Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=223053
Story Retrieval Date: 9/1/2014 6:28:05 PM CST
Jacob Sweeney-Samuelson, Medill
Not all of today’s new business ideas are high-tech.
At first glance, a company that makes only combs might seem as low-tech as it gets. But behind the simple stainless steel design of Chicago Comb Co.’s “Model No. 1” is an advanced laser cutting system, sales boosted by digital word-of-mouth, and two entrepreneurs inspired by the design of modern tech from the likes of Apple.
The company’s founders, Tedd Strom and John Litwinski, have always loved high-end design, but they also feel connected to manufacturing values that have gone by the wayside-–longevity, sturdiness and products made locally from local materials. Their desire to create their own made-in-Chicago product culminated in 2011 in their creation of their first rigid steel straight-toothed comb.
And customers are responding. After selling around 200 combs in the last few months of 2011, Chicago Combs went on to sell more than five times as many in 2012, with a burst of sales during the holiday season bringing the total to nearly 1,100 sold. The company’s goal in 2013 is to sell 5,000 combs, which is realistic given the performance so far this year, according to Strom.
The basic version of their product’s competitors, the small plastic comb, can be had for around three dollars, less than a tenth of their comb’s price. Despite the price tag, they are enjoying sales growth thanks to a niche customer base that has no problem forking over the cash for a non-disposable product.
Brittany Jones, who ordered a monogrammed brushed-finish comb directly from Chicago Comb’s website as a Hanukkah present for her boyfriend, was drawn by the “sleekness” of the steel, and she said it matched the 30-year-old recipient’s style.
“I really like the look. It looks traditional and vintage, and it just looked like a really solid product,” Jones said in an interview. Though the comb cost her around $55 with the monogram, she felt the price was justified by “the material, and the fact that it would last.”
But Jones, who lives in Los Angeles, sees the price as a little high for most people to buy for themselves. “He had mentioned the comb and said he couldn’t justify spending that much. But I could justify spending that much, for a holiday gift,” she said.
But having developed a new comb with high appeal to a very narrow section of the population, the owners have to face the problem: Once their niche customers have their combs, where will Litwinski and Strom find the growth they desire to be able quit their jobs as a lawyer and senior manager, respectively, and pursue Chicago Comb Co. full time?
Part of the answer may lie in the comb’s lack of competitors and its singular design. Like many one-of-a-kind products, Chicago Combs have a stylish cachet among their customers.
Nikola Zurak of Chicago bought a “Model No. 1” for a friend, and said she has no regrets.
“I think it was totally worth it for the quality of the product and the reaction it got,” she remarked. “I would imagine there are people who would be totally willing to pay that price. Yeah, it's a comb--but it's also a statement.”
Litwinski is convinced that Chicago Combs’ product is unique, though metal combs were once the norm. “There was no other company in the world we could find who was making metal combs,” he said. “All the combs around had no design elements. They were either basic, ugly, or both.”
“The comb doesn’t have to be such a disposable item, like a toothbrush,” he added.
The appeal for the two partners, friends since junior high school in Downers Grove, was to use not only a very long-lasting material, but a material sourced from the local region. All Chicago Comb Co. combs are made from U.S. stainless steel sourced by their manufacturing partner, Humboldt Park’s Triton Industries Inc. Triton makes every effort to buy material from nearby, including most of their cold-rolled steel from Indiana mills; the stainless steel for the combs comes from Kentucky.
“We’ve always been really interested in manufacturing and doing it locally, but also really loved well-designed products,” Litwinski explained.
One potential for growth is expanding the product line beyond this first grooming tool, which Strom and Litwinski plan to do this year. A finer-toothed comb in the same design is one option on the table, as well as a smaller beard and moustache comb designed to be more precise.
A finer-tooth comb could net them at least one more customer. Jones said the recipient of her comb had to abandon using it to style his pompadour because of the wide spacing of the teeth, and the item now sits on his shelf while he uses a fine-toothed plastic comb, a development Jones called “a little disappointing.”
Triton Industries cuts the combs from a sheet of standard 304-grade stainless steel with a thickness of about one-tenth of an inch. An industrial laser follows a program to automatically zip through the steel, cutting the combs’ basic shapes. From there, the sharp edges are smoothed and a finish applied at Clybourn Metal Finishing, a process that is done by hand on manual grinders and buffing wheels.
The contrast between high- and low-tech processes is natural to Strom, who said they chose whatever process would create the best product regardless of price. “We wanted the highest-quality everything; we don’t skip a step.”
Along with custom packaging from Chicago Paper Tube and Can Co., Strom said the cost of manufacturing adds up, though it totals only 20 percent to 25 percent of the retail cost of the comb, a figure Strom described as comparable with similar products.
Strom and Litwinski said they are constantly looking for new retailers to grow their sales. Merz Apothecary, with locations in Lincoln Square and the Loop, has been the company’s biggest-selling retailer, but the combs are sold in stores all over the U.S., from North Carolina to Kansas to California, as well as through various outlets online.
About 60 percent of Chicago Comb’s products are sold through retail partners and about 40 percent through direct web sales, Strom estimated.
Advertising has not been an expense for Chicago Combs, because word has spread about their product through what Strom called “digital word-of-mouth,” meaning the combs have been featured on design blogs and shared through “likes” on Facebook and other online channels.
Steven DiRamio, who lives in Duxbury, Mass., said he saw the product on the Kickstarter website earlier this year. DiRamio said he’s attracted to the durability of the comb: “You’d never have to buy a comb ever again, and it’s cool,” he said. But he is holding out for the company’s upcoming beard and moustache comb, since he shaves his head but grows his facial hair out once a year for “Movember,” a men’s health awareness event.
Litwinski said he believes the company’s product has appealed almost equally to men and women, but that women are almost always purchasing the comb as a gift for a man. The type of customers to whom the comb appeals puts a higher value on design, local origin and lasting durability than most consumers – and they are willing to pay for it. Litwinski sees the product as fitting in with several new trends that could mean continued strong sales in their combs.
First is the movement toward buying more locally-made products, and even food. This “local-conscious” movement intends to cut down on fossil fuels used in the transportation of materials, and focuses on manufacturing employees being paid a fair wage, which can’t be guaranteed when the origin is not known.
This was a major factor in Zurak’s decision to purchase a “Model No. 1.”
“I love that it's American made,” she stated. “It's a little disturbing how hard you might have to sometimes look to find products made here. But when I do, I'm usually thrilled with the quality, as is the case here.”
Second, Litwinski offered that men are increasingly willing to spend more on style and grooming products. He noted that his company’s combs cost “about as much as a haircut or two” at some of the higher-end men’s salons in Chicago.
“It’s got a masculine vibe, but we never thought consciously of making a product just for men,” Litwinski said. “A comb is a comb, and certainly there are women who have bought it for themselves.”
Litwinski said he is also pursuing other stainless steel finishes to add to the currently available mirrored and satin treatments.