Consumers decide that fancy vacuum cleaners suck

They were a Noughties' status symbol, but sales have slumped as we all become less house-proud
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The Independent Tech

They were once seen as a must-have domestic gadget which made household chores a doddle – but it seems that the British love affair with the vacuum cleaner has finally run out of suction.

So many people now own modern versions of the machines that the number sold each year has fallen by 700,000, or £57m, and sales will not recover to their former highs in the foreseeable future, according to new research. One of the reasons, according to a report by Mintel, is that Britons have become less houseproud.

Polling to accompany the report, seen by The Independent, found that over the past five years the number of people agreeing that they "really care about the house being clean" has fallen by 4 per cent to 77 percentage points. Over the same period, the number who liked to have their floors "spotless" dipped by the same amount to 51 percentage points.

Over the past five years, the number of vacuum cleaners sold in the UK has fallen by 13.5 per cent, from 6 million to 5.2 million a year. As a result, Britons are forecast to buy 280,000 fewer new machines in 2010 than the previous year, when sales were down 295,000 on 2008.

Harder times have made people much less willing to splash out up to £400 on a new cleaner while their old one is still working. Whereas only 47 per cent of the public waited until their old cleaner broke before buying one in 2008, the figure is 80 per cent this year.

The vast majority of people, nine in 10, also now own a vacuum cleaner, up from 83 per cent in 2005, meaning the market has become "saturated."

Worryingly for manufacturers such as Sir James Dyson – whose yellow and grey cleaners without dustbags became a popular gadget for the houseproud – tolerance of dirt is greatest among the wealthiest social groups. Those in AB classes, which are forecast to grow by 8 per cent to 15 million by 2015, are least likely to care about cleanliness or to enjoy housework.

Pride in cleaning rises the lower you look down the social ladder, with housepride peaking in the E social class, which is forecast to fall by 3 per cent to 3 million in the next five years. Six in 10 people in E care about having "spotless floors" compared with four in 10 ABs. Two in 10 Es said their house was "often a mess" compared with one in three AB professionals.

The trend for wooden flooring could offer an opportunity for vacuum cleaner firms to offer specialist products suitable for cleaning them, Mintel suggested. But it found that consumers had little interest in the new range of robotic cleaners, such as the £300 iRobot Roomba which zooms around the house using its own navigation system.

Customers generally also had little brand loyalty, with only 7 per cent saying they would replace their cleaner with one from the same company. Shoppers are not expected to be rushing out to buy vacuum cleaners for years because of looming public sector cuts and tax rises, including the rise in VAT in January.

"With the economic recovery proving to be slow and continued concerns about job security, consumer confidence remains fragile," Mintel said. "The increase in VAT to 20 per cent in 2011, rise in taxation and government spending cuts are likely to hold back consumer spending growth. There is also the threat of interest rates having to rise again, which would also impact on discretionary spending.

"Against this backdrop, the vacuum cleaner market is unlikely to move into growth and sales will remain in decline."

It forecast vacuum cleaner sales would fall by a further 160,000 to 5.1 million next year. As the economy recovers, sales will edge back up to 5.3 million cleaners by 2015, still 500,000 down on the number sold in 2005.

Vacuum cleaners are not the only household appliances to experience a sharp fall in demand. Freezers recorded the the steepest fall, down 19 between 2004 and 2009. Vacuum cleaners and cookers were next, both down 13.5 per cent in period, worse than fridges (down 12 per cent), tumble dryers (down 10 per cent) and dishwashers (down 7 per cent).

Dyson has the largest share of the shrinking market, up one percentage point in the three years to 2009, to 22 per cent. Vax, owned by Hong Kong-based TechTronic Industries, sold 14 per cent of UK machines last year, followed by Sweden's Electrolux on 9 per cent. Hoover, the Anglo-American firm whose name become synonymous with vacuums, has 8 per cent.

Makers who cleaned up

Hess

Vacuum cleaners having their origins in the US in 1860, when a Daniel Hess of West Union, Iowa, invented a machine to suck up dirt. His idea would be refined and it wasn't until the early 20th century that vacuum cleaners became effective - and an object of aspiration for housewives and servants, whose chores still required endless sweeping.

Hoover

William Henry Hoover's name became inextricably linked with cleaning when, in 1908, the leather goods manufacturer bought a patent from a cleaner in Ohio, Hames Spangler, who had incorporated a rotating brush into his own design. Hoover's company, The Electric Suction Sweeper Company, marketed its first cleaner, the Model O, for $60.

Dyson

After thousands of prototypes, Norfolk-born engineer and inventor James Dyson launched his cyclonic bagless cleaner in Japan in the late 1980s. The Dyson DC01 came to the UK in 1993. Despite costing double the average price of a normal vacuum cleaner, £200, it became a commercial success.

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