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Posted November 20, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Cleaned out: Professional services struggling in down economy

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

As more and more homeowners struggle to keep a roof over their heads, fewer are using cleaning services.

Instead, they're picking up the scrub brushes and dust mops themselves.

"When the economy goes south, people will drop the cleaning service before anything else because that's something they can actually do themselves if they make the time," says Dale Settle, owner of Crystal Clear Cleaning in Front Royal.

In the past, Settle -- who's been in the business more than 30 years -- has had up to seven people working for her on any particular day.

"It's just down to just me and my daughter now," she says. "I had construction cleanups. I haven't had one of those for almost two years.

"We did not have one window job this year. That's one thing that really kept my head above water when things did get bad. I'm hoping that will change when the spring comes. That really hurt us this year."

Rather than having routine cleanings, many of Settle's regular customers are just calling her on an as-needed basis, once every month or two.

"I've had several people call for estimates, [and] they say they will get back to me, and I never hear anything back," Settle says. "I would get three jobs out of seven calls, and I haven't [had] any new places of any significance I would say [in] about a year.

"In a two-week period of time, I might have 10 houses. It all boils down to they just don't have the money. I understand where they're coming from. They're going to put food on the table and pay their mortgage before they're going to have a cleaning company come in."

It's gotten to the point where Settle is looking for a part-time job on the side.

And, she's tried to come up with strategies to drum up more business.

"I made up fliers with coupons and gave those out, giving a certain percentage off for your first cleaning, window cleaning and stuff like that," Settle says.

She's taken out ads for spring cleanings, holiday cleanings and party cleanups, "just some things to attract attention."

"I haven't heard anything," Settle says. "People...are just doing it their self, I guess."

Even when she'll give a quote below a competitor's, she's still not getting hired.

"They're scared," Settle says of potential clients. "I can't blame them. I'm just waiting and praying for the day it starts picking back up."

When Peggy Sanyi had a cleaning business in New Jersey, she had more than two dozen women working for her, says the owner of Sunflower Cleaning. Now that she's in Front Royal, she is the sole cleaner.

"It's comfortable for me," she says. "I've had other girls call to see if I needed help. If I had to pay a helper, that would be a real problem. I wouldn't be able."

Sanyi has been in business for almost three decades and has spent the last 31/2 years in Warren County. She's seen her regular customers either discontinue their cleanings or reduce the frequency of them.

"The money is tight, the jobs are lost, and it has been very difficult for them," Sanyi says. "I'm very fortunate that I have steady customers."

Business has been slow, acknowledged Commonwealth Cleaning Service owner Nellie Siever, who has had some clients reduce their visits.

"I would say that it's improved a little bit in the last month or two, but the first of the year was really bad," she says. "A lot of customers just had financial problems and a lot of people had lost their jobs that had been at companies for years. One of the first things they will cut, of course, is the cleaning service. We've gotten a few customers back."

Most of the Stephens City company's clients are working parents or elderly. Siever has lowered some of her prices to try to attract and retain customers, cut her advertising, reassessed her product line and been careful not to overhire.

"Keep [a] good, dependable group of employees so their hours are not being cut so much," she says.

Many working parents see a cleaning service as a necessity, Siever says.

"They just have no family time," she says. "Some of them work in the Northern Virginia area. They have long commutes."

With the holiday season coming up, Siever, fortunately, is fully booked through the end of the month. She says people interested in having a holiday cleaning should set one up soon.

While Sarah Schlabach, owner of Finishing Touches Cleaning Services in Woodstock, has seen her business actually expand, she has seen customer needs change.

"I have more one-time cleans," she says. "I did lose a couple of customers that were regular customers because of [the economy], but I've also gotten customers.

"If someone's moving out or sometimes people just want a good spring cleaning, a good deep cleaning, they're having company over, something like that. I've been going after marketing just to try to increase visibility."

Schlabach has also seen her construction cleans -- cleaning jobs after a new house is built -- go down as the housing market has slowed.

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