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Sweating the details: odor eliminating disposable laundry bags

30 Sep

Like millions of busy, health-conscious professionals around the world, I strive to hit the gym before work as often as possible. My gym is conveniently located on the same block as my office, so after a grueling workout, I hit the shower and head into the office to start my day. Just as my workouts leave my lungs and muscles exhausted, so too are my gym clothes, which are transformed into sweat-soaked relics of a solid gym session.


Conveniently, my gym provides disposable plastic bags to store my sweaty gear until I’m able to dump it in the laundry – 12 hours later when I get home from work. The bags protect my coworkers from the foul odors that are no doubt emanating from my stinky gear, but at the same time the bags create an environment that fosters the buildup of bacteria and “funk” that somehow overpowers even the most intense laundry detergents and washing cycles. What ends up happening is that the life of my gym clothes is cut short. As I’ve repeated the experience of dumping my dirty workout clothes into the laundry countless times over the past several years, I’ve realized that there is a real opportunity to design a solution to improve the disposable gym bag.

The bags that my gym and countless others around the world provide to their patrons are pretty much identical to produce bags that you’ll find in a supermarket. This solution is cost-effective and convenient, but doesn’t address the issues of odor and moisture that are by-products of the fitness session. What I imagine is a bag with an odor-fighting and moisture-wicking liner that extends the life of gym clothes by pre-treating them before they are laundered. Just as a box of baking soda in the fridge eliminates odors and  a slice of bread in a jar of brown sugar absorbs moisture and prevents clumping, so too could a treated laundry bag provide the same benefits for dirty clothes.

The market for such a solution is huge – according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, there are almost 30,000 health clubs with 51.4 million members in the U.S. alone. These 30,000 facilities all produce millions of pounds of sweaty and stinking workout gear that, for the most part, fester in a pile of dirty clothes until the gym-goer feels compelled to run a load of laundry. A “better bag” would be an easy sell to many of these health clubs, which attract members partly on the basis of amenities offered.

In addition to the B2B sales of this product to health clubs around the world, there is a compelling B2C market. The success of Glad’s innovative scented garbage bags, leveraging the Febreeze brand, shows a consumer interest in “premium plastic bags”; I imagine that a treated disposable laundry bag would be an attractive offering for travelers, students and a range of other consumers interested in temporarily storing odorous possessions until they can be washed or disposed of.

Once developed and launched, the brand would be a natural acquisition target for bag manufacturers such as Hefty and Glad.


White Space Opportunities around Digital Textbooks

20 Jan

“Get NOOK Free!” reads the banner ad on the New York Times’ website. Barnes & Noble, creator of the NOOK e-reader, has partnered with the New York Times to give away its NOOK Simple Touch with a 1-year online subscription to the NYT. Why would Barnes & Noble give away a product that is already heavily discounted at $99? Simple: e-readers are not profitable products, they’re valuable service platforms.

As we’ve recently reported in Fast Company, incorporating services into traditionally product-centric “design, manufacture, market” models–or replacing the product entirely with services–allows companies to create value for their customers as well as their shareholders. In the instance of media, we’re seeing that by replacing physical products (books, CDs, DVDs) with digital equivalents, companies that create service platforms accessible via consumer electronics are able to capture revenues previously owned by retailers and publishers.

The closing of Borders and the declining sales at Barnes & Noble stores indicate that the digitzation of media isn’t a trend, but instead a shift towards a new model in which traditionally tech-centric firms (Apple) have entered the media business, and retailers (B&N) have entered the tech business.

Apple’s announcement on Wednesday that it would take on the $10 billion textbook market by turning its iTunes U app into a platform for digital textbooks further signals the attractiveness of the white space opportunities available around digital service platforms. In addition to low price points ($14.99 for textbooks), Apple plans to launch a self-publishing tool called iAuthor. E-textbooks are a palatable proposition for consumers – not only are they less expensive, but they’re also more portable, interactive and easily integrated with other products and software – and to those who sell them.

Digital textbooks are attractive to Apple, and its competitors who plan to enter the market, because of the revenue streams and unique business models that can be created around them. One can easily imagine that the $14.99 textbook sold on iTunes U could be supplemented with additional question banks, content updates, study guides and videos – high-margin add-ons that would no doubt add millions to Apple’s coffers. It will be interesting to see how these companies develop innovative partnerships with both schools and content providers, and how the role of the physical product used to access digital content will evolve.

Do you think we’ll see Apple pull a NOOK-like move, and give away iPads to university students in the near future? It does seem far-fetched, but there is no doubt that as price points for the increasingly commoditized products fall, the market will turn to the pasture where the new cash cow grazes: digital service platforms.

BRIC’s and Beer

20 Oct

As Germany’s infamous Oktoberfest winds down to a close, I find it appropriate to reflect on one of my favorite subjects: beer. After water and tea, beer is the third most popular beverage in the world, and one of the oldest prepared beverages – evidence of beer brewing, accidental or not, pre-dates written history by millennia. I find it particularly interesting to think about the challenges modern brewers face in marketing and distributing beer in such a competitive market, especially in some of the world’s largest populations and economies: the BRICs.   

A recent Businessweek article profiled the push by Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s flagship brand, into Brazil. Interestingly enough, Brazil is the birthplace of the majority of the parent company’s board, and is the world’s fourth largest beer market by volume.  The annual per capita consumption of beer in South America’s largest country was 47.6 liters, according to Japanese brewer and holding company Kirin; seeing as how per capita consumption for the top 20 most fervent beer drinking markets is at least 59.6 liters, Budweiser and its competitors must be licking their chops at the opportunity to convert more Brasileiros from drinking caipirinhas to drinking cervejas.

In Russia, unsurprisingly, beer takes second place to vodka as the most popular alcoholic drink, and many consumers view beer not as an alcoholic beverage, but rather as a soft drink. Still, Russians consume on average 58.9 liters per capita.  Presently, the market is dominated by domestic brewer Baltika(now owned by Carlsberg), while AB-InBev’s Budweiser controls just 0.5% of the market. Though thirsty Russians may prefer vodka to beer, they still consume enough to make it the world’s third largest beer market, according to Kirin.

The Indian beer market dates back to the early days of the British Empire, when porters and the appropriately named India Pale Ales were exported to the subcontinent. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the number of Indians consuming alcohol has increased from 1 in 300 to 1 in 20; even though alcohol consumption has grown rapidly, as marketers increase their efforts, beer accounts for only 10% of all alcohol consumed. What is the most popular beer in India? Kingfisher – roughly 1 out of every 3 bottles of beer sold in India is this lager, brewed by Bangalore-based United Breweries Group.

China, the world’s largest country by population, is unsurprisingly one of the fastest growing markets for beer in the world. China is already the world’s largest beer market by volume, yet per capita consumption – 22.1 liters – doesn’t even warrant the country a place in Kirin’s ranking of 35 beer-drinking countries.  As Madison Avenue advertisers and their international brethren refine their offerings for the Chinese market, one can imagine that it will only be a matter of time before the Chinese catch up to Western beer drinkers. Will foreign breweries be able to successfully infiltrate the notoriously difficult to navigate economy of China?  Yes, but not organically; CR Snow, a joint venture between SABMiller and China Resources, brews Snow, which eclipsed the domestic beer Tsingtao as the market leader for the first time in 2006.

Tastes vary among cultures and country to country, but there is no denying the investments that the world’s largest breweries are making to court those in the largest developing countries. The American image abroad hasn’t exactly been spotless in recent years, but what about American brands? According to Chris Buggraeve, AB InBev’s Chief Marketing Officer, American values resonate globally, even if American politics don’t. “It [Budweiser] doesn’t stand for America. It stands for deep American values that are extremely relevant worldwide,” he says. Cheers to that.

The “Don’t park so close to my car” Sensor System

28 Feb

Auto technology has evolved radically in the last few decades, but no one seems to have solved the issue of the minor bumps and scratches caused by urban parking. Sure, there are sensors on bumpers that let drivers know when they are backing up too close to the car behind them, but more often then not those systems just enable drivers to know exactly when they are about to “gently bump” the car behind them while parallel parking.

Some car owners have gone so far as to protect their cars with the terribly offensive “bumper bullies“. Why would anyone fork over $40k for a sexy new car and then slap on something so tacky, all in the name of scratch-free city parking? I suppose that question answers itself, but regardless, I’m not a fan.

When you parallel park, what happens when you are backing up and get too close to a car with the driver is still inside? More often than not, he or she will honk angrily, and maybe offer a kind finger, fist shake, or a hands-in-the-air gesture of “whatareyoudoing? DONT HIT MY CAR!”

What is more likely to cause you to stop reversing and pull forward while parallel parking- your beeping motion sensor system, or someone honking? Probably the latter, as it is an externality to be reckoned with, instead of a system that you control. For that reason, I think a great product would be a motion sensor for the front and rear bumper of cars that links directly to the horn. That way, if someone is backing up or pulling up too close to your car, your car yells at them for you! Genius! Also, as this would just be a small motion sensor device, it would be infinitely less invasive and tacky as a giant rubber bumper bully. The device could be powered by the car battery, and would use little energy- the device would lay dormant in a “sleep mode” until something moved within a certain range. If the offending car (or motorcycle, or cow?) got too close, your car would blast a short honk.

Time for some Devil’s advocate.

-How would you keep the sensor from beeping at every person that walked by the car?

-Would the sensor continuously beep as long as something is within a certain range?

-This device probably already exists

-Car owners with this device would be issued tickets in no-honk zones

Ok so that doesn’t seem completely unreasonable. Now, how would you monetize this idea? I think there are basically three options: you could manufacture and sell the product directly to consumers (maybe via awesomely scripted and produced late-night infomercials?), you could manufacture the product and sell it to retailers (Auto-Zone, Wal-Mart, etc.), OR you could license the technology to car manufacturers.

Which would be the most successful? My guess is that there is no demand from car manufacturers for a way to give their cars such loud defense mechanisms. Don’t they want you to scratch up and wreck your car so you have to by a new one? The market for this device would be fairly small, appealing mostly to urban car owners that do not have access to private parking.

Clearly I’m not sprinting out to patent this idea, but it is really interesting. In what other instances could this particular device, that’s essentially a defense mechanism for cars, be applied?