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Scents Make Dollars

Industry: Starting in garage, Santa Ana couple carves a niche with an air freshener packaged in pop-top cans.

January 29, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — When Gus and Linda Doppes first started pushing their air fresheners packed in pop-top cans, the critics were brutal.

"You meet with a buyer and he says, 'That's the ugliest product I've ever seen--it won't sell,' " Linda Doppes recalled.

However, the couple stood by their can, ignoring cracks that it looked like cat food. And the gamble, it seems, has paid off.

Five years after the first round of rebuffs, the couple's California Scents has carved a niche in the fragrance industry, selling products nationwide and in 25 countries.

Bearing names such as Malibu Mulberry, Laguna Breeze and La Jolla Lemon, the products have elbowed their way into car washes, military commissaries and chain stores such as Target and Kmart Corp., competing head-on with industry heavyweights Glade, Airwick and Renuzit.

Born in the Doppeses' garage, California Scents now occupies three buildings in an industrial area of Santa Ana. The product line has been expanded to include sprays, spritzers, gels and "scent drops" to sweeten the air in homes and vehicles. The privately held company generated about $10 million in sales last year, said Linda Doppes, company president.

Despite the growth, the company isn't likely to rattle the industry's bigger players, analysts say.

S.C. Johnson & Sons, maker of Glade air fresheners, "really controls the market," said Tom Branna, editor of Household and Personal Products magazine. Should California Scents become "a blip" on the larger firm's radar screen, S.C. Johnson would probably "spend like crazy" to drive out the competition, he said.

A spokeswoman for S.C. Johnson said she had not heard of California Scents and declined further comment.

In any case, Linda Doppes said she is satisfied with her company's growth--sales have at least doubled every year for the last five years. "Our very first year we were in the black," she said.

Lacking a big advertising budget, the Doppeses have expanded their company by producing eye-catching products and then persuading buyers to try them. Their hands-on approach has made the difference, said Rich Hibbens, a district manager for Target stores, where California Scents' air fresheners are now a top seller.

"They show their products," Hibbens said. "They helped us get them into the stores very quickly. They would come into the stores and actually put them onto the shelves."

*

The Newport Beach couple decided to try the air-freshening business after a home building venture stalled during the real estate slump early in the decade.

Linda Doppes, a certified public accountant, has roots in the industry. Her father, Ralph Simons, owns Associated Products Inc., a Glenshaw, Pa., company that manufactures industrial commercial air fresheners.

To educate themselves about their new venture, the couple visited stores, roaming the air freshening aisles and quizzing employees and customers.

Eventually, they selected scents, packaging, labels and brochures. And by January 1993, they had their first can in hand.

The couple opted to pack their scents first in the pop-top aluminum containers, which hold vegetable fibers pressed into pads and soaked in fragrance oils. The containers are durable and "environmentally friendly," said Gus Doppes, 50, a former commercial airline pilot.

Relying largely on their savings to jump-start the business, the couple worked for two years from their home, which at the time was in the Bear Brand Ranch community of Laguna Niguel. But as sales mounted and huge delivery trucks began lumbering through the gated neighborhood, the couple decided it was time to move the business.

To promote their products, the Doppeses presented the little cans in sunny yellow display cases and persuaded store employees to position them at checkout stands, where customers are more likely to buy on impulse.

Their first national sales deal was with the military, an agreement Gus Doppes snagged in early 1993 after meeting with an El Toro Marine base buyer, one of the few clients who liked the little can immediately.

"We can sell truckloads of this," Linda Doppes recalled the buyer saying.

But the first order fell short of expectations. It was collected, not by a fleet of trucks, but by a woman driving a station wagon.

Linda Doppes, 45, remembers the conversation as she and her husband loaded 163 cans into the vehicle: "I'm going, 'Gus, where are the truckloads of orders?' "

Undaunted, the couple began visiting military bases, presenting their products to commissary officers and grocery managers. "We personally visited probably every commissary in California, plus at least a fourth of them in the United States," Linda Doppes said.

California Scents air fresheners are now shipped nationwide to all branches of the military, she said. "They probably do buy in truckloads today," she said.

The couple also began making inroads into the civilian market. They got a huge break when Target, a division of Dayton Hudson Corp., decided to test the products.

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