Shampoo sink business adjusts to economy

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2011 - 9:13 PM

Strategic changes made in response to the recession have driven growth for Minneapolis-based Accessible Systems.

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Dave Shusterich, president of Accessible Systems, polished one of the Adjust-a-Sinks at the Presbyterian Homes of Bloomington.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Adjustability -- the key feature of Accessible Systems' patented shampoo sink -- also has been critical to the Minneapolis company's survival.

The Adjust-a-Sink, which uses a unique telescopic drain-and-lift system to raise or lower the height of the shampoo bowl by up to a foot, appeared to be a can't miss product in mid-2008, a year after Dave Shusterich arrived as company president.

"At that time, we knew we had a great product, great feedback from stylists and a track record of having a unique product that meets unique needs," Shusterich said.

Within a few months, however, business flattened as the Great Recession hit and senior care centers shelved plans for new construction, major remodeling projects and additions, which had been a large driver of sales for the company, Shusterich said. Commercial salons, battered in the recession, remained interested but converting that into sales became more difficult, especially with the bowl's list price of $3,800, roughly 10 times that of a standard sink.

As the recession ground on, Shusterich began adjusting the company's strategy and tactics, changes that have resulted in growing sales and profitability. Accessible Systems, which has two full-time employees and finished last year with $700,000 in revenue, expects to have its best year yet in 2011 with close to $1 million in sales.

The growth appears likely to continue, Shusterich said. The sink, with more than 2,100 units installed, is included in more than 300 planned salon projects.

The sink, the company says, offers a safer, more comfortable shampoo experience than fixed-height bowls that are standard in most salons.

Stylists, for example, can avoid stretching and bending, and work in a more ergonomically correct position while shampooing a client. Clients can sit more upright, which can alleviate neck and back pressure. Those in wheelchairs or with other physical limitations can avoid such indignities as getting lifted into a salon seat or getting their clothes drenched while getting shampooed at a sink that doesn't adjust to fit them.

Originally, the company targeted both senior care facilities and the 300,000-plus commercial salons across the country.

But Shusterich has sharply narrowed the company's marketing efforts, 95 percent of which are now directed at senior care salons, instead of the former 50-50 split between commercial and senior salons.

The company now advertises exclusively in senior care trade publications in the United States and Canada and direct markets to seniors through e-mail marketing, Shusterich said. The Adjust-a-Sink website has been expanded and YouTube videos show the sink in action.

The company has added 17 independent manufacturer's representatives who market and demonstrate Adjust-a-Sink and other senior care products in 34 states, and established relationships with 20 distributors that offer the sink to commercial and senior care salons.

Other steps included subcontracting outside sales, engineering, operations and accounting functions, reducing fixed costs and the break-even point and enabling the company to concentrate most of its resources on marketing, Shusterich said.

Assembly, quality control and engineering were outsourced to Atlas Manufacturing, a contract manufacturer in Minneapolis.

Both Atlas and Accessible Systems are subsidiaries of Meribel Enterprises. Meribel co-owners Mark Engel and John Peterson acquired the Adjust-a-Sink technology in 2007 when they purchased the assets of its developer, BJ Industries and its founder, Barb Klawitter, a licensed stylist.

Jill French, stylist at Presbyterian Homes Care Center Salon in Bloomington, said clients who use wheelchairs are pleasantly surprised that they don't have to transfer into a salon seat to get shampooed.

"It's versatile, it goes up and down and you can pull a wheelchair right up to it," French said. "It's a handy tool. It accommodates all the different heights of the residents and of the wheelchairs."

Coralie Sandberg of the Northridge Residence in Ortonville, said professional stylists who work in the nursing home's salon love the sink's adjustability, as do residents.

"They do appreciate it," Sandberg said of clients. "It's a good thing for them. We're very happy with it, definitely. It serves the purpose that we have it for very well."

The expert says: Scott Taylor, professor of small-business management at South Central College, praised Shusterich's decision to concentrate marketing efforts in one market. He also loved the YouTube video showing the sink in use. 

Companies should try to use such marketing pieces in different ways, said Taylor, also marketing instructor in the online small business management program at MnMentors.com

He suggested these options: linking to the video, in this case, from a Facebook fan page; mentioning it in a company blog, newsletter, e-mail blast or statement insert; using it in employee and distributor training; having it on an iPad to show to potential customers; playing it at trade shows; mentioning its popularity in sales literature and press releases.

"The idea is to stretch your marketing dollar by developing materials once and using them many times," Taylor said. "That's guerrilla marketing, and it works."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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    Business: Designs, manufactures and markets the Adjust-a-Sink, an elevating, adjustable-height shampoo sink for senior care and commercial salons.

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