From the September 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Makers of truly novel products are sometimes shocked to discover that just because retail buyers love an invention doesn't mean they'll actually stock it. But in reality, inventors often don't make sales because buyers don't know where to put novel products on the shelves. Buyers are perplexed when products don't fit into a product category, because most retail stores are split into well-defined areas. But inventors shouldn't get discouraged, especially because retail customers do want new and unusual products. If you keep pushing, you'll connect with a buyer or distributor who knows where to put the product so it sells.

First Steps

Carl Vanderschuit is the inventor of Litecubes, freezable cubes with an enclosed LED light and battery that can be dropped into a drink for a little light show. Vanderschuit came up with the idea in 1996. "I was fooling around with some LED lights on Halloween night," remembers Vanderschuit, 44. "I noticed the glow of light from behind my drink and said 'Eureka!' "

Vanderschuit took some time to get started, but his product was finally ready in 2001. After exhibiting at the International Housewares Show in Chicago, he landed Litecubes in a few retail stores for test runs. For the most part, says Vanderschuit, "buyers loved my product, but they weren't sure what category it best suited."

Though stores were slow to pick up the invention, he managed to get Litecubes into several catalog and online retailers such as Solutions ( www.solutionscatalog.com ), Ship the Web (www.shiptheweb.com) and Grill Lover's Catalog ( www.grilllovers.com ). The product, which sells for $9.99 to $14.95 per package of four, is doing well in those and other catalogs.

By the end of 2001, Vanderschuit found success with Restoration Hardware, a chain of more than 100 stores. The product sold well, he says, because "[Restoration Hardware] carried a line of bar products that was a perfect fit for the Litecubes."

An Uphill Fight

Even with Litecubes' initial sales success, Vanderschuit faced a battle in getting more stores to carry the product. In the fall of 2001, he began to pursue a new direction: sales to the advertising specialties market. His first step was attending the ASI (Advertising Specialty Industries) Show ( www.asishow.com ). At the time, Litecubes only came in yellow, which was a major drawback that kept orders low. Vanderschuit soon realized people would be much more interested if his product came in more colors.

So Vanderschuit regrouped and hit the International Housewares Show in 2002 with blue, green, orange, red, white and yellow lights. "The new lights were a big hit, and we generated lots of publicity from them," he says.

At the Promotional Product Association International (PPAI) Expo ( www.ppa.org ) a few weeks later, Vanderschuit hit pay dirt. "We lined up lots of big distributors, some of whom placed orders for 10,000 cubes for some of their big customers."

Today, the Litecubes customer list boasts big names, including the American Music Awards, Bacardi, MTV and Skyy Vodka. With cubes selling to the advertising specialty market for $2.88 to $3.50 per cube, Vanderschuit's San Diego company, Litecubes LLC (www.litecubes.com), had its first significant sales backlog.

Things picked up even more when marketing company Media Corp. of Forest Hills, New York, approached the company seeking to become a master distributor for Litecubes. "The firm is selling the product to drug chains and grocery stores, like Garden Ridge and Kroger's," says Vanderschuit. That's in addition to test sales already underway at Bed Bath & Beyond. Sales have been shooting upward in 2002, with profits in excess of $1 million expected by year-end.

Be an Exhibitionist

Inventors with novel products should always try to find the right buyer who can see where the product might sell. The best way to find those buyers is at trade shows.

Exhibiting at a major show is expensive. The PPAI Expo, for example, charges $1,395 for a 10-by-10-foot booth, but in the end it's cheaper than calling many customers before finding the buyer who will adopt your product. Trade shows help you find buyers as well as meet sales agents and master distributors looking for new products.

Walk around the show and find booths with products priced similarly to yours, and sell to the same types of stores you want to sell to. Ask people in those booths who their agent or distributor is for the state you live in. Once you contact that person, he or she is often willing to give you a list of agents or distributors nationwide.

Success on Display

One reason stores don't like to carry a novel product is that people won't be looking for it or know what it is. "At shows, we displayed our product in a dark booth in which the cubes really showed well," Vanderschuit says. "They don't show as well in a blister package, [so] we've developed a display that shows off the cubes. We're working to get stores to carry it."

Don't develop your display until after you visit stores to see what kinds of displays are used for new products. Sometimes, they'll sit at the end of an aisle or in a point-of-purchase display by the cash register.

Once you see what displays stores like, design similar ones for your product. You may even need two or three if you plan on selling to a variety of stores. Your best bet is to have them ready when attending trade shows.

One of the most important steps is to find out what obstacles you will face. Keep your eyes open to possible markets, and exhibit at trade shows. It's a simple formula, but as Vanderschuit has proved, it works. The market does want novel products. It's your job to keep pushing until your product is accepted. If you do, you could match Vanderschuit's success.

SHOW AND SELL
The Electronic Retailing Association, which represents direct-response marketers that sell on TV, the Internet and radio, is hosting its annual trade show October 12-16 in Las Vegas. This show is great for those who've invented a product with broad appeal. Many direct-response advertisers will be looking for new products and will set up exhibits that detail the products they've successfully sold. The show can be a good opportunity to talk to a number of service providers who could help you launch your product. For more information, visit www.retailing.org or call (800) 987-6462.

Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas. Send him your questions at dondebelak34@msn.com.

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