When Clarence Stark was selling Eureka vacs door-to-door during the Depression, he could hardly have envisioned that his sales efforts would lay the framework for a multi-million dollar business competing head on with formidable adversaries like Kmart and Target. But 61 years after the founding of what is now Stark’s Vacuum Cleaner Sales & Service, an independent retailer run by grandson Jim, the flagship store covers a half-block of Portland’s downtown industrial district and draws business people, commercial accounts and passers by. Four additional stores cater to the suburbanites in Beaverton, Gresham and Clackamas, Ore., and neighboring Vancouver, Wash. Despite Stark’s longstanding presence in the Portland community, store management — from Clarence to son John and grandson Jim–has not rested on its laurels. Today, Stark’s is uniquely capable of turning a profit while competing with mass retailers from Fred Meyer to Sears with popularly priced models–a 45-percent chunk of Stark’s vac sales–and battling local independents with high-end machines– another 45 percent of sales.
The secret: advertising and price points draw customers in and, once in the door, knowledgeable sales-people guide consumers to a broad selection of vacuums at an equally wide price range. The added bonus: excellent service. Stark’s often runs weekly newspaper advertisements featuring four or more vacs–typically priced anywhere from $30 for a hand vac to $59.99 to $299.99 for full-sized models and deep cleaners. Print ads, radio spots and an occasional TV commercial publicly reinforce Stark’s ability to complete with mass merchants, who often advertise a similar number of products and like price points through weekly circulars. The strategy is meant to build Stark’s traffic and encourage 10-percent annual growth on what one industry source estimated as a $5 million retail business. Jim Stark, who runs Stark’s retail stores, said his competition is mainly department stores, mass merchants and Sears, which account for more than 50 percent of vac sales [HFD, May 24]. Heavy ad budgets and the national scope of the larger chains allows them to promote a variety of goods at low prices. “We can’t afford as much advertising as department stores,” Stark admitted. Even so, he believes that vacuum promotions are easily lost within the product barrage of mass merchant flyers. Stark’s advertisements, on the other hand, reinforce a commitment to floor-care with pictures and descriptions that don’t get bogged down by other categories.
Once in the store, customers once again notice Stark’s focus on vacs. The 10,000-square-foot display floor of the downtown Portland flagship shows off 200 to 300 models from 25 manufacturers, cut down from 750 units a decade ago. Hand vacs, canisters, uprights, deep cleaning machines and commercial models tout names including Royal Dirt Devil, the Health-mor Princess, the Bissell Big Green Clean Machine, the Sharp Twin Energy commercial line. Price points range from a $25 hand vac to a $700 high-end upright. “The wide assortment of product is competitive with a mass merchant, where most independents wouldn’t have as much,” offered Roger Lindsay, national accounts manager for the vacuum shop operation of Regina Co. “The trick is to make it look like you’ve got a lot of vacs and not be cluttered,” maintained Stark of his display technique. Promotional vacs bearing low-priced hang tags line the aisle to the service counter. Circular product groupings are arranged throughout the showroom, allowing customers to easily survey the offerings and painlessly navigate toward their preference. Machines are sometimes positioned with manufacturers’ point-of-purchase displays–Royals are displayed on Royal pedestals, Stark noted. Comparable machines, such as popularly priced products from Hoover and Eureka, are grouped together. Floor models also are neatly stacked atop a couple of product boxes, Sanyos interspersed with Panasonics and Singers, for example. Bags and belts are hung on a slot wall behind the service counter. Reconditioned trade-ins and factory seconds add to the assortment, and address cost-conscious consumers, with price points from $30 up. Due to its rebuilding service, Stark’s is able to add door-to-door vacs: Traded-in and rebuilt Kirby, Filter Queen and Electrolux models are available to customers in “just-like-new condition” well under their original $400 to $800 price tags. Rebuilts and seconds represent the remaining 10 percent of Stark’s vac sales and are found primarily in the flagship store, which has more display space than suburban stores.
Whether lured by price or selection, it’s the service that sells machines. When customers come to Stark’s, they’re treated like royalty. The Portland flagship, indicative of its sister stores, retains five full-time salespeople which Jim has trained in the minutiae of caring for floor-care consumers. “Our policy is that they carry in vacs for people. Salespeople do curb service,” Stark said. All customers are greeted at the door and offered assistance. If looking for a vacuum cleaner, customers are “qualified” as to the type of carpet they have, model they have been using, what they liked and didn’t like about the model, features they desire. The salesperson then presents various makes that fit the customer’s needs. Even when someone has come to Stark’s looking for a particular model–especially a popularly priced, advertised machine–Jim said that salespeople get into trouble if a vacuum isn’t turned on before the consumer’s leaves. “You [as a customer] have to put the machine in your hand and be told about it,” Stark explained. “Customers may be coming in for a $59.95 machine. We show them the machine and show them the benefits of other higher-priced machines. Our philosophy is good, better, best: better units have better quality and hold up better.” Sales staff spread sand and Kapoc (couch stuffing) on the store’s fully carpeted floor to demonstrate the ability of different models and to give the customer a basis on which to compare the vacuums. Step-up points such as microfiltration, automatic brushed edge cleaning and air freshener systems are pointed out. Vendors agreed that the salespeople, who are paid by commission, are quite capable of moving customers toward higher-margin machines. “A professional sales staff sells the product,” Duane Peiffer of Hoover said. “They’re knowledgeable and know what’s going on. [With mass merchants] there is so much product it’s a sideline. They can’t focus on vacuums. Stark’s specializes and can focus–they know vacs in and out.”
By comparing the attributes of the $59.95 Hoover Encore, which might allow a 5-percent margin, to its $225-plus Supremacy line, for example, Stark’s salespeople are often able to sell customers on the high-end model’s smooth handling, excellent dirt pickup and added features. They also are able to garner the store higher profits. While Stark said that he’s able to make a decent margin on a $100 sale, the average tab comes to $200, unarguably a boon to store profitability. Besides its sales crew, Stark’s flagship retains a service manager, three people who work at the service center and another who does repairs. The store’s off-site service shop employs two or three more repair personnel. Stark’s ability to satisfy customers with quick repairs, another of the independent’s many attributes, also relies upon the next-door proximity of Northwest Wholesale Distributors, according to vendors. Northwest Wholesale, an estimated $5 million operation owned by the Starks, distributes parts and more exclusive products to independent retailers in 10 Northwestern states. “Parts are picked up quicker and customer’s satisfaction is at a higher level,” said Roger Lindsay. “That has a lot to do with the customer base.” “Customer service is the bottom line,” Stark concluded of his family’s operation. “Every transaction should be a win-win transaction. That’s what we’ve built it on.”