At Your Service

You're planning a party: The patio needs decorating; you're out of guacamole; and Fifi's been rolling in what? Relax, help is on the way.

If you could, would you buy a little free time? A growing service sector is confident you'll answer "yes."

From frilly indulgences, like hiring a designer to decorate your patio for a party, to the down-and-sudsy work of dog grooming, services designed to save you time - and sometimes even money - are multiplying across the country.

House-cleaning services, for example, are flourishing. Molly Maids, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., went from $12 million in consumer sales in 1993 to a projected $50 million in 1997.

"In the vast majority of our market we have waiting lists," reports president Linda Burzynski. People view the "clean" peace of mind as a necessity not a luxury.

In fact, home-service and home-construction franchises are the fastest-growing franchises in the country, according to a 1990 study by the Naisbitt Group, "The Future of Franchising: Looking 25 Years Ahead to the Year 2010." The home service market, it is estimated, will exceed $54 billion by 2000.

Consumers' changing lifestyles are behind such growth, whether it be busy households where both parents work or just active singles unable to keep up with home chores.

By 2000, the number of dual-income households in the United States earning more than $50,000 is expected to hit 20 million.

Like most busy suburban families, these households will experience "time famine," says Frank Britt, vice president of marketing for Streamline, a Weston, Mass., based service.

"When was the last time you heard someone say 'I have extra time to do the things I like to do'?" Mr. Britt jokes.

Streamline offers goods and services to customers who don't have to be at home: delivered groceries, prepared meals, dry cleaning pickup, video rental and return, post-office transactions; they'll even drop off clothes at the Salvation Army for you.

"Research tells us that women especially feel time-starved because they try to be so many things," says Britt. They want to be a good mom, wife, professional, and have their own slice of personal life, too.

Although women have flooded the 9-to-5 work world, they are still CEOs of the household; 70 percent are the primary grocery shoppers. They struggle to balance family, career, and home, and they're weary, Britt says, adding: "Market research indicates there has not been a sea change in men's participation in household management."

Knowing that women want more time for family and for self-discovery - again judging from market studies - Britt says the pendulum is swinging back.

The woman who thinks she can be "superwoman" is realizing that she's smart to ask for help - and, more important, isn't a failure if she does.

Marketers of services such as Streamline call the $720-billion industry "Consumer Direct."

The sales pitch is a lifestyle - one that is simpler, solution-oriented, convenient, and flexible.

But it's not limited to wealthy soccer-moms. The number of single households is now about equal to households of married couples with children, according to US Census data.

With an aging baby-boom population and more young people postponing marriage, services - from maintenance to meals - will be in high demand for years to come.

Time-saver services

We checked into a number of so-called time-saver services. Some were strictly utilitarian, such as dry cleaning pick-up and delivery, and others were indulgences, such as interior decorators who will plan your mom's retirement party. Of course the difference between necessity and luxury is often a matter of opinion, time, finances or, more likely, all three.

Monica Newton started her business, Personal Services, based in Alexandria, Va., five years ago after she got laid off from CBS.

"Professionals don't have time for the home front," she says. Personal Services, with a staff of five, coordinates house cleaning, yardwork, handyman repairs, errands, and pet and house sitting.

Business, she says, is "great. We've built a reputation for being honest and on time. " The most frequent requests are for yard-work, cleaning, errands, and 'waiting' - say, for the cable guy to come and hook up service or for the delivery of a sofa.

Delivery is a key word in the save-me-time world of consumer direct. Take Hannaford's HomeRuns. Based in the Boston area, it is a grocery delivery service - one of many that are sprouting up across the country.

If you spend $60 or more, HomeRuns doesn't charge a delivery fee. Low overhead helps them stay competitively priced. Customers choose from a color catalog of more than 5,000 goods (including fresh meats, seafood, and produce); then they phone, fax, or e-mail their orders, and delivery is the next day.

We accompanied HomeRuns driver David Manchester on his route through Newton, Mass. HomeRuns, he points out, eliminates some of the hassles of shopping (parking, dragging the children along) and helps city dwellers who don't want - or aren't able - to lug groceries up flights of stairs. "This way you let us do the work," he says glancing back at huge temperature-controlled containers of refrigerated, frozen, and dry foods. Tipping, by the way, is not permitted.

At 3:30 we greet Judy Slovin Levenfeld, mother of four. She heard about HomeRuns from her contractor. "It's such an incredible convenience," she says, holding her infant son, and watching Mr. Manchester place bags of groceries on her counter and check the order.

"At first I was skeptical," says Mrs. Levenfeld, "but the fruits and vegetables were good, and I'm impressed with the quality of their home brands."

A personal chef

Beyond the take-out delivery services that go from restaurants to homes, the ultimate might be having a personal chef.

Edward Micu could be your man. For about $40 an hour, depending on the particulars - such as the number of people involved and how elaborate the meal - he will come to your home and cook dinner. And in case you were wondering, yes, he will have already done the grocery shopping. How's business? "Put it this way," Mr. Micu says, "I haven't had to advertise in two years."

Transportation is another part of the ever-expanding service sector. Local Motion in Newton, Mass is a chauffeur service for children of busy parents. The four-year-old company now has a fleet of 25 vehicles that zip back and forth to schools, day care, soccer, ballet, and even the cinema multiplex on weekends. Dual-income families make up their customer base.

Taxi 1,400 children

Many parents find that with more than one child, they are needed in two places at once - Johnny has karate and Sally has soccer. "The business started because there was this need," explains Bruce Barrows, who runs the company with Bill Carragher and Ed Weiner. Parents wanted quality, safe, dependable service. Understandably, the business is high paced: They taxi as many as 1,400 children per day (and never drop a child off if the parent isn't home). "The industry is in its infancy, and it's still evolving," Mr. Barrows says, hinting that they are looking to expand nationwide.

The price ranges from $5 to $8 per ride. They receive 300 to 400 calls a day, and business intensifies during summer-camp season and the beginning of the school year.

In northern California, Sandy Gibbs runs TLC Pet Express, specializing in pet transportation. One time she was asked to drive a potbellied pig from Marin to Salem, Ore. Another job involved two trips from Santa Rosa, where she's based, to the Calasoga area: eight dogs, seven cats, five goats, geese, chickens, and a pig named Buster. "The funny thing," Ms. Gibbs remembers, "was that the owners' name was MacDonald."

This house needs help

If getting from Point A to Point B is the challenge of the day, the nitty-gritty of household chores probably takes a back seat.

Kathy Waddill is a personal organizer and owner of the company the Untangled Web. Today she is at the house of Jamie Higgins, a single mom who works full-time and needs guidance in managing clutter and household affairs.

Her home doesn't seem in disarray by any means, but Ms. Higgins assures two visitors that between sporting equipment, toys, shoes, and mail, this old house needs help.

"I've lived here for 12 years and accumulated a lot of stuff," Higgins says with a deep sigh. "Suddenly there was no room. I knew I had to do something."

Waddill says she sees her role as "a set of fresh eyes" and someone who can act as enforcer. Her No. 1 rule is: "If you don't use it, don't keep it." Common sense, yes, but few people impose the rule on themselves. "The pile is not the problem," she tells Higgins, "it's a symptom."

"When Kathy is through, I will feel tremendous relief. It will make my life easier," says Higgins.

The easiest way to find a personal organizer (some specialize in wardrobe coordination and closets) is to look in the Yellow Pages under: Organizing Services. Prices range from $25 to $150 an hour. The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) is based in Austin, Texas and also has a Web site: GROUPS/NAPO/

Once the house is in order, Tyson Burks and Christopher Ridolfi could be called on to dress it up. The two young interior designers own a retail shop in Boston called Roosterfish Home Haberdashery.

The service dimension of their business grew from a series of client requests: After they completed design projects, clients would ask them back. "Could you design a setting for my party?" Some people just don't have the time to plan summer patio soires and Christmas parties. So, clients figured they could leave it in the hands of designers they trusted.

The team charges anywhere from $200 for consulting to thousands of dollars for actual party designing. Burks and Ridolfi will even decorate your Christmas tree.

"People like to come home from work to an environment that's done," Burks says. It's not lavish, he argues, because experts with reliable sources can actually save you money. Ridolfi adds: "Lives are so hectic. It's nice to come home to a clean, soothing environment."

Clean, but maybe not always soothing, is what The Barkin' Lot is all about. It's a mobile dog and cat-grooming service.

Smelling like a violet

Picture a van in your driveway that's a pet salon. Rover goes in smelling like whatever he just rolled in and comes out smelling like a violet.

Costs start at $45 for clipped nails, scrubbed ears, bath, and a blow dry. A flea and tick bath will run extra. The service also offers obedience training.

"Our clients range from the wealthy to the poor," says James Harrell, who runs the business with his son and cousin. Mr. Harrell used to be a hairdresser, but has always had a love for animals.

Not too long ago, they had to start offering evening hours to accommodate busy people. And today?

"We're pretty busy," he says, noting that he should really go and blow-dry a cocker spaniel.

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