By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
The battle lines have been drawn.
On one side is colorful product, designed for the most fashion-conscious consumer.
On the other is conservative, functional merchandise — a proven winner for the protection-driven user.
In the middle — and more than likely, the future of the category — is the sharp-looking piece that combines innovative style with demonstrated functionality.
Henry Ford once said his customers could have any automobile in the color they chose, as long as it was black. This certainly is not true about soft storage bags, with makers finding that, although there still is an important market for black, new products are trending more and more toward unusual designs and colorful styling, in tandem with function and protection.
"There is an endless desire for trended fashion in the soft storage market," said Caroline Geary, product manager for audio at Longmont, Colo.-based Case Logic. "We will continue to add to the evolution of fashion through our snowboard wallets. Today's teens want hip and cool," Geary said.
Case Logic's SBW24 Hallway and Primitive wallets, which feature colored geometric patterns on the Hallway and dashes of blue, white and black on the Primitive, have a suggested retail of $9.99. Product ships in June.
With its new NDM line, which ships in May and June, Case Logic marks the ongoing importance of portable CD players, "which have not been replaced yet by MP3 [players] or mini-discs," Geary said.
"Case Logic is keeping up with the demand of the 'active' customer through continual redesign of neoprene CD player cases. This niche market is challenging all of us to keep designs fresh, innovative and functional," she said.
Suggested retail for Case Logic's NDS3 CD player case is $16.99, while the NDM3 is $24.99.
"Today's active lifestyle calls for convenience and accessibility, without losing function and form — whether you are hiking, camping, on the beach, or just driving in and around town," said Don Dolliver, vice president of sales at Atlantic, in reference to the company's new Taxi brand of portable audio storage. This introductory line for the portable marketplace is a first for Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Atlantic, which is known primarily for its home storage accessories towers and spinner racks.
Atlantic, which said it is providing more choices and styles, while adding more organization and convenience for today's active lifestyle, is introducing its Taxi sub-brand with the tagline, "We Make You Mobile." Taxi is aimed at consumers who want ease of transport, protection of product in transit and travel convenience.
Along with this debut, Atlantic is featuring what it calls a new revolutionary packaging design to better cater to target markets. The company said it is doing what no other maker has done before — use human figures to present a contemporary and often funky look — while aiming at a wide target market that looks at portable storage products as "revolutionary, fun, active and tasteful."
"This collection is a response to an ever-increasing demand for better choices and style," Dolliver said. "It's Atlantic's introductory line to the portable marketplace, and we plan on adding more innovative new products in the near future."
Atlantic's portable audio storage collection comes in nine different styles, including four classic color combinations — black/blue, black/ gray, black/yellow and black/red.
Made of heavy-duty nylon, the line consists of four wallets in 24-, 48-, 96- and 208-CD capacities and a 10-CD Visor Combo.
It also includes four Sportspacks: a shoulder bag with CD player pocket and room for up to 12 CDs, a waist pouch with phone pocket and up to 12 CDs, a waist pouch with bottle pocket and up to 12 CDs and a cassette/MP3/camera waist pouch.
Suggested retail for the 24-CD wallet is $7.99. The CD player Sportspack has a suggested $16.99 retail. Availability is late June and July.
While black may be a fashionable color for clothing with the "in crowd" around the country, colors are the order of the day when it comes to portable storage, according to the Laserline division of The Mead Corp.
"Laserline has a tradition of creating innovative new products with special features that offer broad appeal to customers from all walks of life," said Liberty Malenich, associate marketing manager. "This year, we are also introducing a vibrant, exciting new branding platform."
Featuring a strong, natural influence in the pallet, Laserline's new packaging offers lighter and softer hues that color coordinate according to the product's category. All packaging is accented in silver and black, providing a rich new look, with a rich magenta highlighting portable storage.
New from Dayton, Ohio-based Laserline is a stylish, durable way for consumers to store their CD and DVD collections. Called EVA, these products offer sturdy, molded construction in sleek material, with strong zippers for extra security.
Available in April, EVA comes in a variety of capacities and styles. These include wallets: the CD24EVA at a suggested $12.99, CD48EVA at $17.99 and CD100EVA at $24.99. A CD24DMEVA portable CD player carrying case, with CD storage and a functional carrying strap, has a suggested $19.99 retail. A DVD20EVA wallet, which holds both the DVD and its accompanying jacket in an innovative new sleeve, has a suggested $17.99 retail.
Also new from Laserline in 2001 are traditional black, molded plastic LaserPaks in new fashion colors. These SKUs are not only designed to meet popular trend colors, but also coordinate with the new iMac color launch, the company said. Snow, indigo, ruby, graphite and sage colors debut in the 20- and 60-capacity CD/DVD models, for a total of 10 SKUs. CD models have a suggested $4.99 retail and DVD storage a suggested $9.99 retail.
Three key elements that define the trend in soft storage for 2001, include "protection, lifestyle and innovation," said Scott Lempert, vice president for design at Targus Group International, who is also director of Studio Roundhouse, the company's center for product design and development.
"With consumers purchasing and relying upon an increasing number of costly electronic devices, the protective attributes of carrying them have become a significant consideration," Lempert said.
Lempert said he feels soft storage products must be equipped with comprehensive exterior and interior protection to withstand the potential risks caused by a mobile lifestyle. Consumers are looking for rugged tear, heat and water resistant outer materials and high-quality inner padding that will cushion and buffer sensitive notebook computers, PDAs and cell phones during transport, he said.
Looking at lifestyle, Lempert said: "As the mobile population becomes increasingly diverse, soft storage must be sufficiently versatile to respond to varying needs of a cross-section of consumers. Soft storage products should blend form and function to reflect the tastes and lifestyles of electronic device users, ranging from stay-at-home moms and dads to students, entrepreneurs and executives."
Furthermore, Lempert said consumers of all ages have become increasingly selective and fashion-conscious, with storage accessories viewed as an extension of personal style and popular trends.
"Color, pattern and exterior materials are just as crucial to buying decisions as functionality," Lempert said. To this end, Targus has developed Leatherette, nylon and PVC materials for its notebook computer cases and backpacks, and incorporated fashionable concepts such as animal prints and metallic colors into its soft-sided CD accessories.
An innovative portable storage company in the new millennium sees "consumers interested in products that challenge the norm and offer the next level in style and functionality," Lempert said.
Targus camera cases are an example, he said, because these not only surpass the regular black variety by offering metallic silver and blue PVC as well as khaki, but also provide unique features such as shoulder pads and secondary compartments.
For consumers with an assortment of smaller gadgets, Targus offers a small, lightweight mini-messenger bag with a top-tier internal protection system to comfortably and safely transport PDAs, handheld accessories and cell phones.
New from Anaheim, Calif.-based Targus this year are two groups of notebook carrying cases and a line of backpacks, both designed for today's mobile lifestyles.
The Trademark group features sleek, futuristic color/texture combinations in Notepac cases and messenger bags. In addition to an outer shell comprised of 420 denier nylon and Koskin, the Trademark boasts a removable protective sleeve for notebook computers. Suggested retails range from $39.99 for a messenger bag to $69.99 for the Trademark Universal case.
The Black-Top group of notebook computer carrying cases and messenger bags is designed for mobile consumers who demand the ultimate in both form and function, Targus said. These feature rugged and smooth exterior materials, clean lines and durable accents. A Handheld Organizer for PDAs, handheld accessories and cell phones has a suggested $29.99 retail, while the Deluxe Notebook case is $59.99.
The Targus RakGear Deluxe Notebook Backpack offers a separate compartment for computer and outer accessory holder for other gear.
Recently introduced Trademark, Black-Top, RakGear and Targus camera cases, available in May, include extra-thick foam padding, various compartments for accessories and a comfort suspension shoulder strap.
By looking at the latest fashion trends and translating them into portable media storage, Philadelphia-based Computer Expressions has zeroed in on potential for seasonal merchandising with its new Surf and Crocodile CD wallets for hot-weather marketing.
"Our summer line of CD wallets is a great mix of the hottest colors and fabrics for the season," said Bennett Beer, Computer Expressions president.
The company is offering a taste of the tropics with its all-new Surf line that features a contemporary floral and leaf design on natural cotton fabric. The wallets, which come in combinations of green/purple, maroon/gray and navy/light blue, have a smooth woven cotton binding with matching zipper and a natural-color nylon lining. Surf is available in 24- and 48-disk sizes at suggested retails of $15 and $18, respectively.
Crocodile wallets are designed for consumers who like color and shimmer. Made of an iridescent crocodile-like material in white/pink, blue/ green and red/orange, the wallets are horseshoe-shaped with matching zippers and a hand strap for easy carrying. The sleeves are constructed of nonstick material. Suggested retail for all three color combinations is $12.50.
What are the demographics for typical consumers purchasing the more fashionable soft storage products available today? According to Vince Alves, marketing services at Scosche Industries, which offers the SoundKase-brand storage line, the "soft storage industry for digital media is exploding. Lighting the fuse for 2001 are the Gen-Yers, the Echo Boomers, the Net Generation — over 65 million strong in this trend-setting generation that has five or six times the spending power as the Boomers had at the same age."
"These Echo Boomers are looking to flex their muscles by forcing the suppliers to provide hot, new, different CD storage cases, which currently are unavailable," Alves continued. "This 9-to-15-year-old purchasing
powerhouse doesn't want anything to do with the 'me-too' market and, consequently, is reshaping the way in which soft storage is designed and materials are used to protect their CDs and DVDs.
"The impressive power of young consumers can transform a brand overnight. So, what is it they want? Colors, creativity and quality," Alves said. "The $5 CD case just doesn't cut it anymore, not when the consumer's cherished CDs pay the price."
The hottest of the new SoundKase products for this summer is called The DJ, Alves said. It is a Rock-Star-Red Velvet 100 CD Folder, SKF-100, at a suggested $39.95 retail. The CD folder, which was selected for the 2001 Grammy Award Gift Bag, according to Oxnard, Calif.-based Scosche, features multiple CD recognition for quick and safe CD access and 20 CDs per page. The product has velvet nylon self-cleaning pockets, padded handle with titanium hardware and is made of super-durable ballistic nylon.
Popular with Gen-X and Gen-Y consumers is the Urban SoundSak, SKJB-8, that features a zip-off, 8-CD/CD player pouch with detachable shoulder strap and waist belt loop, Alves said. Custom headphone clips hold headphones secure when not being worn. Other features include a detachable cell phone pouch, side pocket with two pen slots, zippered accessories pocket with key clip, haul loop and padded back. Suggested retail is $29.95.
Even the SoundKase SoundCool CDX 9-can cooler, SKCC-8, makes room for CE accessories. Features include a detachable 8 CD/CD player pouch and a zippered cell phone pouch. Suggested retail also is $29.95.
Clifton, N.J.-based Gemini Industries will launch a new category of PDA accessories, including cases, in late June. Called the Hands On PDA product line, its cases were designed not only for functionality and easy access, but also with a fashion flair, said Susan Blessing, product manger. "Our goal was to develop a quality line to complement the new trend in PDA products and target the new users," she said.
"We had thought about PDA accessories for a while, but the introduction of the Handspring products really inspired us to move forward," Blessing said. "Handspring redefined the PDA user; we saw PDA pricing becoming more affordable and moving into the mainstream mass market. Suddenly, we saw advertisements for Visor products in McCall's and Better Homes & Gardens. It was no longer just associated with business applications."
Suggested retails for Gemini's Hands On PDA cases range from $14.99 to $29.99 and include materials ranging from denim to blue snake leather. "We have a lot of great ideas in the works and I know our Hands On line is going to add a new dimension of fun, as well as encourage impulse sales in the PDA accessory retail area," she said.
One portable storage maker has taken a more conservative view of the trend toward color and high style.
"We are seeing a real trend toward brand names, combined with stylish, durable functional bags," said Crystal Teicher, creative director for the Photoco division of Samsonite. "Color is very important, but only the right colors sell. Consumers are trending toward bigger bags that function as camera bags, as well as having the style and space to carry all of the extras."
Solon, Ohio-based Samsonite is featuring a lineup of camera bags this summer that range in suggested retails from $14.99 to $41.98.
At the far end of the color and design spectrum, where function triumphs over fashion, Ambico, a Recoton company, has taken a stalwart position.
"The camcorder and camera bag market has always been value-driven, with consumers willing to accept only certain price points," said Ambico's Rick Gauthier, senior manager of product development.
Ambico, which has staked out a market position that calls for the right mix of functionality, price point and fashion, said its consumer research indicates there are limited opportunities for it to branch out with different materials and trendy colors at slightly higher price points.
"The predominant color for all of the Ambico bags — whether for camcorders, 35mm cameras or digital cameras — has been black, using an imitation nylon or simulated leather material with slight color accents for trim," Gauthier said. "Because these materials combine an attractive appearance with durability and high value, regardless of the trends, they will continue to dominate the market."
Typical of the Ambico product lineup are the V-4800 and V-4801 camcorder/camera bags. Made of a weather-resistant, high-grade leather-like outer shell, the two are designed to maximize storage space. Both feature six zippered pockets, including a convenient cell phone/accessory case under the padded top panel. Fully gusseted side pockets provide ease of access to the most frequently needed accessories.
Two padded adjustable and removable interior dividers allow users to customize the space. A special storage area for expensive digital memory cards offers additional protection.
Bags are identical in appearance except for size. The V-4801, at a suggested $29.99 retail, accommodates larger and mid-size camcorders, digital cameras and 35mm cameras. The V-4800, at a suggested $19.99 retail, is geared for compact models and mini-DV and digital cameras.
Both have fashionable pewter hardware bearing the Ambico logo, which lends a contemporary panache to the classic satchel design of the bags, the company said.
In addition to storage and equipment protection, the Ambico bag pair incorporates an ergonomic, nonslip padded shoulder strap for carrying comfort and a textured bottom surface with non-slip strips for additional stability. A matching luggage tag provides the ultimate, "we've thought of everything," touch, Ambico said.
With functionality the primary consideration in Lake Mary, Fla.-based Ambico's camcorder and camera bag designs, "most consumers at the time of purchase choose a bag on aesthetics," said Lisa Turner, director of retail marketing. "The real test of product satisfaction doesn't come until the first time they use it, when they try to fit all of their gear into it and carry it around all day at a theme park."
Security and protection are the other keys to Ambico's design strategy. "The smart design of our bag stems directly from the way it stores and protects the equipment," Turner said. "As consumers become more design conscious, they're rejecting impractical decoration for products created with value, integrity and intelligence. Strong functional design has itself become the ultimate trend."
This TWICE webinar, hosted by senior editor Alan Wolf, will take a look at what may be the hottest CE products at retail that will be sold during the all-important fourth quarter. Top technologies, market strategies and industry trends will be discussed with industry analysts and executives.