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Lighting the Way

In the dark because your oddball product doesn't fit with buyers? There is success at the end of the tunnel.

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.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lighting the Way.

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