Who's got time to run errands? Entrepreneurs do

COMPUTER salesman Charles Vaughn was fed up with changing his oil. Neither he nor his wife had the time to go to the gas station during the week. Rather than wait in line for two hours on Saturday, Mr. Vaughn found himself up to his elbows in grease.

``Then it dawned on me, this is a great business,'' he says. Just in the Boston area, he realized, there were thousands of two-earner families, people who, like him, did not have time to run errands until the weekend - and did not like spending their weekends running errands.

So a little over a year ago, he bought a van and started Roving Oil Can. For $29.95 plus tax, he drives to a customer's car, whether that is at work or at home, and changes the oil, lubricates the chassis, and looks over the engine. ``It's an idea whose time has come,'' says Vaughn, who expects to do 90 jobs a day after he gets his three new vans next month.

The fact that most women today have jobs is probably the social and economic phenomenon of the postwar era. It creates problems for some: How does the United Parcel Service driver deliver his packages to an empty home? When does Avon do its calling?

And it is creating lucrative opportunities for others. Time is the scarce resource of the 1980s, and entrepreneurs across the United States are capitalizing on that fact. They run your errands, they feed your cat, they find and buy you a car, they get you on an exercise regimen.

``More women are working, and when they're not working'' - in the evenings and weekends - ``they want to get out and pamper themselves,'' notes Patty Kabbash, who runs Family Friends in Charlottesville, Va.

Her company arranges house-sitting, pet-sitting, and child-sitting. Even in a college town like Charlottesville, there's plenty of business: Her 50 employees take care of 2,500 clients.

Because of the influx of women into the work force, her business has doubled in the last five years; people in other states have asked her to franchise, but she has so far declined, noting, ``I'm busy enough as it is.''

About 53 percent of the female population hold down jobs today, and the figure is expected to reach 66 percent by 1990. But the vast majority (70 percent) of women in their prime buying years - ages 18 to 34 - put in a 9-to-5 day. Before, women had time but not money. Today they have money, and they will pay dearly for a little extra time.

Professional errand runners, often under the heading of ``rent-a-wife,'' will pick up the laundry, manage the house, do things that two-earner families or single men and women cannot do. Upscale maid services do much the same thing. Barbara Jones's company in Washington, D.C., called Maid to Clean, goes beyond the call of dusting duty. If a client is having a dinner party, these maids will get flowers for the centerpiece. They also let in the phone man, feed the cat, pick up clothes at the dry cleaner. ``We promote ourselves as a personalized service,'' she says. And clients pay for it: typically $110 to $135 for the first-time, white-tornado cleaning, then $55 to $68 a session after that.

The extra disposable income is making more women the decisionmakers for big-ticket items like cars. Auto companies have acknowledged this, and are starting to design their cars to meet the specific demands of women (emphasizing safety features, for example, rather than horsepower).

But who has the time to find just the right car? Vicky Schwarz does, for a $375 fee. Her three-year-old company, Personal Motor Service outside San Francisco, caters to the working-woman phenomenon: Some 80 percent of her clients are single women or young couples with both spouses working. Car brokers, who do the legwork of selecting a car for clients and then buying it for them, have been around for a couple of decades. The time-crunched household of the 1980s, however, has given the industry a boost, Ms. Schwarz says.

With more women getting into time-consuming managerial positions, leisure hours to exercise are few and far between. Such women are willing to pay Felicia Eriksen-Valentine top dollar to make the time - as much to further their careers as to relax.

``Many of my clients have to give presentations,'' says Ms. Eriksen-Valentine, who started Workout on Wheels in San Francisco three years ago. ``They need to learn how to stand, sit, walk, breathe - and I teach them.''

Today, she sees seven clients a day, at $55 to $65 an hour, and her business is constrained only by the number of hours in the day.

Inside many a professional woman is ``a mother who's worried about latchkey kids,'' says Tim Ramey, an analyst at Kidder, Peabody & Co. Working mothers want their children to have nutritional meals, but don't have time. The microwave oven, which graces more homes than videocassette recorders, has now created a whole new venue of dining. Microwave dinners, which go as far as precooking brown stripes on the meat (otherwise it would emerge an unappetizing gray), ``allow a mother to come up with some kind of voil`a dinner in 15 minutes,'' Mr. Ramey says.

The dinners are fairly expensive - some of them are $7 apiece. But it's growing fast enough that companies like Hormel and General Foods are investing large sums of money to develop new food technology. For example, they are both test-marketing what Ramey calls ``an amazing revolutionary product'': dinners that don't have to be refrigerated or frozen.

The ``no one's at home'' phenomenon may be a blessing for some industries, but it's the scourge of others. And companies - everyone from pollsters to the Fuller Brush man - are having to adapt.

Consider the plight of the United Parcel Service driver. A few years ago, leaving off a package was a simple matter. Then more women began working during the day, and he had to migrate to the nearest neighbor for a signature. Often he had to return the next day and the next with the package.

``It was a very serious matter for us,'' says spokesman Joseph Tranfo. More than for other companies, for UPS, time is money - so much so that the company's 1,000 industrial engineers figure out the most efficient routes and methods of delivery, including walking to the door at no less than three feet per second.

Compounding the problem was the explosive growth of catalog sales, a newly popular method of shopping for people who didn't have time to go to department stores. That increased the number of packages being sent to homes, empty homes. Something had to be done. In 1982, UPS installed its ``driver release delivery'' program. In residential neighborhoods - not densely populated cities or multi-unit buildings - the driver can leave the package in an out-of-sight place, protected from the weather. The program has taken care of much of the problem.

Other companies that depend on women being at home have been slower to adjust. Companies like Tupperware ``fought [the shift in selling technique] for a long time,'' says Eleanor May, a professor at Darden business school at the University of Virginia. Companies like Avon and Tupperware were losing not only their at-home customers, but their representatives, who were forgoing direct sales for more-mainstream jobs.

Belatedly, companies are changing tactics. ``Before, when companies were hit by a slump, they just recruited more salespeople,'' says Neil Offen, president of Direct Selling Association. ``Now they do market research, target niches, and focus more on price points and service,'' he says.

Avon is recruiting fewer but more aggressive saleswomen who turn around sales faster: taking the order during the morning break at work, picking up the order at lunch, and delivering it to the customer during the afternoon break. All the companies are urging women to sell at work. ``They're going from a two-hour party to a 15-minute party,'' Mr. Offen says.

It used to be that the Fuller Brush man (who 4 out of 5 times is a woman) would only sell face to face. In the last 15 years, the company's sales were flat, its sales force dwindled by half to 13,000, and its name recognition faded with it. ``A lot of people had forgotten Fuller Brush was still in business,'' says David Bryan, president of the company. This past April the company changed tactics and began selling via mail order catalog on a nationwide basis. The company is about to open its first retail store in Dallas, and Mr. Bryan cheerily projects that ``sales will grow faster than ever before.''

Professor May at Darden says that while the bulk market has dried up - the middle-income families can afford to buy but are no longer at home - the affluent customers are still a ripe market for direct sellers. For example, Alcas Cutlery's sales of knives, which range from $30 to $90 apiece, have increased more than 50 percent a year over the last three years, says Linda Hole, general manager of specialty sales. In part that's because the company established its own marketing arm. But it's also because women are willing to pay for a more expensive product.

``Today's working woman is jealous of her time,'' Ms. Hole says. ``We don't have time to return the product; we want the product explained, we want it right the first time.'' Demographic and social shifts are also playing in the company's favor: Baby-boomers are starting families, so ``cocooning'' - entertaining at home rather than eating out - is making the knife a showcase item.

And there's always a market for designer items. Doncaster clothing in Rutherfordton, N.C., a division of Tanner Companies, sells dresses for $250 and custom suits for $500, about the price one would pay at the designer section of a department store. The 2,100 fashion consultants make appointments to go to homes of friends and friends of friends. It is the same method as the one initiated in 1932 - with a twist. Ten years ago, virtually none of the ``consultants'' worked; today about half have full-time jobs, and that has opened a new market for them - the corporate market.

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