New Dyson Fan Is Cool, but Prices Are Not So Hot

Founder Reinvented the Vacuum and Lifted Sector, but Can He Persuade Consumers to Spend $300?

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Until last year, "Dyson fans" usually referred to admirers of the inventive designer's line of industrial vacuum cleaners. Now the company has fans of a different sort, though it's insisting on calling its line of ultra-chic air-blowing devices "air multipliers."

The new bladeless appliances have the sleek design appeal familiar to Dyson consumers -- along with the premium price tag, ranging from $300 for a table-top version to $450 for tower and pedestal models.

And in a TV ad running now, company founder James Dyson also employs a familiar tactic. He matter of factly shows the product while talking about its technology -- in this case, the airfoil -- to point out how it's different than what's on the market. He says traditional fans "chop the air, causing annoying buffeting. Turn it off and you realize how unsettling it's been."

The ad was done in-house, a Dyson spokeswoman said, and declined to talk about marketing because Mr. Dyson will only discuss research, design and development and "only does the commercials because you have to."

Because the ads are new, no spending figures are available yet; Dyson spent about $36 million in measured media on its vacuum advertising in 2009, according to Kantar Media.

Can Dyson do to the portable fan industry what it did to the vacuum industry? That is, elevate design, average price point, innovation and overall sales in what had been a fairly staid category.

"I was skeptical in 2002," said Bill McLoughlin, editor of Homeworld Business magazine. "His vacuum was $200 more than the competitors who were headed in an opposite price direction. At the time, it looked like he was running the Kentucky Derby backwards. But anyone who thought that back then was certainly proved wrong."

People seem interested in the bladeless idea: A YouTube video posted by Dyson showing a blue balloon being sucked through the center of a succession of the air multipliers has garnered more than 675,000 views since the end of May.

The portable fan industry had $527 million in annual sales in 2009, according to Homeworld Business' annual census, while the upright vacuum industry is far bigger, with almost $2 billion in sales for 2009.

The fan business is not only a much smaller industry, it's also harder to justify premium price points. When Dyson launched in the U.S. in 2002, there were already specialty brands like Oreck and Kirby selling vacuum cleaners even above the Dyson starting $400 price point, so consumers were familiar with premium vacuums. There aren't any portable fans at the $300 level, and in fact, consumers can "step up" and buy an air conditioner at that price. (Dyson fans do not cool the air.)

Price does seem to be the main deterrent for buyers. Reviews from gadget blogs herald the devices as cool, but too pricey. Consumer Reports wrote simply in its review: "Our engineers might have joined the Dyson Air Multiplier fan club -- except for the high price." One of Gizmodo's headlines on the devices was more blunt: "Making a $300 fan takes cojones."

There is some anecdotal evidence that sales are happening. A U.K. Telegraph story last week reported that retailer John Lewis said one-third of all its fans sold in the last month were the Dyson air multipliers, while another Brit retailer Marks & Spencer said sales of the fans went up "fourfold over the last week."  

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