CHICAGO - Rubbermaid Home Products did not exhibit at the International Housewares Show this year, causing a buzz among competitors: Why would the industry's new-product leader miss out on the biggest show of the year? Is Rubbermaid scaling back on new products?
But company officials said the absence should not be a surprise. Certainly, they are not scaling back on new products, either.
``It's pretty consistent with our corporate position,'' said spokeswoman Keri Butler, speaking of the decision not to participate in the housewares bonanza or its smaller sister, the National Hardware Show. As for future trade show participation, Butler said, ``We would review those on a case-by-case basis.''
Instead, Rubbermaid will focus on marketing directly to consumers, an initiative launched last year under Joseph Galli, chief executive officer of parent company Newell Rubbermaid Co.
``That's what they communicated to us last fall,'' said Debbie Teschke, media relations manager with the International Housewares Association, based in Rosemont, Ill. ``They told us about their decision, which was an extension of a strategic decision to redirect efforts to consumers. They were clear to point out that this did not reflect a judgment on the show or IHA. They are still a member of the association.''
Newell officials announced fourth-quarter and full-year results Jan. 31. Sales were flat for the Freeport, Ill.-based firm, at $6.9 billion for 2001.
New product push
In a conference call to analysts, Galli emphasized that the firm's grass-roots marketing efforts and new products should fuel company growth. During the call, he said Newell Rubbermaid is poised to boost profit 15 percent this year.
``We have infused a new-product-development process in every division in this company,'' Galli said. ``While we are still in a nascent phase of developing new products, we have tremendous momentum building and you are going to see some visible signs of new product rollouts here in 2002.''
Although Butler would not offer details, the firm will add capacity to produce a polypropylene case for compact discs and digital versatile discs, introduced in the fourth quarter.
``It's been a complete sell-out thus far and we're having trouble keeping up with demand,'' Galli said.
This year, Rubbermaid will launch an expanded line of semi-disposable food containers, plus a food-storage line called Stain Shield, designed to eliminate the problem of permanent, cooked-on food stains.
Galli called the launches ``two of the most important new products that Rubbermaid has seen in the last 10 years''
The semi-disposable containers, dubbed Take-Alongs, will compete with Glad and Ziplock brands.
Rubbermaid is not concerned about losing customers by not attending the show, Butler said. The event, held Jan. 13-15 in Chicago, attracted nearly 16,000 U.S. and international buyers.
``We have a strong collaboration with all of our trade partners,'' she said in a Jan. 31 telephone interview from Rubbermaid Home Products' office in Wooster, Ohio.
Omarr Aleem, an associate with Cleveland-based Midwest Research Inc. said he was not surprised that Rubbermaid had exited the two major trade shows.
``Attendance has been declining; there's not a big return on going to those shows. There are a lot more dealings they can do with bigger-box stores outside of the shows,'' Aleem said. ``Newell is not at all taking anything away from the plastics storage container business. I wouldn't interpret it at all that way.''
The firm has learned a lesson, officials said, and they are looking at a combination of things to avoid future line-review losses: becoming more proficient at reviewing product lines, using 500 college students to promote products at the consumer level, new product programs and television ad campaigns.
In the latter half of 2000, the company lost 80 stock-keeping units to Sterilite Corp. at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Galli told analysts.
``That, of course, affected our Rubbermaid sales throughout 2001,'' Galli said. ``In [the fourth quarter], I don't know of any line review where we lost any ground. In fact, in the vast majority of line reviews, we've scored major successes.''
Newell's Rubbermaid division had $462 million in sales for the fourth quarter, officials said. That was down 6 percent from the same period in 2000.
``This drop was primarily driven by a double-digit decline in the commercial part of our business, which was especially hard-hit by the events of Sept. 11,'' said Patrick Robertson, Newell's vice president and controller.
For the full year, the Rubbermaid division posted sales of $1.83 billion, down about 6.5 percent from 2000. Those results do not include Newell Rubbermaid's Little Tikes operations.