City entrepreneurs build a better grocery bag
VERGENNES — It can hold up to 30 pounds of groceries or, say, picnic food and beverages; can be carried as a bag, over-the-shoulder tote or backpack; it’s washable; and, as the slogan that describes it states, it “stands tall and folds small.”
And design and utility patents are pending.
It’s “The Grocer,” the brainchild of the creative team from cooperating firms Linckia LLC and ADK Packworks, related companies that share upstairs Main Street office space in the Basin Block, a downtown Vergennes landmark. Its development is an instructive, local lesson in how businesses dream up products and bring them to market.
Linckia, founded in 2002 by New Haven resident Scott Hardy, joined forces with Cornwall resident Doug Rumbough in 2011 to form ADK, which is developing and marketing The Grocer.
The two men — who were acquaintances before the joint venture — both have long track records in consumer product development. In the mid-1990s, Hardy and former partners designed and marketed Neos, which are high-tech overshoes. A decade ago Hardy developed the Ulu shoe line, which Linckia sold profitably four years later to a subsidiary of Wolverine Worldwide, according to current Linckia vice president for innovation Nathan Ayer.
Three years ago Rumbough and his family moved from Connecticut to Vermont; it was familiar territory — his wife, Laura, had attended Middlebury College. Before then, Rumbough’s experience included two decades with Swiss Army Brands.
Among Rumbough and Hardy’s shared interests are the Adirondack Mountains, and The Grocer grew out of that common ground. Both were familiar with the iconic Adirondack pack basket, which is a large, freestanding basket with attached backpack straps.
Rumbough, who began working on The Grocer project full-time in September 2011 with the three-person Linckia firm, showed off a modern sample in the companies’ office last week.
“What we liked about this is it stands upright because it’s structured. It’s easy to fill, and that’s something you don’t see in soft bags or packs,” he said.
But there is a problem in selling Adirondack pack baskets widely.
“You could never commercialize it outside of the Adirondacks because you can’t ship it,” Rumbough said. “You’re shipping air.”
Hardy, Rumbough and Ayer, a Weybridge resident and Middlebury Union High School alum, solved that issue by developing a folding framework to go inside a modern fabric bag that is Velcroed in place. Their finished product now folds flat; weighs one pound, 12 ounces; and expands to about the size, fittingly enough, of a paper grocery bag.
The team first envisioned it as a multi-use tote and daypack. Rumbough said about 88 million a year are sold in the nation, and ADK experimented with trial models.
Then, in December 2011, they found another market. Rumbough said 1.1 billion grocery bags are used annually, and 1 million reusable bags were sold in the past year — a number that has doubled in the past four years.
The Grocer was born.
“It (the market share of reusable bags) is less than 1 percent, accelerating, and there are many municipalities around the country that are banning plastic bags,” Rumbough said. “So we decided let’s create the ultimate re-usable grocery bag.”
The ADK team spoke to consumers and retail sector insiders about the concept. Feedback was positive, Rumbough said.
“The best market research is to talk to consumers,” he said. “People look at this and say, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that before? … The consumer understands the benefit very quickly. It stands upright, easy to load, multiple ways to carry, and that’s powerful.”
The Grocer is not fully launched, but is available in Middlebury at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and Skihaus, and at several sites in Chittenden County ($25 per bag, plus $6 for an optional cooler insert). Rumbough has also staged in-store demos of the product at several sites, and plans more.
A full product rollout is planned, including “social media and more traditional marketing,” Rumbough said.
“We think we have a great concept here. We’ve just got to get the word out,” he said.
ADK will also seek corporate partners for branding and custom bag designs (Rumbough even said Vera Bradley Grocers, a designer and retailer of high-style women’s accessories, is a possibility), and will be working to expand its color palette beyond the current gray, red and green.
ADK and Linckia will also be seeking partners for the funding, marketing and full manufacturing stages, and it would be no surprise to see a larger company eventually buy them out.
Ayer said patent and intellectual property protections are critical components of Linckia’s business plan.
“It’s always, ‘Can we patent it? If not, is there a way we can protect it?’” Ayer said. “It’s extremely important for the exit. Any person we’re looking to … move the business to is always looking to, ‘How can they protect it?’”
MORE BIG IDEAS
Ayer also noted that The Grocer is just one current venture for Linckia, which Hardy founded when he bought Neos back from another company.
By March, Linckia’s “PediYeti” should reach the market: It is a hollow plastic cylinder — manufactured in Shelburne — with a massage-friendly exterior and is designed to be filled with water and then frozen. Patients with foot pain such as plantar fasciitis can roll PediYetis under their feet to relieve discomfort. He said Linckia is working with a distributor with ties in the pharmaceutical sector to market the product.
Among other efforts, Linckia has also developed the “Snapalite,” a “multi-mount flashing L.E.D.” safety light for runners, walkers and cyclists that is guaranteed not to detach from clothing or other surfaces, for the Jogalite company.
“We want to look at products that we can build, design. That’s the passion here,” he said. “Get them out to market, not really hold inventory.”
Ultimately, though, Linckia and ADK’s goal is to get products into consumers’ hands. And Rumbough said The Grocer’s versatility will help ADK do just that.
“We have positioned this as a reusable grocery bag, but the reality is we use this for everything,” Rumbough said. “We put it in the back of my car and take it … We drop the cooler in it, and we put my lunch in, and I drop a few other things in. Or if I’m going on a trip I put this in the back seat. The nice thing is that it’s standing upright. It’s not falling over.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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