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Clever, but Who Thought of It?

This column, one of our occasional examinations of today’s products and services, considers some clever ideas, and their genesis.

Take Post-it Notes, which began by accident. Little more than a decade on the market, the sticky little notes are already among the five top-selling office supply products in the United States, according to their manufacturer, 3M. (The others: Scotch tape, copier paper, file folders and correction fluid.)

As the story goes, a 3M engineer named Art Fry was singing with his church choir, struggling to keep the hymns marked with scraps of paper, when he thought of a removable adhesive discovered earlier at 3M. It was soon shelved, non-permanent adhesives having no market value. But as a page-marker for Fry, and myriad other marking uses, an adhesive scrap paper that both stuck on and came right off was perfect.

It seems an anachronistic little product--a scrap of paper in a day of high-tech machines. But in modern tradition, it soon became a whole product line of variations, variously useful. There are custom-printed notes and forms of many kinds, correction tape, dispensers, recycled paper Post-its (to make up for all the variations?), and the most recent introduction, stick-on tape flags “for convenient page-marking.”

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Funny. That’s where it started. Maybe genesis repeats itself.

Then there are products whose genesis seems more obvious, once some clever person thought of it. Take today’s marketing of personalized checks direct to consumers. “Bypass your financial institution” and save money, says Checks in the Mail, an Irwindale, Calif., company that sold through banks until it went consumer-direct in 1987.

Checks in the Mail and Current, in Colorado Springs, charge $4.95 for the first 200 checks (plus tax and shipping). Banks charge from $10 to $16, says Checks, and they just farm out the printing.

Both companies are big on decorative graphics. Checks in the Mail describes its market as heavily women, who “like to be able to express their personalities through designer checks"--in this case, pink bubbles, childish doodles, toy trains, fluffy cats. Current specializes in terminal cuteness--balloons, duckies, endless teddy bears.

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The big surprise to consumers is that there’s no law that one must buy checks from one’s financial institution. Anyone can print checks. The bigger surprise is that no one tried to cut into this market on any significant scale until recently.

There may be more surprises ahead. There’s no law governing check design, but there are voluntary standards, developed by a committee administered by the American Bankers Assn. These cover paper stock, type of ink, even the alignment of the numerical coding that routes checks through the payment system. And the ABA warns that consumers who bypass their banks may find their checks rejected as too difficult to process.

The ABA’s suggestion: Consumers should get sample checks to show the bank, but should expect banks to charge for the examination or even require that customers buy from them. Do we sense a battle ahead?

Many products share an unlikely genesis: consumer demand. We don’t mean the kind of demand every company tries to serve--the apparent preference of the greatest number of people as indicated by sales, market research, customer contacts. We mean consumer demands so clear and focused and firmly stated, and in numbers so great, that a company is forced to make specific products.

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Such people apparently surfaced when Spreckels Sugar Co. decided to reintroduce its brand. Asked simply “what they liked and didn’t like about sugar,” said the company, these people homed in on sugar bags , complaining roundly about “lumping, spilling, resealing and leaking.” Given this new and unexpected idea, the Spreckels folk “put on our thinking caps” and came up with a “breakthrough in packaging"--a milk carton-type container.

Then there’s Scott Paper Co., merrily putting out its Baby Fresh baby wipes in plastic tubs, until customers, unbidden, began requesting containers “that would send less packaging material to landfills.” Thus pushed, and ever compliant, the company has just “given them the refill (package) they requested.”

One wonders how many of these demanding consumers it takes. Are their numbers legion? Does a company move on the demands of a few hundred, a few dozen, even just a couple of suggestions that make sense and sound profitable? Or does “consumer demand” emerge from regular panels of consumers, focus groupies who come to represent all our preferences?

At least they asked somebody. Here’s what we get when people come up with their own idea of what’s good for us--and don’t check with normal humans before rushing it out.

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In the spirit of the season, the otherwise redoubtable Consumer Reports on Health notes that the average American gains six pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and it offers all us fatties its recipe for a low-calorie holiday feast. Take one turkey. Remove the skin. Don’t stuff it. Don’t baste it with drippings. Don’t eat dark meat.

Great. I suppose whatever’s left, we must throw away.

What prompted this idea? Hardly consumer demand.

Better my mother’s suggestion--equally unwelcome, but wiser. Just eat less.

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