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‘Survival Seat’ Gives Cabbies a Knobby Boost

Newsday

New York cabbies complain about everything from the greenhouse effect to requests for trips over the 59th Street Bridge.

But one thing many of them love is a knobby seat cushion made of wooden beads the size of olives. Sometimes called the “survival seat,” this uncomfortable-looking seat cover has been ubiquitous in taxis citywide for three years. It is also popular with cabbies and truck drivers in Chicago and points west.

“It’s supposed to massage your back. The beads are supposed to ease tension. It works fairly good but it doesn’t work perfect,” said Richard Schmaltz, a cab driver for 20 years.

Now the beaded seat covers are starting to catch on with what Schmaltz calls “civilian drivers,” and sales are soaring.

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In the last year, many large automotive parts and accessory stores have started to sell the seat cover, which costs from $20 to $36.

Added to Inventory

Upscale mail-order houses are following suit. Five months ago, Hammacher Schlemmer, the Chicago-based cataloguer with outlets in New York, Chicago and Beverly Hills, added the item to its inventory.

And last month, Lifestyle Resource, a Connecticut-based mail-order firm, started to advertise the beaded seat in the New Yorker magazine--a mark, perhaps, of just how far the beaded cover has come from its beginnings as an underground product.

Philip Kotler, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Chicago, says the success of beaded seat covers is an example of “pull marketing. That happens when someone asks a hardware store owner, ‘Do you have this thing?’ And the store owner says, ‘No, but I’ll find out where to get it.’ Before you know it, the new product is pulled though the system.”

Consumer demand for the seat covers has been spurred by passengers and drivers who see cabbies and truckers around the country using them.

Helped by Endorsement

“Every cab you see has one of these things. And you feel, as a motorist, ‘Gee, if the cabbie is using it, maybe it works,’ ” says Robert Greenberg, accessories buyer for AID Auto Stores Inc., which has 85 outlets in the New York metropolitan area. “I can’t remember another item in this category--or any other automotive category” that was similarly helped by a cabbie’s endorsement, he added.

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Hammacher Schlemmer spokesman Ernie Hovland said his company has sold “several thousand” of the beaded cushions since last spring. “It’s doing very well,” he said. “I think the taxicab has been the billboard for this product. No doubt about it.”

Beaded seat cushions, made by hand in small factories on mainland China and in Taiwan, have been popular with car drivers in Asia for at least 20 years, said Albert Lin, vice president of Honor Trading Ltd., a California-based beaded seat importer.

In Europe, beaded seat covers have been strong sellers for the past four years, he said. Lin said he now sells about 10,000 a month to U.S. retailers, double what he sold last year.

Keeps Driver Cool

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The cushion’s chief benefit is ventilation, Lin noted. “It keeps the driver cool; it lets the air circulate underneath his bottom.” An additional benefit is the back-and-leg massage a driver gets from bouncing up and down on the beads, Lin said.

USA Products, a large, California-based distributor of automotive accessories, began importing the covers in May, 1989, shortly after a buyer saw one in a Chicago cab.

“I first saw them last year,” said Mike Kresky of USA Products. “I got into a cab and here was a cab driver sitting on a beaded cushion. The cabbie said he liked it, that he bought it in a flea market. . . . We decided to follow up on it.”

Today, USA Products distributes the cushions to Pep Boys, a national auto-accessory chain, and many West Coast auto stores.

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Naturally, not every cab driver in New York agrees about the benefits of a beaded seat cushion.

Leslie H. Malkin said he would never trade his cheap foam cushion in for a beaded seat cover: “You don’t want anything good in the car. They’ll steal it.”


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