Plastics firms are changing how they serve the North American housewares and hardware goods market, judging from what I saw at the National Hardware Show, held May 9-11 in Las Vegas.
Over the years, we've watched the number of North America-based housewares manufacturers dwindle as the presence of international firms increases. Processors made the convention hall the battlefield, where new products were cloaked and booth visitors had to give their firstborn child or a pint of blood to see the most interesting items.
Years of product rip-offs created the paranoia. In many cases, it made more sense to take the toolmaking and molding to an overseas vendor.
But this year, something was distinctly different. Several new firms arose, and there was a feeling of optimism among most processors that niches and design with a focus on service were going to win the market at the end of the day.
New plastics exhibitors were focusing on developing creative new methods to get products into the market. For instance, big-box stores now are telling suppliers the types of containers they can use for growing plants. Rather than being stalled or mortified by the power of the big-box stores, one plastics firm used the show as a means to get its trays noticed for the horticultural market.
Granted, show-goers still saw the paranoid few. At this year's show, one plastic firm had a private room, rather than a booth on the show floor. Another confessed that competitors wanted photos and product information. Interested parties had to submit their names for review before the company would release information.
But, on a different level, conversations were taking place, according to sources, with a larger emphasis on networking between molders and mold makers based in North America.
Processors grumbled over resin prices but treated them more as a tolerable nuisance, where in some cases processors are even pushing through at least some of the price increases. As for the Asia factor, several firms also categorized that as a tolerable force now. One processor has figured out how to maintain a solid manufacturing base stateside while maintaining its own plant in China.
The megamerchants aren't going away, obviously. According to a 2006 housewares census by HomeWorld Business, the top 100 housewares retailers registered $69.1 billion in related sales in 2004, an increase of 6.8 percent over the top 100 in 2003. At the top, of course, was Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Filling the second, third and fourth spots were Costco, Target and Sam's Club, respectively.
But HomeWorld Business also pointed out another trend: manufacturers introducing products through specialty retailers, where innovations are accepted, and then getting their footing for the larger players to take those trends national.
Companies now need to do more than come up with cool, innovative products - they also must battle to get them to consumers while taking extreme measures to protect their ideas. The good news is that some companies are managing to win all of those battles.
Angie DeRosa is an Oklahoma City-based Plastics News staff reporter whose beat includes housewares and packaging.