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Retail clout to ease floor-care entry

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Leveraging of its retail accounts may be the key as small electrics and seasonal supplier DeLonghi America Inc. makes its move into the domestic floor-care market. The company's initial line of high-end, Italian-made vacuums will be on display at the upcoming International Housewares Show in Chicago.

DeLonghi America has long been an upscale player in the small electrics and seasonal products arenas. Kitchen electrics include espresso/cappuccino machines, toasters and fryers. Heaters are among the seasonal items distributed here. The company's Italian parent produces a number of other products, including vacuums.

"DeLonghi is in the floor-care business in Europe in a big way," says president Jim McCusker. "The reason we want to enter floor care is not to offer me-too products. We're introducing three different models with unique features that make DeLonghi different in the U.S. market."

The units--a shampooer/dry vacuum, steamer and stick vacuum--also were chosen based on vacuums now in the marketplace and on availability from Italy. The company produces canisters, uprights, hand and wet/dry vacuums for the European floor-care market, which is dominated by Electrolux and Hoover Europe.

McCusker acknowledges that making headway in the all-too-competitive American floor-care business will not be easy. "We're not going to be a big player in short term. We're going to offer unique products. We feel we can develop a little business that can have some logical growth to it," he predicts.

The Steam & Clean steamer--the first such unit to be brought to the American market by a major manufacturer--is set apart by its features and styling, according to McCusker. Using heated, highly pressurized water, the steamer cleans and sanitizes tiling, hard floors and other heat-resistant surfaces. The unit is manipulated by easy-to-reach steam controls on its handle. The machine also has two safety thermostats, a 3.4 liter tank capacity and a complete line of accessories.

Currently only a handful of small companies are importing steamers to the U.S. One of those--Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Marketing 10 Inc.--has made headway by demonstrating its commercial units on an account-by-account basis.

"We believe it will be a growing market for steamers," McCusker says, noting that DeLonghi will do in-store demonstrations and possibly an informercial to promote the product. The second item, DeLonghi's Penta canister extractor, offers the added value of extractor shampooing and dry vacuuming.

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A four-stage air filtering system, replaceable microfilters, 12-liter dust-bag capacity and a combination brush with four wheels and double-articulated joints aid dry-dirt pickup. Penta's 20-liter double external tank--half for clean water, the other for cleansing fluid-- can be filled on the spot or can be pulled out and transported to a sink.

The uniqueness of the Penta lies in its versatility, according to McCusker. The unit joins Bissell's highly successful Big Green Clean Machine and Royal's Dirt Devil Cyclone (formerly British VAX's Wash Wizard Plus), two of the first extractors on the American market to offer both wet and dry cleaning functions.

"We have a separate container for water, a separate container for detergent and a bucket to catch the dirty solution from the carpet. It's all in one."

The Scopa stick vac comes in a small, handled, rectangular package that says "carry me out," McCusker says. The selling point, he adds, is the Euro-styled unit's strong motor: "Most just aren't powerful enough. This does a good job." Using a built-in electronic power regulator, consumers using Scopa can change motor output from 300 to 700 watts as they move from one type of floor surface to another. Scopa also boasts four-stage air filtering and a replaceable microfilter.

DeLonghi's three models are made of plastic. Prices, available at press time, but are expected to be high end. The trio will be rolled out in the first half of this year.

The company began seeking UL approval of its floor-care products 10 months ago. "Now that the approvals are coming into place, we're ready to be very active," McCusker says.

The units are being targeted toward stores currently carrying DeLonghi products. Specialty and appliance stores as well as catalogshowrooms are tops on the list, according to DeVitis.

Placement efforts are starting in the Northeast. "We're taking our rifle approach to the market," McCusker says. "We're going to use our relationships, which we've built by selling seasonal and kitchen appliances. Many buyers handling appliances are also handling floor care."