It's an outdoor sink! It's a serving cart! It's a storage bin!
An all-in-one entertainment cart from Dallas-based Today's Plastics, shown Aug. 11-13 at the National Hardware Show in Chicago, was typical of an inventive wave of products from many lawn and garden and housewares makers.
Instead of focusing on the traditional plastic lawn chairs and drink tables of years past, the new breed of companies is fascinated with the novelty item and the niche product.
That change is fueled both by a growth in the stay-at-home consumer market - a counter-recessionary trend - and by new opportunities for plastics products, said Today's Plastics design manager Pete Hill.
``The first year we tried [lawn and garden], it was just a fill-in line for us,'' said Hill, whose company's primary product is its Today's Kids line of toys. ``We'd sell mostly by catalog and online. Now, we're in Lowe's and WalMart and looking to add one or two more items to the category.''
The toymaker launched its Backyard Gear line of outdoor products three years ago, primarily to fill space in its massive, 1.2 million-square-foot manufacturing plant in Booneville, Ark. But with the economy headed downward, the blow and rotational molder soon found a stronger need for its functional, outdoor plastic line.
So, Today's Plastics began developing products with the shape-changing flexibility of a Power Ranger toy. Its newest product, the portable Serv 'n Sink, features a kitchen sink with foldable side tables, two large storage bins that flip over to become serving trays and an attached beverage rack.
``It's becoming a more important market for it,'' added Today's Plastics President Tom Romig.
Other companies have found the niche housewares market attractive. Another toymaker, Insect Lore Inc. of Shafter, Calif., has specialized in bug-related games and toys since it was founded in 1969.
Recently the company decided to feature more outdoor products, such as bug catchers and plastic nets, and found its business surge in what had been a more mature toy market, said marketing director John White.
``The unusual and different seems to sell,'' said White, a member of the family that owns Insect Lore. The company is marketing some of its new products to mass-merchandise stores.
Another company, Billy Bob Teeth Inc., has made a living from the novelty housewares item. The Hardin, Ill., company, a maker of crooked plastic teeth, started as a goof by a newly graduated dentist, said Dennis Fitzpatrick, vice president of marketing. But during the past six years it has turned into a good-size business, said Fitzpatrick, who christens himself vice president of bad teeth.
The company's fake teeth come in a variety of dysfunctional shapes, Fitzpatrick said. There's the set of long, gawky hillbilly teeth from the movie Deliverance, coming with a free abscess. There's the caveman teeth, the Betty-Bob country-girl teeth, the huntin' and fishin' teeth, the hockey player teeth, and, naturally, the blood-sucking vampire teeth.
The company's growth was fueled by two bits of serendipity. First, the Today show did a piece on the company after founder Rich Bailey stood outside studio windows with his fake teeth on and a large grin. Today host Katie Couric even donned a set of rotting teeth for one of the company's three appearances on the show.
After more media recognition the company soon discovered the Austin Powers movies, with its lead character modeling a set of choppers that made Billy Bob's executives drool. By the second picture, supplier relations Vice President Rick Leier had inked a licensing agreement to sell an Austin Powers model to Billy Bob's gap-toothed public.
Since 1997, the company has rolled out its products to novelty stores, such as Spencer Gifts, discount stores and other retailers. The company imports its products from Asian molders to keep prices low.
``There are at least six to 10 knockoffs,'' Leier said. ``But they just aren't the same as the original Billy Bob Teeth.''
Another company, PetStep of San Francisco, took another niche approach when it launched in late 1999. President and Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Myrick went to the famed Westminster Kennel Show in New York a few years earlier. He wondered how the dogs stepped from their pens and from vehicles to the show areas.
``They used plastic milk crates,'' Myrick said. ``That can hurt a 100-pound dog.''
Myrick's company, working with one of the largest molders in Taiwan, designed a plastic ramp made of polypropylene and glass fibers. For stability, it includes plastic rods molded with the use of nitrogen gas. Its surface uses thermoplastic elastomers for a sticky feel and better footing for the canine walker.
With about 68 million dogs in the United States, Myrick said he could sell 1,000 pet ramps during the next two years, he said. The ramp already is in many leading hardware stores and even is featured in the LL Bean Inc. catalog, he said.
The company just signed a memorandum of understanding with General Motors Corp. to supply the ramps to GM's network of 7,200 dealers, Myrick said.
The ramp will be an aftermarket product offered with sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, he added.
Speaking of animals, the hardware show also included Bird-X Inc., which trumpets the rhetorical message on its Web site, ``Who's smarter - you or the birds?'' It supplies plastic products to scare the tail feathers off flying creatures and keep them from taking over back yards, pools or farms.
The company's booth was a virtual plastic jungle, with molded owls in midflight and a floating alligator head, the GatorGuard, used to scare away geese, ducks, fish-eating birds and small animals.
The Chicago company even sells colored, moving eyes to ward off winged predators.
It is a novelty area that seems to be working. The company operates a 15,000-square-foot warehouse that constantly is moving product, said technical representative Joshua Pierce. Yet, like some of the other companies at the show, there is a surreal quality to the product.
``I graduated from college not too long ago,'' said Pierce, glancing at the green gator head. ``I never thought I'd be selling bird-control products.''