Grocery Headquarters recognizes the innovators and trendsetters in the general merchandise category with its 2014 Trailblazer awards.
For the second year in a row, Grocery Headquarters takes a close look at what is driving the general merchandise category in grocery outlets and the companies behind the products.
Through its research, the editorial staff discovered that some segments’ sales are flourishing while others left room for growth. One thing is certain: manufacturers are dedicated to building the category with innovative ideas targeted toward shoppers’ wide range of demands.
To honor the companies that are leading the category, Grocery Headquarters presents its 2014 General Merchandise Trailblazer Awards. The winners are…
Avanti Press started at a kitchen table in Detroit when founder Rick Ruffner recognized a market for artistic photographic greeting cards—cityscapes, landscapes and still life, among others. It was not until the early 1980s when “a cat did something funny in a photo” that Avanti Press began to organically evolve into what it is known for today, says Marc Trobman, vice president for business development. The line now has a number of recurring characters that are placed in exaggerated lifelike situations that hone the imagination.
With the tagline “seriously funny,” the Detroit-based company focuses solely on the genre of humorous photographic greeting cards. Trobman says that while other companies try to emulate their style, it is a small part of what they offer. “Since this is the only thing we do, we do it really well. We are the craft beer of the greeting card industry,” he adds. The industry agrees: This year five of Avanti Press’s greeting cards were nominated for a Louie Award, which Trobman describes as the “Oscars of the greeting card industry.”
Through third-party consumer research the company learned that consumers’ preferred type of greeting card is humor—“clean age humor,” as opposed to “potty, risqué, political or edgy humor,” says Trobman. “These types of cards just make you smile or laugh out loud. That is exactly our sweet spot.”
Officials believe there is significant room for growth for the category in the grocery channel. The industry is not shrinking, says Trobman, but the number of brick-and-mortars selling greeting cards is declining: “Someone is gaining share; why shouldn’t it be grocery?”
Additionally, the company has expanded into licensing programs with its characters; they will be showing up on school supplies, kids clothing and a number of other products.
Big Time Products
Since Big Time’s first shipment in 2004, the company has grown to be one of the largest work, garden, cleaning, automotive and high performance glove suppliers in the U.S. at the retail level. The Rome, Ga.-based glove manufacturer is now expanding into other consumer product categories, such as umbrellas and safety shoes.
Co-founders Harry Pierce and Rick Chambers dubbed the name Big Time Products because they knew they were creating something destined to be “big time,” say company officials. Failure has never been an option for Chambers or Pierce; the team has the unique ability to see the end of a project before it begins, they add.
Big Time Products has managed to maintain relationships with customers and end consumers, despite its notable growth, says Rick Chambers, president. “The Big Time Products philosophy is to help our retail partners grow, as a joint effort in choosing the right product mix, strategic placement, aggressive pricing, promotional activity and seasonal timing for additional growth opportunities.”
Bradshaw International was founded in 1905 by R.D. Bradshaw with an entrepreneurial spirit. That spirit still exists in its corporate culture as Bradshaw prides itself in being an innovator that is always searching for a better way to do a simple kitchen task, thus making life just a little bit easier for today’s busy homemaker, says Tom Barber, vice president of product development for the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based company.
“At Bradshaw, we never lose sight of who we are designing for—trends are important because they are set by users, not by manufacturers. We pride ourselves in being the type of company that listens to this, while resisting the urge to over-design. Our products are efficient, stylish, uncomplicated and thoughtfully designed for ease of use and durability,” Barber adds.
An example of the company’s innovations is the Touch Juicer. It has a pulp strainer built into the juicer that separates the pulp from the juice during the act of juicing; yet, both sides of the dividing strainer can be poured into the glass, depending on which spout is used. Also, the company’s ProFreshionals Bowlander is an innovation designed to make washing small fruits and vegetables easier with its built-in colander.
“As we quietly lead the industry in the tools and gadgets and bakeware categories, we also strive to lead in customer service, constantly learning new ways to help our retail partners,” Barber says.
Butler Home Products
Butler Home Products began in 1947 as Easy Day Manufacturing Co. in Chelsea, Mass. The company was known for its cleaning tools that “made an ‘easy day’ of housework” and for its industry firsts, like the first mop advertised on television, say company officials.
In the late 1960’s the company created a unified approach to merchandising the cleaning tools category and provided products under one label across many different categories, officials say, creating a “category management” approach, before the term came into being.
Fast forward to 1999 and Butler Home Products, based in Marlborough, Mass., was born with the addition of the first national consumer branded licensing deal with Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean brand. Butler was able to differentiate itself from the competition with a national brand, great product and competitive pricing, says Michael Silverman, senior vice president, marketing/NPD. The new branding strategy took hold and was expanded to include P&G’s Charmin, Dawn, Febreze and Gain brands, say officials. Butler continued to grow and in 2003 merged with kitchen tool and gadget maker Bradshaw International.
“Our company is made up of consumers. We all use these products at home and we take great pride in the innovation and unique approach we have to product development. We have partnered with some of the strongest consumer brands in the world and with the right product and the right brand at the right price—it has proven itself to be a winning combination,” says Silverman.
Candle-lite has a rich heritage of manufacturing quality candles for more than 170 years. Unique to Candle-lite is a comprehensive candle product range for the home décor and floral departments in the food, drug and mass arena, say company officials. Candle-lite’s Everyday Essentials core product line alone offers the consumer seventeen color/fragrance choices. On-trend collections, such as essential elements, Authentic Luxury and newly launched Waves and Blooms are designed in response to the wishes of fashion conscious shoppers.
Quality also sets Candle-lite, based in Cincinnati, apart from the competition, say officials. The company does rigorous testing of all new product launches to assure consumer satisfaction and confidence. Candle-lite adheres to all standards, and as a domestic manufacturer, provides candles at an affordable price without ever sacrificing quality or burn performance, add officials.
Candles remain a very strong home décor category, says Mark Cunningham, vice president of marketing and sales. “No other consumer product can match the ambiance of a burning candle, but there are times when a flameless alternative may be desired. Candle-lite is a leader in flameless home products using wax delivery systems and has been an expert in delivering fragrance through a wax medium since 1840.”
Candle-lite’s Aroma Melts system provides fragrance with no flame and no clean up. The highly scented Wax Cubes programs are currently available in all seventeen fragrances of the Everyday Essentials line and enhance the Revere House and essential elements collections.
“The sheer scale of Candle-lite’s manufacturing and distribution operation has allowed the company to grow across all mass retail chains, domestically and internationally,” says Cunningham. “Strategic focus on quality, value and driving sales growth through category management has been Candle-lite’s process for success resulting in a path to profits for retail partners.”
Clean Ones Corp.
Clean Ones Corp. prides itself on its commitment to understanding and responding to consumers’ needs by actively listening and encouraging feedback. This allows the company to develop and provide products especially designed to address key consumer needs, ultimately providing a product that the consumer loves.
As a single source solution for branded and private label products, the Portland, Ore.-based company has the ability to react quickly to consumer trends and demands and to drive profitable sales for the retailers, say company officials.
“We continue to see consumers actively seeking out higher quality gloves, along with a greater selection in material types, colors and pack sizes, especially among younger consumers,” says Kimberly Milstead, product marketing manager. “We are beginning to see retailers increasing their product offerings to meet these consumer needs, which drives category sales.”
By offering a large variety of gloves that provide durable and comfortable hand protection combined with options, such as latex-free and blended materials, color choices and other performance features, the company is able to provide consumers with products that help make their lives easier, adds Milstead.
Contigo is passionate about listening to consumers and engineering products that solve real problems. The company prides itself on being able to translate consumer needs into relevant solutions; for example, its patented AUTOSEAL technology eliminates leaks and spills in travel mugs, according to company officials.
The Chicago-based company’s product offerings include meaningful innovations designed to address all the challenges facing today’s on-the-go customers, from stopping leaks and spills and retaining heat to accommodating popular new drinking styles and beverages, says Todd Starr, vice president of marketing and product development. “It’s this commitment to identifying consumer needs, creating the best possible product and then continually perfecting it that sets Contigo apart and allows us to produce the best drinkware solutions for our customers.
“Additionally, Contigo’s quality products are dependable, reliable, durable and backed by a limited lifetime guarantee. We have a fiercely loyal following and the vast majority of our customers have more than one of our products. Customers have come to expect quality and performance from Contigo,” he adds.
One trend the company has taken note of is the growing popularity of protein shakes. Company officials say the sports performance food and drink category is expected to continue growing at least through 2017. To address this, Contigo is releasing the Shake & Go Fit Mixer bottle this summer. “With a round bottom design and weighted shaker ball, it offers a solution for quick mixing and easier cleaning,” Starr says.
Another trend Contigo is seeing is the demand for travel mugs under $15. In January, Contigo released a collection of travel mugs with its SnapSeal lid system, which Starr says offers consumers a travel mug with superior features, like a leak-proof lid with one handed operation and great heat retention, at competitive price points.
Cool Gear International
Since 2000, Cool Gear International has been revolutionizing the housewares and hydration industry. The company is recognized in the industry for bringing a fresh approach, fashionable colors and graphics to its unique product lines, at a great value, say officials.
With more than 150 design and utility patents worldwide, including its proprietary freezer gel products, the company’s “innovative, trend-driven products are the reason Cool Gear has become the in-demand brand for many consumers worldwide,” says Donna Roth, CEO.
“The company’s highly talented staff of trend-savvy graphic artists and product designers think outside the box and collaboratively work together to bring trend driven functional products to the marketplace,” Roth says. Cool Gear, based in Plymouth, Mass., offers custom-designed products, packaging and point-of-purchase displays for key retailers as well as the premium market.
“Our products represent originality, efficiency and trendiness, and they reflect our commitment to the global initiative for a greener planet. We are committed to producing high-quality products, while maintaining company and factory compliance with all local, national and global regulations,” says Roth, adding that Cool Gear has a 100% satisfaction guarantee for consumers on all of its products.
Design Design opened its doors more than 25 years ago with a passion to create trendy, design-driven personal expressions that connect and celebrate people. The passion continues today with a full-line of social expression products that include greeting cards, gift packaging, paper tableware, cocktailing, stationery gifts and cake candles.
The products offer range, says Colin Littler, director of marketing for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company. “We can transform a retail space into a profit center. From birthday cards, to plates, cups and napkins, to gift bags, to cake candles; we are a one-stop destination for customers for all kinds of occasions, including the everyday.” The company’s products are designed to coordinate with each other, creating endless possibilities for eye-catching retail merchandising solutions.
Littler adds that Design Design artists and creative directors travel the world to research the latest trends in fashion and interiors in order to stay relevant in the industry; and they work with artists and designers worldwide to capture new voices and ideas for upcoming products.
Coming in 2014, the company is expanding its gift-packaging category with decorative boxes and gift décor, as well as its paper tableware, such as cups, straws, straw flags, table covers, runners, placemats and rustic taper candles. “In our ever-expanding full-range greeting card category, retailers will see more options in humor, text-driven and photography art styles to reach an even broader audience,” says Littler.
Designer Greetings began in 1982 in New York. After many years in the greeting card business, Jack Gimbelman and his wife Vickie seized the opportunity to open their own business. Today, based in a 120,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art office, showroom and warehouse in Edison, N.J., Designer Greetings remains a family-owned and -operated company. Gimbelman’s son and daughter head up the operation as president and co-president/chief creative officer, and Vickie is the co-founder/executive director.
As an award-winning leader in the social expressions industry, company officials say Designer Greetings is a chosen brand by grocery stores, card and gift shops and more. “We take pride in producing one of the most extensive greeting card lines and also offer a complete line of gift wrap,” says Suzanne Haines, vice president of marketing. “High-quality product, value and outstanding customer service are our priorities and are among the attributes that set us apart.”
For the retail outlet, Designer Greetings creates high-turning planograms based on a retailer’s market demographics and a space-to-sales analysis, tailoring its controls to succeed for its accounts.
Among the company’s product offerings are more than 21,000 high-quality everyday and seasonal Designer Greetings counter cards—traditional to alternative and ethnic; boxed holiday cards, including the coastal/nautical Red Farm Studio brand; deluxe everyday boxed card assortments; deluxe boxed decorative and thank you blank note cards; packaged invitations and thank you notes. The Glitterwrap gift wrap includes everyday and seasonal roll and flat wrap, gift bags, tissue, ribbon, bows, gift tags and stickers.
“There are Designer Greetings programs and product offerings for every supermarket,” says Haines.
IdeaVillage Products Corp.
Since 1999, Ideavillage Products Corp. has been bringing products to market under the As Seen On TV (ASOTV) banner. The company is dedicated to providing affordable, quality products offering solutions to life’s everyday problems, say company officials.
“Staying true to this simple business practice and employing aggressive national marketing and merchandising strategies and commitments, many IdeaVillage brands have been catapulted to the position of top performing product in their class,” says Ron Boger, president and COO, adding that today, they are among the most popular line of consumer goods.
For example, in May 2013 IdeaVillage launched an electronics division. In December 2013, Flips headphones were named one of the Top 7 Products Online by Time Magazine Business & Money, say company officials.
By proving the marketability of items and creating consumer demand before a product ever hits the retail shelf, the company has developed an assortment of highly impulsive items, says Boger. “Our customer’s only job is to find a high-traffic area to merchandise the products. The winning combination results in more dollars per square foot than any other product in the retail store,” he says.
Part of the Wayne, N.J.-based company’s business model is that they focus not only on the products, but develop brands. “We build a long-term relationship and sales cycle for retailers. It is not just an in-and-out item. One of the things IdeaVillage does, and does best, is bring innovative products to market and that’s one of the reasons that sales are propelled,” Boger says.
Giving back to the community is also a priority for IdeaVillage. “We have done some really wonderful things, including charity work with The Boys and Girls Club of America, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Breast Cancer Research Foundation. So for an ASOTV company with a $10 item, being able to give back to the community is a very special thing and something we have been very fortunate to be a part of and be able to do,” says Boger.
Mark Hirschberg founded Multipet International twenty years ago. With roots in the pet industry dating back to his grandparents, Hirschberg recognized a void in design, quality and innovation. It was his dream to bring these elements to the industry, say company officials.
In a very short period of time Multipet’s Talking Toys, humor-inspired Fleas that say “Bite Me,” and licensed toys, including Mr. Bill and Lamb Chop, were filling shelves across the country, including local mom-and-pop stores, grocery, drug, pet specialty and mass. Consumers have come to recognize the purple sewn-in tags and ask for Multipet toys by name, officials say.
The Moonachie, N.J.-based company’s toys have also been recognized by Hollywood: Oprah named them as her dog’s favorite toys, movies use them as props and the toys have been featured in more than 25 commercials. Recently Robin Williams was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and ended his time walking off stage with a Multipet toy in his mouth.
Hirschberg views the employees of Multipet as his family, says Leslie Yellin, executive vice president. “In 2005 Hirschberg designed Pink Ribbon toys to support an employees battle with breast cancer; to date we have donated thousands of dollars to help find a cure. We also have yellow ribbon ‘Support the Troops’ toys; and each year we give back to the real heroes, people who rescue and help find homes for homeless pets.
“We feel it is our moral responsibility to support these individuals as well as donate toys so that we can bring some love and happiness to these beautiful animals,” Yellin adds.
In today’s environment there are many companies that make toys, but Multipet stands apart by consistently studying trends, working with consumer groups and listening to the pet parent’s needs when deciding which toys to purchase. Officials say consistency is the key to its quality, designs and customer and consumer support. “We don’t view ourselves as just another company making toys, but as a family bonded together with the goal to bring happiness to our four-legged community,” says Yellin.
Navajo is a privately held company that has been in business for more than 35 years. Based in Denver Colo., Navajo operates in multiple channels of distribution, including convenience, grocery, drug, mass and specialty, offering multiple full line categories, such as eyewear; HBW (travel size), mobile device accessories and other general merchandise products like barware and auto.
Its continued success comes from a drive to provide high-quality products at the right price, its long-standing relationships with customers and excellent partnering with vendors that has helped fuel above-average industry growth, says Deborah Levy-Abreu, vice president of marketing.
“Our category teams source product, design packaging and respond to market needs by studying trends, ideas and shopper insights as they relate to the marketplace,” she says. All of the company’s programs offer multiple merchandising solutions and can be customized to address specific market needs, and ensure the highest levels of satisfaction to customers.
Navajo would like to be known for listening to its customers and solving their problems, says Levy-Abreu, adding that they meet with industry guests and retailers, diligently working to understand problems that retailers face now as well as understanding future trends.
Navajo is unique in that it can provide retailers with multiple lines. “Our category management teams ensure each retailer gets the correct product mix for its demographics. Understanding consumers’ habits enhance our ability to continually build strong programs,” says Levy-Abreu.
Omega Paw officials are focused on manufacturing products that are truly innovative. “We strive to be at the front of the trend and bring the consumer products that meet their needs, and at the same time help the consumer realize that they have that need,” says Terry Hannaford, CEO for the St. Marys, Ont., Canada-based company.
The company manufactures products across a number of different categories: dog treats, cat treats, dog toys, cat toys, cat accessories, cat and dog feeding accessories and dog health items. In each category Omega Paw brings innovation and newness, says Hannaford, adding that “newness sells: consumers have a strong desire for new innovative items and manufacturers and retailers that bring the consumers these type of items excel in the marketplace.”
The company refers to its new line of cat treats as an example of newness and innovation. Traditionally, cat treats are developed for health and have been marketed in a very juvenile way, says Hannaford. “Omega Paw’s new line of Meowtinis Cat Treats—Cranberry Cabernet, Meowgaritas, Meowjito, Meowmosa and Meow Merlot—are soft and moist, sophisticated full-bodied cat treats made with delicate, healthier and delicious ingredients. These treats bring newness to a category that has been fairly stagnant for a long time.”
Brew Buddies line of dog treats, made with the same ingredients that are in beer, such as malted barley, brewers rice and brewers yeast also exemplifies the company’s dedication to innovation.
Procter & Gamble
For 176 years, Procter & Gamble (P&G) has aimed at making the seemingly ordinary extraordinary with its products. It was a dream that began when William Procter and James Gamble made their way to Cincinnati, married sisters and founded the company. Still based in Cincinnati, today P&G serves more than 4.8 billion consumers in 180+ countries, according to company officials.
With a heritage rooted deep in consumer understanding and proven innovation, P&G’s commitment to touching and improving lives is evidenced through its efforts to help people in need, says Jane Novak-Cook, vice president, customer business development, food channel. “Our social programs have touched over 50 million people globally.
“Our deep commitment to consumer understanding through proven innovation enables us to support our brands, drive scale and in turn increase household penetration,” Novak-Cook adds.
Rodale, in partnership with Time Warner Retail, Wholesaler Marketers and Retailers, is always testing new ideas at new locations to maximize available space with one goal: increase magazine sales and profits for retailers. These choice locations engage customers where healthy living is at peak interest while creating new touch points in high dwell areas of the store.
One growing trend that Emmaus, Penn.-based Rodale is responding to is customers’ interaction with their smartphones. Consumers are effectively putting blinds on their ability to see products, especially at the front end checkouts, says Diederik Terlaak Poot, senior national marketing director, adding that the solution is to capture their attention during the shopping experience. “The secret to sales in retail, just like in real estate, continues to be location, location, location. Showcasing magazines through unique displays in unusual ways and unexpected places can result in big magazine sales gains,” he adds.
One of Rodale’s new touch points is the Take A Tab Deli Spinner. According to NPD, lunch-daypart customer traffic at retail stores has increased 29% since 2008, and NPD attributes this to more healthy options, along with variety, light meals, one-stop convenience and affordability, say company officials. “Take a number” can also mean “take a look at our titles;” maximizing the empty space below the ticket dispenser has driven incremental sales at three grocery chains, with Men’s Health averaging a 55% sales lift, says Terlaak Poot.
Additionally, the cross merchandising pharmacy display continues to be a high-volume, high-traffic and high-dwell area for many retailers, say officials. Rodale’s Pharmacy Power Wing display is designed to add value and visibility to an existing endcap, giving customers a wealth of health and fitness titles when health is top of mind. Test results in a major regional grocery chain showed impressive average sales increases in stores with the Power Wing compared to stores without the unit: Prevention up 63%; Men’s Health up 73%; and Women’s Health up 111%, says Terlaak Poot.
ShurTech Brands markets do-it-yourself tapes, office and housewares products under the Duck, FrogTape, Painter’s Mate Green, Easy Liner, GeckoTech and Shurtape brands. While the company started with its flagship product, Duck Tape, it has continued to innovate and expand its offerings to include high-quality products that are designed to solve common consumer problems, say company officials.
The company’s premium painter’s tape, FrogTape, features patented PaintBlock Technology, which helps to prevent paint bleed and create sharp paint lines, while the EZ Start packaging tape offers Frustration Free special release technology.
Recently, the company introduced GeckoTech Reusable Hooks, made with micro-suction technology and designed to provide a damage-free solution for organization projects around the home, school and office.
“Our broad product offering helps to differentiate us in the market, as well as our attention-grabbing marketing programs,” says Bill Kahl, executive vice president of marketing. “Through social media, unique promotions and more, we seek to motivate end users by inspiring them with creative ideas and product uses.” The Avon, Ohio-based company’s annual Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest challenges high school students to create Duck Tape prom attire to earn scholarships, daring them to think beyond the traditional repair use of the product.
And, instead of a typical home makeover, FrogTape brand painter’s tape combined its products with the style expertise and construction know-how of the brand’s spokespeople, to transform an elementary school lunchroom from “drab to fab” in three days in the FrogTape Love for the Lunchroom cafeteria makeover project. “Not only did this program embrace creativity, but it also celebrated the magical effect a little imagination and hard work can have on a community,” says Kahl.
“Whether it is our innovative product lines or our unique marketing programs, ShurTech Brands continues to differentiate itself by inspiring creativity and imagination, no matter the task at-hand,” Kahl adds.
Whink Products Co.
Whink Products Co.’s 1947 beginning was the result of research done on synthetic detergents during WWII rationing. Even though its powdered laundry detergent did not sell as expected, company officials say the company’s flexibility and reinvention of the business model became its biggest asset, and it continues to ‘shed its skin’ and adapt to new opportunities and demands in the marketplace.
One of the most important elements of the business is exploring counterintuitive products and formulations, says Stephen Throssel, president and CEO for the Eldora, Iowa-based company. Whink Rust Oxy is an example of that process by mixing an oxidizing agent with an acid. Through experimentation, Whink’s on-site research and development team created a toilet bowl rust stain remover that cleans above the water line with a foaming action. “This thought process meant overcoming accepted limitations to create an unexpected new product,” adds Throssel.
“Whink Products’ highly effective formulas play into today’s economy by reducing the amount of water needed to clean, saving time and money for consumers. In today’s world, water and time are two of the most important things to save,” Throssel says.
Whink’s product development continues with two new products in 2014: Whink Uniform Pre-wash and Whink Septic Treatment packets.
World’s Best Cat Litter
World’s Best Cat Litter was born out of and continues to thrive on the dedication to ensuring a better litter box experience and stronger bonds between pets and people, say company officials.
The brand’s story began in 1998 when scientists at Grain Processing Corp. (GPC) discovered a revolutionary cat litter formula that harnessed the naturally absorbent properties of corn to eliminate nasty pet odor and form tight clumps that were easy to scoop. Officials say it was the first cat litter that used 100% natural corn and set a new standard for performance that challenged traditional clay litters.
The Kent family—the founders of the brand’s parent company, Kent Pet Group, based in Muscatine, Iowa—quickly realized the importance of the discovery and decided it would only be natural to name it World’s Best Cat Litter. Over the years, the company has tirelessly worked to discover and release new formulas that meet the performance expectations and preferences of the brands diverse customer base, say officials.
“While we are committed to offering pet, people and planet-friendly litters that deliver outstanding odor control, quick clumping and easy scooping, the brand was founded on more than sound science and exceptional performance,” says Jean Broders, brand manager. “We believe in supporting programs that further and enhance human-pet relationships. Our ongoing GiveLitter campaign engages cat lovers online and has empowered them to help donate more than 346,000 pounds of free World’s Best Cat Litter to animal shelters across the U.S.
“Whether the brand is innovating new formulas or giving back, World’s Best Cat Litter remains committed to being more than a product—we are a solution,” adds Broders.