Success usually does not happen by accident. Therefore, few should be shocked to discover that housewares giant Rubbermaid Inc., winner of a bucketful of America's ``Most Admired Corporation'' awards, employs some clever techniques to achieve its lofty status. The message here is that other manufacturers can - and should - learn by the example of Rubbermaid and other market-savvy firms.
Take the fairly basic concept of asking customers what they think of your products, and actually listening to what they say. Well, Rubbermaid took that concept a step further last month, when it invited 36 Japanese customers to its Wooster, Ohio, headquarters to critique products targeted at the Asian market.
The visitors ranged in age from 16-71 years old. Rubbermaid officials encouraged their guests to bang around Little Tikes toys, rough up trash cans, hoist laundry baskets and test drive wheeled ice chests.
Then they asked for candid feedback - and got it.
For the most part, the visitors liked the products, but they also offered suggestions on how to improve them. When Rubbermaid downsized products such as laundry baskets to fit into the smaller spaces of Japanese homes, they may have gone just a little overboard, a few visitors said. Rubbermaid also discovered a lot about the differing color preferences of their younger and more mature visitors. Lessons learned, Rubbermaid designers probably are adjusting the specs as we speak.
It's true most processors don't make laundry baskets for the Japanese. That doesn't matter. The point is more universal. America's Big Three auto makers continue to complain bitterly that the Japanese market is unfairly closed to them. Maybe it is. But that still doesn't excuse the fact that, until fairly recently, U.S. car makers made little effort to tailor their products to the needs of Japanese customers, who use right-hand-drive vehicles.
The lesson is applicable in any market. As the axiom goes: ``The customer is always right.'' To learn what the customers think is right, you only have to ask them. Just ask Rubbermaid.
A drop in the bucket
Plastic bucket manufacturers - and their customers - had a good deal with their agreement to put warning labels voluntarily on 5-gallon polyethylene buckets. Now they may throw it away for a few pennies of profit.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission in February dropped its call to redesign the injection molded buckets to reduce accidental drownings by toddlers. In exchange, the industry agreed to warning labels that read in English and Spanish: ``Children can fall into bucket and drown. Keep children away from bucket with even a small amount of liquid.''
Even when used for industrial packaging, the buckets invite reuse by consumers because of their durability. Manufacturers and users should swallow the cost of the warning labels, for children's safety and to avoid more costly regulations, bans or compulsory redesign.