When Product Lines Take a Sharp Turn

A demonstration of the Chicago Flex Shaft horse trimmer.


Alamy Stock Photo

A funny thing happened on the way to the gallery. The flagship product took a wrong turn.

I call them the roundabout: A business that is doing one thing, often very well, turning into an even more successful but different business. American industrial history is replete with shining examples of companies that have made revolutionary changes, becoming fundamentally new businesses along the way.

The Wrigley Company did not begin manufacturing chewing gum. In 1891 at the age of 30, William Wrigley Jr opened a branch of his father’s Philadelphia soap company in Chicago. The young seller gave away a free sample of baking powder to each purchase of Wrigley’s Scouring Soap. The promotion was so successful that Wrigley quickly switched to selling baking powder, which included two free packs of gum with every order. Gum was so popular that by 1893 Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint, chewing gum became the main product of the company. Soap and baking powder is a permanent powder.

In the late 1800s, trimming a horse’s coat and mane was a time-consuming necessity. Join the newly formed Chicago Flexible Shaft Company In December 1897, the company launched the new ’98 Chicago Clipper, which according to Blacksmith and Wheelwright Magazine “resolutely revolutionized the horse-drawing business .” The device costs $12.75, about $450 where it is now.

However, within a decade, the horseless carriage had greatly reduced the need for horse trimmer. The Chicago Flex Shaft quickly turned to making the popular new car speedometers, horns, and charcoal burners. Not long ago, the company’s innovators produced must-have home appliances like irons, toasters, grills and even electric hair clippers – this time for humans. , not for horses.

Decades after a successful detour, Chicago Flex Shaft Co. adopted its old moniker as shaft, officially changing its name to Sunbeam Corp. in 1946. Its Mixmaster kitchen mixer took many technical steps away from the Chicago Clipper New ’98, but both devices shared a huge selling point—convenience.

The old business saying “innovate or die” is not always true. Tootsie Roll is still thriving selling chocolate taffys 115 years after its 1907 launch. However, many of the great American companies that took small paths to survival ended up thriving along the way. spectacular and unpredictable new ways. Whether the result of constant innovation or a welcome accident, the detour turns out to be the best part of the journey. Side roads always offer the best scenery.

Mr. Opelka is a lyric-theater composer.

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Appears May 19, 2022, print.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-product-lines-take-a-sharp-turn-innovation-pivot-companies-horse-clippers-11652906403 When Product Lines Take a Sharp Turn

Alley Einstein

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