's proud of what she considers higher-end prices, she's reluctant to raise them. Her last price increase, which was three years ago was 3 cents per square foot, meaning a price increase of $15 on the average 500-square-foot job. Her price on stairs rose from $1.50 to $2 per step.

"I don't think I lose any customers over the increase," she says.

"I stay really busy at the price I'm at," she adds. "I could work 12 hours a day, but I won't."

Schweitzer, who books jobs generally a week in advance, has a client base that's 90 percent residential. She shuns business customers because they expect discounts for high volume, and they often require cleaning at night.

She accommodates same-day emergencies, perhaps involving a disobedient pet, as best she can with no extra cost. Pets, in any event, help drive her business because of the hair they shed. About 70 percent of her customers own pets, and Schweitzer makes a point to become friends with the animals as well. "I carry dog bones in my truck. The dog is my bread-and-butter."

Raising awareness, and then sales

Schweitzer believes that many consumers get misled or receive poor service and that affects all carpet cleaners.

Schweitzer has produced a Consumer's Guide to Carpet Cleaning, which she distributes free on request. The booklet outlines 18 carpet-cleaning rip-offs, common mistakes and misperceptions, as well as maintenance tips. She also offers a free five-minute consumer awareness message-accessible through a separate phone number-to help people know what questions to ask of a carpet-cleaning company. She also tries to reinforce the importance of value and price.

"Whether they're going to become my customer or not, I want to educate them," she says. "Maybe I didn't get them this time, but I'll get them next time."