Jules Pieri of The Daily Grommet Wants to Make You Think Outside the Retail Big Box
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style—sometimes the way something is crafted and executed is, in and of itself, interesting. Then there’s taste. Taste is subjective, but there is a certain sensibility to the things we do—you know it when you see it. Finally, utility. Something can be innovative, but is it actually useful?
X: How do you find ideas, and how do you put them into an editorial schedule?
JP: We get about 50 unsolicited submissions a week. We are also always seeking our own ideas. We look ahead at the calendar and try to recognize things like holidays or Inauguration Day. [The grommet for January 20, 2009 was a Barack Obama tote bag made in Vermont from recycled newspapers.] One of the cool things about this business is that we can be very responsive and timely. For example, we had an idea to do a natural hand sanitizer product with no chemicals. We had started trawling around to find one, but it was on the back burner for a while. Then swine flue broke out, and in less than a week, we found a scientist who had created such a product, verified his story, tested the product, and accelerated the story to publication. To actually be aligning content and commerce like that is not very common.
X: Will you feature products from just any company, or do they have to be special in some way to qualify for the Daily Grommet?
JP: For one thing, we vet what their likely customer service stance will be. Generally, companies don’t know us, so how they treat us is pretty indicative of how they’ll treat real customers. We are often dealing with small- and medium-sized businesses where the personality of the company is still fairly evident. Joanne, my partner, who leads product discovery, had these eco-friendly household cleaner products called Twist on her desk. I said, “Joanne, what is that?” and she said, “Jules, this is a really nice company.” That was when I knew it was probably going to be a grommet. We’re experts at this—we have done product development our whole lives—so we know how to evaluate the objective qualities of a product, the fit, finish, manufacture, and packaging. But “nice” goes beyond that. Is this a company that deserves support? Do they care? Are they passionate about their product, just as we are about ours?
X: Is it getting easier or harder these days to get an innovative new consumer product launched—and how does the Daily Grommet play into that?
JP: There are 30,000 new products every year. It’s honestly easier than ever before to develop interesting new products because of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing and stereo lithography and 3D modeling, as well as access to international development talent and manufacturing resources. Also, because of the Internet, people can form their ideas much more rapidly and effectively. But on the other end of the picture, the distribution channels are shrinking and consolidating. There is the “big-boxification” of bricks and mortar retail. Wal-Mart and Target want as few SKUs [stock-keeping units] as possible to maximize their profits. They buy very conservatively and do not have a mission to support new and innovative products; it doesn’t fit their business model. Of course, e-commerce on the Web is ever-broadening, but the problem there is that by definition, if you are looking to discover something new, you don’t know what to search for. The Web does not really enable product discovery. That’s what we do.
As a tangent, the discount-store culture really worries me. It squashes opportunities for the young, the new, and the fragile. There has to be a ramp for these products to get discovered, at a price where the company can afford to stay in business. There is a new book about this that I can’t wait to read. It’s called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. [Shell is a professor of science journalism at Boston University.]
X: Why is it so important to you to tell the story behind a product?
JP: If I’m buying the same paper towels that I’ve been buying for the last 10 years, there is no deeper meaning to that. But there is a place for another kind of experience, which is that when I bring something into my home, if I know that there is a social enterprise or technology innovation or green innovation angle, it’s a richer experience. It’s like the experience people have at the farmer’s market. You may not even like rutabaga, but … Next Page »