irreverent, thought-provoking analysis of the industry.
What Makes a Product Successful?
The hits have certain qualities in common, no
matter what the category.
by Mike Hartnett (July 21, 2004)
The industry ultimately depends on vendors and retailers
accurately evaluating the potential of a new idea or product,
choosing the right ones from the thousands that promise to be big
sellers. In 25 years I've seen a million products; some that I was
convinced would be huge hits were flops. Others I hardly noticed
became huge hits.
So while I've been wrong a number of times, I've seen enough
blockbusters in various categories to notice some common qualities.
Whether it's scrapbooking, crafting, sewing, painting, or
needlework, there are certain elements a product or product category
1. "It takes the fear of failure away." Most
consumers, especially novice crafters, painters, scrappers, or
whomever, are afraid of failure. Fabric painting had been around for
years but consumers were afraid they'd ruin their clothing. Stencils
and iron-ons made fabric painting virtually risk-free – and the
category became the scrapbooking of its day.
Scrapbooking spread so fast because no one is afraid of sticking
photos in an album. As long as the industry keeps the appearance of
scrapbooking simple, it should continue to attract newcomers. Once
they're hooked, THEN introduce them to embellishments and other
products that can make scrapbooking an ongoing challenge. (See #6.)
High-end sewing and embroidery machines are selling well because
they allow home sewers to perform remarkable acts, virtually
2. "The consumer needs to do 10% of the work but gets
100% of the credit." In other words, the end result looks like
it required far more time and talent than it actually did. A classic
example: a decorative painter follows very specific, step-by-step
instructions, but when friends see the end result, they say,
"Oh, I didn't know you were an artist."
3. "Making the project costs less than buying a
readymade." Cardstock and a rubber stamp or two allow consumers
to make Christmas cards for far less than buying fancy readymade
cards. And because the crafter's cards are handmade, they carry a
far more personal message.
Many crafters are watching their pocketbooks – just watch their
reactions to sales. So if they can make attractive, meaningful
Christmas gifts for less than buying the same old shirts and ties
4. "Quick, easy, and inexpensive." Many consumers
don't have time, confidence or money, but want to try our categories
anyway. Guess which products/projects they'll choose?
5. Number 4 is pretty universal unless ... "The result
is a family heirloom." As rule, successful projects are quick,
easy, and inexpensive – but throw that theory out the window if it
will become an heirloom. Scrapbooking and quilting are not quick,
easy, and inexpensive, but that hasn't stopped millions of
6. "There's always something more to learn, to
master." What usually distinguishes a fad from a trend is that
very quickly the consumer is as good at the craft as she will ever
be. Hence the challenge is gone. That's why friendship pins come and
go so quickly, but Michelangelo, upon finishing the Sistine Chapel,
probably said, "My next ceiling will be even
7. "It should consume a lot of product."
Scrapbooking sure does! As does knitting – particularly for a
sweater. And crochet uses even more yarn. A macrame plant hanger
consumed yards and yards of cord. On the other hand, a cross-stitcher
can buy a complicated chart, a half-dozen skeins of floss, some
fabric; the retailer makes a $20 sale, but then doesn't see the
customer again for a month.
8. "I love apparel crafts. Who thinks they have enough
clothes or jewelry?" A consumer may eventually decide she has
enough fabric-painted sweatshirts, but there's a new necklace to
make or sweater to knit.
Clearly, no product in the industry's history has ever possessed
all of these qualities. But as buyers consider the new products
they've seen at the summer trade shows, and vendors think about
which new products to introduce for next year, every eventual winner
will have one or more of the qualities mentioned above.
(Note: To read previous Business-Wise columns, click on
the titles in the right-hand column. To comment on what makes a
product a hit, email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.)