Roger Hall was weary last spring. He turned 40 in April and had put in 15 years selling lingerie and sunglasses for other companies.
So instead of throwing in the towel, he invented one.
The Reseda salesman designed a 45-inch-long cotton towel with 8-inch-deep zippered pockets on each end where sweaty competitors can store car keys, wallets, tennis balls and other items while they exercise. The idea, he said, came to him one day while searching for a place to put his keys before playing tennis.
In four months, Hall has persuaded such major department store chains as Bullock's, Nordstrom and May Co., and such sportings goods stores as Big 5 and Herman's, to sell his towels. Thus far, Hall said, some 50,000 towels, or about $500,000 worth at retail, have been sold at prices ranging from $9.50 to $10.50 each. Wholesale prices run $5.25 per towel.
So far, he said, he has turned a $75,000 profit on his initial $5,000 investment. It has been incentive enough for Hall to quit his job selling Riviera and Anne Klein sunglasses. Hall said he's even recognized occasionally by users of the towel--he's pictured on a color insert that comes with each package because the model he hired failed to show up for a photo session.
Hall calls the product "The Towel," and the idea is as simple as the name. By putting zippers in the towels, he said, it gives people who exercise a solution to an annoying problem.
Retailers report mixed sales for the towels, which come in white, navy, red, pink, yellow and gray.
"It's selling fair, but it's not a hot selling item. We sell a few of them here and there," said former Lakers forward Rudy LaRusso, who carries Hall's towel at his Sports Star USA store in Woodland Hills.
But Norman Thier, vice president of merchandising for Herman's World of Sporting Goods, a nationwide chain based in Carteret, N. J., said the towel has sold well. He estimates that Herman's sold 500 towels in two weeks after Thanksgiving while test-marketing the item at 60 of its 236 stores.
"I thought it was different and unique. I hadn't seen anything like it before," Thier said.
$5,000 in Savings
Last spring, Hall started the towel venture with $5,000 of his savings and paid his tailor in Tarzana to make samples. Once he received some orders, he said, he persuaded California Overseas Bank in Encino to give him a $50,000 line of credit secured by a $10,000 certificate of deposit. He found a clothing manufacturer, Celina, to make the towels in Los Angeles.
Hall said his major expenses come to about $1 in labor for every towel, another $1 in fabric and 12 cents for each zipper. His biggest unexpected expense, he said, was a $3,500 annual premium for product liability insurance in case someone gets hurt using the towel.
Getting sought-after space in department stores was made easier because Hall and his wife, Marquita, who sells sunglasses just as Hall did, already knew department store buyers. But, Hall said, that was not the most important factor.
"I don't care if you are good friends with the buyers or not, they buy based on the product," he said.
Hall does not figure to retire off one idea, however. His big challenge is to come up with his next product. He is designing a beach towel that would convert into a parka and is working with Pepsi on making a towel with a Pepsi logo on it.
Hall has filed a patent application for his zipper towel, but concedes that the idea is so simple that someone may well have thought of it before. Still, he said, as simple as the towel is, he couldn't find anyone selling it.
"There are a lot of potential products people think have been done before. You have to go out and see if it's actually in the stores," he said.