A sweeping change Featured

1:04pm EDT May 31, 2002
What do vacuum cleaners and home delivery services have in common? More than you might think.

Oreck Corp., best known for its vacuum cleaners and its founder-pitchman David Oreck, has built a strong brand in a consumer segment that has no shortage of well-recognized brands.

David Oreck was in town recently to talk about branding at the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at Pitt's Katz Graduate School of Business. Oreck's company does business in a somewhat unusual way. It will sell you a vacuum cleaner or other appliance by mail, through its Web site or at one of its independent dealers, but you won't find its products at a Kmart or a WalMart or anywhere else, for that matter.

Oreck has shunned selling through the mass merchandisers that end up dictating terms because they wield so much power. They squeeze the manufacturers and shortchange the consumer on quality and choice, says Oreck.

Oreck is on to something, I believe. There will always be the consumer who is willing to spend more to get a better product, better service and perhaps some convenience.

Bob Plummer owns a company called Hours To You, a home delivery service based in New Castle that has the substantial portion of its operations in Allegheny County. Plummer was struggling a bit to get the business going, but it wasn't because of a lack of demand for the service. Once he identified who his target customer was through some sophisticated research tools, his client list and his sales soared.

With services like Hours To You, customers must pay a bit of a premium for the convenience of having groceries and other household products delivered to their doorstep. Nonetheless, Plummer has found that some are willing to pay for convenience, and a savings in their time and energy.

The big retailers aren't about to go out of business or quit squeezing every penny they can manage out of suppliers. But as companies like Oreck and Hours To You figure out ways to more economically deliver their products and services, narrow the price gap and build brand equity without sacrificing quality, they'll capitalize on their competitors' weaknesses.

And maybe clean up in the process.