Oreck: Mixing Tradition With Innovation

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Cleaning up: Oreck CEO David Oreck lets consumers dictate design features and functions in his vacuums.
Cleaning up: Oreck CEO David Oreck lets consumers dictate design features and functions in his vacuums.
David Oreck has been differentiating his vacuum cleaners from the competition for 42 years. For a long time, his biggest selling point was the fact that they were sturdy and lightweight enough to be the favorite brand of hotel chains. But lately, New Orleans-based Oreck has been emphasizing particular design features over rivals.

There's the fact that only Oreck, among major vacuum brands, can go from carpet to a bare floor without a manual adjustment. And Oreck has the patented Helping Hand, which ensures ergonomic ease for arthritis or carpal-tunnel sufferers.

"This is a commodity business, because every manufacturer has a motor and a handle and a grip and housing and so on," says Mr. Oreck, the 82-year-old CEO who remains the crinkly voiced spokesman for the brand in radio commercials. "Product differences are slighter, and differentiating one from the others is increasingly difficult. So we talk about function a lot."

Lately, in fact, Oreck has been on the front lines of the industry's most pitched battle over design: vacuums that use a disposable bag for the waste they pick up, like Oreck, vs. newfangled "bagless" brands. The avatar of the latter is James Dyson, who personally advertises in a manner similar to Mr. Oreck and makes a big deal of the visual excitement provided by his Dyson machines -- which have a transparent casing, so the consumer can see it actually capture dirt.

"That's a temporary feature that clouds up over time," Mr. Oreck scoffs. "And I suppose some people like seeing dirt whirl around, but I don't think a whole hell of a lot of that. I'll rest my case on how the carpet looks and how the bag fills."

Neither does Oreck think much of the idea of taking marketing and even design cues from the engineers who build his machines. "The best design ideas," he says, "come from salespeople on the floor and from customers themselves."

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