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Singular Sensation

It's your best product. Actually, it's your only product. But you can still get big retailers to take notice.
November 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/45458

You've probably heard that big retailers tend to shy away from one-product companies. Fact is, chain stores feel that with the large amount of internal paperwork required to add a new vendor, it's not really worth their time to bother with a one-line company.

But that doesn't mean it's impossible to get the attention of big retailers with only one product. Case in point: Christopher Carter, 38, founder of Storm Master Corp. of Parker, Colorado, whose Gutter Pump has successfully made it to the shelves of Home Depot stores. It was certainly a lucky break-penetrating large retail stores, even on a regional basis, is big business. Carter expects 2001 sales to hit $400,000, and 2002 promises to be even better, as Home Depots in several other regions are expressing interest in carrying his product.

How'd he do it? Before his big break, Carter sold his product mainly to independent hardware stores in the Northwest. Home Depot took notice when shoppers familiar with the Gutter Pump started asking for it by name in the company's stores. If there's one thing big retailers hate, it's losing the business of customers ready to buy. But more on that later.

A Slow Start

The road to Home Depot was a long one for Carter. Like most inventions, the Gutter Pump was born of necessity. Carter, an engineer, regularly encountered trouble with his home's downspouts-they always clogged during major rainstorms. Heavy rains pushed leaves into the downspouts, plugging them up and causing water to overflow. Fed up, Carter finally decided to solve the problem himself. In 1993, he created a simple, mechanical PVC gutter pump with no moving parts. For a while, Carter was quite content just letting his prototype do its work on his own gutters. But then in 1995, Carter's father-in-law fell ill-leaving Carter in need of extra money to pay the medical bills. He decided to develop and sell his invention.

By the spring of 1997, Carter had made 1,000 units and was ready to attend two trade shows-the Rocky Mountain Home Show and the Denver Spring Home & Patio Show. Using an effective display to demonstrate how the pump worked, Carter sold 500 units for $6 apiece. He also met several experienced salespeople who were selling a noncompeting product. They liked the Gutter Pump so much that those eight manufacturer sales reps committed to selling it during the 1998 home-show season.

One-Product Pals
If you're ready to sell your product but lack much-needed cash, log on to Ideavillage. The site posts information for free on products that have passed its initial screening process. If your product sells well, company founder Andy Khubani, who pioneered the "As Seen On TV" category, will help finance its rollout to retailers. For details, visit the Web site or call (973) 808-7355. If you're still early in the process of trying to sell a patent or product idea, try one of these sites:

Later in 1997, Carter attended a QVC event in Denver, where hundreds of inventors competed for QVC's attention. "There were 250 people with new products at the event," Carter remembers. "QVC only chose 20, and we were one of the 20." The Gutter Pump sold so well on QVC that the channel did ask him back, but only a few more times. "QVC was our first big sale, but it didn't last," says Carter. "Fortunately, we had good sales from our representatives who worked the home shows throughout the country." Carter approached big retailers in this crucial early period. But, he says, "They just weren't interested in carrying our product."

Carter knew that even his success at the home shows wouldn't last for long. "They just want new products all the time." So he packed his bags and took the Gutter Pump to the 1998 Hardware Show in Chicago. Several catalogs bit-such as Brookstone, Improvements, Jerry Baher Master Gardener, Lee Valley Tools and Silvo Home. Those sales kept the company alive in 1999. But the big retailers? Again, says Carter, "We were perceived as just another 'one-SKU wonder.'"

That show opened up another door for Carter, though. While there, he met husband-and-wife reps Alden and Beverle Kottke of Beverle Alden Enterprises, who eventually sold the Gutter Pump to nearly every independent hardware store in Oregon and Washington.

At that point, Home Depot was starting to feel the pressure. People would see the Gutter Pump in a hardware store and think it was a great product but put off buying it till later. Then, they'd head down to Home Depot, money in hand. After two years of turning customers away, telling them they didn't carry the Gutter Pump, Home Depot's buyer for the Northwest finally went to see Carter. Customer pressure also helped Carter's company land an account to sell it in Ace Hardware stores nationwide.

Good Reputation

Part of Carter's success came from staying loyal to his reps. He's given them full rights to all Home Depot stores and allows them to sell to anyone in the country.

Carter knew that trying to keep Home Depot as a house account would have been a mistake. "The reps have been the ones who built the customer base that landed Home Depot," he says. "I want to give them a chance to make big money on the product, because that's what motivates them to keep selling."

Carter also realized that although advertising is important to big retailers, it's not essential. What impresses them most is that customers come in and ask for the product. So if you can't afford to advertise, concentrate on one market and get into every store you can. The big retailers will come around-even for a "one-SKU wonder"-if enough people want to buy your product.

Typically, inventors do best by concentrating on their local markets. That way, they can easily give demos, provide units on consignment, send friends in to buy the products and check in on each store to ensure products are being displayed correctly. Most inventors don't have the time to lock up a local market if they're simultaneously attempting to sell on a national level. Rather than spread yourself too thin, take Carter's advice and thoroughly sell out one market. That's usually good enough to get you into the local stores of a large retailer. Then, if you sell well in your local region, you'll have a great chance of being picked up by the chain across the country.

But will it sell?
For a realistic evaluation of your big idea, check out the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater. Since 1980, the service has assessed more than 6,000 ideas. A big advantage of this program over others: Marketing students at the university conduct a fairly thorough market evaluation, researching both competition and market benefits. Plus, the program is completed under a director's supervision. Evaluations cost $495, and most reports number 100 to 200 pages in length. For submission information, contact Milissa Rick at (262) 472-1365.

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

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