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Breath of Fresh Air

How do you sell buyers on an invention that creates a new product category?

The Entrepreneurs: Dr. Robert Pincus, 50; and Dr. Scott Gold, 49; ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists, and founders of SaltAire in New York City

Product Description: SaltAire is a drug-free, pH-balanced saline nasal rinse. Sold in a special application bottle with a built-in pump, it gently moisturizes nasal passages and flushes out irritants known to cause sinus infections. Typical sprays mist the nose, but SaltAire provides a full rinse of 1 to 2 ounces per use. Sinus sufferers use it every day; allergy sufferers and others use it as needed.

Startup: $150,000 in 1997 and 1998, until the Duane Reade Drug chain picked it up in 2002

Sales: $1.1 million projected for 2004

The Challenge: selling wary retailers on a product in a category of its own

You may be convinced consumers really want to buy your product, but selling retailers on the idea is another story. And it's especially difficult if said innovation creates a new product category, as did the SaltAire nasal rinse developed by Drs. Robert Pincus and Scott Gold. But despite the initial obstacles, these entrepreneurs moved forward with their medical product, securing shelf space in thousands of drugstores across the country and exceeding $1 million in sales. Take an inside look at their journey to success.

Steps to Success

1. Target a large market. Says Gold, "There are 90 million sinus and allergy sufferers, and 30 [million] to 35 million of [them] a year visit a doctor about their sinuses." Go to any drugstore, and you'll see all the allergy and sinus solutions on the market. This fact helped convince drugstore buyers there would be enough potential customers to make SaltAire go.

2. Provide evidence that your product is needed. "Over the past 10 years, there have been many studies showing the benefits of a saline nasal wash," says Pincus. "ENT doctors were aware of these studies but didn't have a product to recommend to patients." If you're not in the medical field, support could come from surveys of end-users or comments from big potential customers.

3. Give your product a twist to set it apart. Gold and Pincus came up with a product in the late '90s, but according to Gold, "people had trouble using it. Our big breakthrough came when I designed a bellows bottle [it's patented and has won two medical design awards] with a built-in pump that was easy for everyone to use." Since retailers are reluctant to take on new suppliers, you must have a feature other companies can't easily duplicate.

4. Create demand in the market. Gold and Pincus began selling the product on their Web site and giving it away to patients. Pincus explains, "We originally created the product for our patients. But when patients started telling their friends about [it], the demand was too much for our office, so we placed the product in two independent drugstores near the office." Retailers are happy to carry a product if people are coming in and asking for it. These first two retailers, says Gold, "did very well, and their success built momentum other drugstores noticed."

5. Start out in a small market test area. Gold and Pincus started to sell to independent stores in early 2001 and landed the huge Duane Reade Drug account in 2002. "We've tried to control our growth to areas where we can gather support from [the local] area," says Gold. "First, we went to independents around our clinic. Then, as doctors in Manhattan became aware of our product, we expanded to the Duane Reade Drug chain. That was followed by a successful test with some 144 Eckerd stores in the New York City metro area, and then, all 2,700 Eckerd stores nationally.

6. Create demand for the product outside of the test area. In the New York City metro area, Gold and Pincus expanded their market penetration by mailing information and the promise of a free sample to primary physicians, allergists and ENTs. "We had a phenomenal 16 to 18 percent response to direct mailings from doctors requesting a sample," says Pincus. "We've repeated this tactic in every market we've entered, mailing to physicians in the area before stocking the product at drugstores, and using physicians to create market awareness."

Lessons Learned

1. Target smaller retailers, which tend to look for cutting-edge products. Small retailers compete with big chains and mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart by selling cutting-edge products, some of them from small, one-line companies. For your first sales, look for small retailers that want new products. These retailers are especially receptive if you can deliver customers to their stores looking for your product.

2. Use publicity to make an impact on your market. If your product represents a new category, it won't sell just by sitting on a shelf. Get the word out by doing something with impact, like working with clubs relevant to your product, hosting events at the store, holding contests, or generating publicity. You have to generate interest so that people go to the store looking for your product. This usually requires you to move slowly into the market, as you need to coordinate promotions with new store openings.

3. Use your success in existing stores to secure new locations. Stores want products that sell, and nothing proves that point like success at other retailers. Sometimes, inventors are better off restricting sales to just a few retailers at first to ensure the product is a big success at those stores. The figure retailers want is the monthly sales per store, per foot of shelf space. Concentrate on making that number as high as possible.

4. Fix problems immediately. Retailers usually give you just one chance on their shelves and don't want to hear customer complaints about a new product. If your product has a problem for some users, don't take a chance that it won't surface. If it does, you'll lose your chance at that store, as well as your market momentum-and you may never recover. Fix the problem upfront, even if that means a delay of three to six months before getting the product into the market.

CASTING CALL
A new TV show, Million Dollar Idea, filmed at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, is looking for inventors who want to compete for a top prize that includes shelf space at QVC's Mall of America store. The show has been carried locally since May 2003 but recently partnered with the Mall of America to launch a nationally syndicated show this month.

They're looking for inventors of all types of products. To learn how to submit your idea, go to www.milliondollarideashow.com and click on "MDI Inventors." Or contact hosts Jean Golden and Todd Walker at . Check the Web site for TV stations carrying the show, and tune in to see the kinds of ideas people are coming up with.


Don Debelak is author of Entrepreneur magazine's Start-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Market (www.smallbizbooks.com), and host of inventor-help Web site www.dondebelak.com.

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Breath of Fresh Air.

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