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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2001

Companies that cleaned up in '90s scraping by

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

A quiet phone, however, wasn't the worst that could happen in his industry. Some competitors had lots of calls in the middle of September - to cancel service.

By last week, Mr. Nekl was booking new appointments again, probably at least in part because he mailed a 10 percent discount coupon to customers of his Country Charm Cleaning & Restoration, LLC, in Curtice.

But national security fears, layoff announcements, and a decline in the economy are almost certain to take a toll on maid services that boomed in the late 1990s and 2000.

“People are going to be saying more and more to themselves: `I'll do it myself,'” said Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in New York state and author of Trends 2000.

His outlook for maid services is reversed from two years ago, when he said that with people working 70 to 80 hours a week, having a cleaning service was a necessity.

At that time, operators of maid services had hopes of expanding their market beyond the one in 10 women who reported having cleaning help in a 1997 survey by the Soap & Detergent Association.

But today, as the would-have-been dot.com millionaires and laid-off employees from many industries look for work, Mr. Celente said, “more and more people are going to have spare time to clean their houses themselves.”

Even when those laid off find new jobs, he predicted, fewer will call the maid service back. The airplanes that toppled the World Trade Center towers and crashed into the Pentagon, plus the anthrax scares, are likely to reduce the number of workaholics on whom maid services thrive, Mr. Celente said.

“This terrible tragedy forced people to look at what are the important things of life and the important things of life are not spending money,” he said.

In economic downturns, cleaning services often take two big hits: fewer customers and new competition, said John Kastelic, president of the 850-member National Association of Professional Cleaners in Akron.

Laid-off workers and people looking for extra income sometimes start cleaning houses, which can be done with little investment. And they typically charge less than larger services.

One is Deb Smith of Toledo, who hasn't cleaned houses since 1998, but started advertising her cleaning services last week in the $7 to $12 an hour range. That's similar to what maids working for larger services take home but a third to half of what customers pay such services.

She said she expects to find customers among the same demographics she had in the early and mid-1990s: older people whose declining health makes cleaning difficult and dual-income couples with several children.

Maid services target such people, who are too busy or are unable to clean; the size of the house has little to do with who will be a customer, said Linda Kettman, co-owner of Manor Maids in Perrysburg.

“I can't say we jump for joy when we see $300,000 houses being built,” she said. Some of those houses aren't completely furnished and the owners are so strapped by their house payments that they don't want to pay for maid service, she added. Two busy professionals in an apartment can be just as lucrative, she said.

The typical bill for a family who do some of their own cleaning in a 2,200-square-foot house is $65 to $80 a week, Mrs. Kettman said. But depending on the service and how much work is required, the range can be from $35 to more than $150 a week, area operators said.

Even in the upper-end market, customers are not in such a big rush to hire help this year, said Gay Metz, director of national placement for Professional Domestic Services & Institute, of Columbus, whose firm caters to customers with several residences.

Among local maid services with more middle-class customers, there seem to be signs that autumn - traditionally a busy time of year - will be much slower this year.

At Molly Maid in Springfield Township, franchise owner Dave Riley estimated that business to date has been down 10 percent from last year. Of the seven years he's been in the industry, this is the first time his customers have appeared so apprehensive.

“I think it's really got more to do with the general tone of the news than it does with reality,” he said. “A lot of people's jobs are pretty solid, pretty safe, but they hear about all these layoffs.”

In Perrysburg, Ron Kettman, who employs 10 to 12 maids at his Manor Maids in Perrysburg, said he hopes cancellations hold off until after the holidays. But he expects a rash of them then, if the current outlook continues.

At Country Charm, in Ottawa County, one customer has twice postponed an $800 job to clean all the upholstery and carpets and wash all the walls, woodwork, and windows in a big house - a move Mr. Nekl said he thinks is related to the year's economic uncertainties.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nekl, who months ago had to turn down work for lack of maids, had a 75 percent increase in applications when he advertised a position last month.



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