RUBBERMAID, AMWAY SIGN HOUSEWARES DEAL

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Rubbermaid Inc. will use new plastic materials in premium housewares to be sold through Amway Corp.'s direct sales force.

The housewares giant will mold plastics that are ``more durable, scratch resistant and stain resistant'' than its polyethylene and polypropylene mainstays, according to spokeswoman Lorrie Paul Crum. Rubbermaid will make the high-end housewares distinct from its standard line so they ``won't cannibalize'' existing product sales. The new products will not be available through retail stores and some will be patented, Crum said in a telephone interview from the firm's Wooster, Ohio, headquarters.

Crum would not disclose what new resins her firm will rely on for premium products. She cited Rubbermaid's new use of polycarbonate as an example of its new way of thinking.

Rubbermaid's Intellivent container, debuted at the recent International Housewares Show in Chicago, has a PC bowl that can withstand freezer-to-microwave temperature shifts. It resembles Tupperware Corp.'s Rock 'N Serve line, which also uses PC.

Rubbermaid and Ada, Mich.-based Amway will introduce jointly developed premium housewares geared to the Japanese market in the spring, the companies announced Jan. 17.

Throughout the year the strategic partners will debut similar products in other world markets, including North America, but officials did not provide a timetable.

Amway Japan Ltd. of Tokyo will start by selling food storage containers and then branch into other housewares. Crum would not disclose where Rubbermaid will mold the products. It has molding capacity in Japan through its joint venture with Richell Corp., but Crum said Rubbermaid ``will be flexible where it molds the products.'' Rubbermaid will continue with the Richell joint venture, which Crum described as a traditional retail business.

Japan's market is healthy and the nation's people like housewares, Crum explained. She said the market has lots of opportunity and consumers have distinct storage needs because most have small living areas.

Amway Japan has more than a million distributors that booked about $1.9 billion in sales for the year ended Aug. 31. The company's shares trade on the Tokyo over-the-counter market and on the New York Stock Exchange.

Japan's direct-selling market is the biggest in the world, according to Tupperware spokeswoman Christine Hanneman. Direct sales top $20 billion a year and range from housewares to cars.

``It's how people there like to shop,'' she said.

Hanneman expressed no worries that Rubbermaid and Amway will compete head-to-head with her firm in Japan and then elsewhere.

``Given the size of the direct-selling market [in Japan], there is room for others,'' Hanneman said. ``We face competition wherever we go, so we need to be a better company with better products.''

Tupperware, based in Orlando, Fla., has strong brand recognition that helps it compete around the world, she added.

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for about 26 percent of Tupperware's sales and reached $355 million in 1995, she estimated. International sales in total account for 85 percent of its revenue.

In contrast, Rubbermaid's international sales tally up to only 16 percent of its total.

An analyst said the Amway deal is an opportunity for Rubbermaid to push its international business.

``But it will be a slow process,'' said Justin Maurer with McDonald & Co. of Cleveland.

The deal probably will not have a big impact on Rubbermaid's U.S. sales because the U.S. direct-selling market is mature. Maurer said Rubbermaid's stock price barely moved after the Amway deal announcement.

Amway direct-sells cookware and accessories around the world, but not the kinds of housewares Rubbermaid makes, according to Ray Alexander, senior manager of the firm's Alliance Products housewares unit. Maurer estimated that cookware and similar housewares represent about US$600 million in sales for Amway Japan.

Amway has more than 2.5 million direct sellers in 75 countries. They booked $6.8 billion for the year ended Aug. 31 through direct selling of 400 products and through catalog sales of 6,500 brand-name products.