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Bring on the next big thing

MICHAEL HILTZIK

Inventors gather at an LAX hotel for a chance to show their wizardry to a panel headed by infomercial marketer A.J. Khubani. He's looking for things that are inexpensive and solve simple problems.

March 07, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

His hope was that Telebrands, which gets 90% of its sales from retail chains like those, would take Dry Cleaner's Secret under its capacious wing. "Wal-Mart and Target could double our product overnight," he said. (Khubani asked Heim to provide him later with some verified sales information.)

Then there were the in-betweeners. Intriguing products like the Alpha Pac, a shoulder harness to which you can clip up to four leashes, allowing you to walk your dogs while carrying grocery bags or wheeling a stroller, without being pulled off your feet when the hounds charge off after the nearest squirrel.

Head-scratchers also turned up, like the Pull4Green travel mug, which is supposed to supplant environmentally incorrect disposable coffee cups but uses disposable cardboard liners that resemble, well, disposable coffee cups. If that reminds you of the counterfeiter who made fake 20-dollar bills by snipping the "$20" off real twenties and gluing the bits to the corners of one-dollar bills, maybe you can figure out why Khubani didn't give it a thumbs up.

Khubani says he expects one or two items shown at the average Inventor's Day to move up to the test stage; only one in 10 that Telebrands tests, he says, is successful in the marketplace.

"A product has to fit into our specific marketing model," he says. A good product is easily explainable, solves a simple common problem, is fairly compact for easy shipping and shelf display, and sells for $10 to $20.

Opinions differ

Does it actually have to work? That's a matter of some debate. Some Telebrands goods, like a handle allowing you to swab those hard-to-reach corners of your car windshield (the "Windshield Wonder"), get pretty high marks on consumer bulletin boards. Others get panned, like a device that supposedly transmits your cellphone signal through your radio but, according to many buyers, produces a lot of static.

Then there are products like the Ab Force, over which the Federal Trade Commission extracted a $7-million settlement in 2008 for the company's "unsubstantiated claims" that it helped you lose weight, gave you tight abs and served as "an effective alternative to conventional exercise." By then Telebrands had sold 700,000 of the things.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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