Snake bite Market wars: The innovative SnakeLight has been Black & Decker's shining star. Now it faces the problems that can follow success - its novelty has worn off and there are competitors trying to steal the spotlight.

December 15, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, SnakeLight snared a $100 million market to become Black & Decker Corp.'s most successful product ever.

Newscasts told of shortages of the flexible flashlight. Oklahoma City bombing rescue workers ordered them. Television's David Letterman joked that he gave his mother one for Christmas.

Now in its third holiday season, SnakeLight faces a problem that befalls every runaway hit. The novelty's gone.

That means that SnakeLight has not only lost its cachet, but that it faces another inevitability - copycats who want to seize its flexible flashlight franchise.

So for more than a year, Black & Decker has waged an aggressive legal battle to protect what's left of its marquee product's market.

The company filed about 15 lawsuits against the makers of so-called knockoff products such as Grip Light, Pretzl Lite, Job Pro Coil Light and the Cobra. The millions likely spent on legal fees are a small price to pay for SnakeLight's estimated $250 million in sales since its introduction in August 1994.

"If the company hadn't gone to court, it would have been devastating for Black & Decker," said Ray Niro, a Chicago-based patent attorney whose firm handled the SnakeLight litigation.

Black & Decker's legal fight has won it more than $9 million from opponents and helped keep SnakeLight free of all but three major competitors.

Two rivals represent leftover inventory of companies that agreed to stop production in settlements with Black & Decker. The third will likely go to trial against Black & Decker next year.

"You're talking about one of the best intellectual property groups in the world," said William Fryer, an intellectual property professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "They can identify what can be protected and they know how to protect it."

The lawsuits show how Black & Decker spent $15 million to bring a designer's brainstorm to market and how initial sales of SnakeLight tripled expectations. They also show how competitors mobilized to develop knockoffs, and how Black & Decker used patents and courts to fight back.

SnakeLight is a flashlight with a rippled tube, or core, that can be twisted into a variety of shapes. This feature allows it to be wrapped around poles and other items, thus freeing both hands for a home project. Black & Decker holds four patents for SnakeLight, covering its flexible core, the anchor at the end of its sleeve, the product's proportion and its overall design.

The idea for SnakeLight was born in 1989 when Bryan DeBlois, a designer for the company, was making home repairs and saw an electrician stuff a flashlight into his shirt so he could work with both hands.

The SnakeLight team struggled to make a core that would bend and then hold its shape. The team experimented with gooseneck lamp pieces, solid copper wire and even bendable plastic sip straws. Finally, Black & Decker hired Lockwood Products Inc., of Lake Oswego, Ore., the inventor of a "ball and socket" design that ultimately proved to be the answer.

That cost about $1 million. Black & Decker also spent $6 million on components, $4.6 million on tools and equipment and $4.5 million to pay salaries of people who worked on SnakeLight.

Launched in August 1994 at a Chicago trade show, SnakeLight was lauded as a "giftable" item - a key to gaining a foothold in the huge "do-it-yourself" market. SnakeLight easily surpassed Black & Decker's four other new household products. A new hand-held vacuum and light iron lost money and were withdrawn from the market.

In response to demand, the company quadrupled production of SnakeLights at its Asheboro, N.C., plant. A SnakeLight takes four minutes and 30 seconds to assemble. One was produced every 2.5 seconds.

"We were making as many as we could and we could not keep with the demand," Don Graber, then head of household products, testified in one case.

The company had planned to sell 200,000 SnakeLights between August and December, but ended up selling three times that.

$100 million in sales

Black & Decker doesn't release sales results of specific products. But analysts estimate that SnakeLight generated about $100 million in sales last year. That would be only 2 percent of Black & Decker's total, but a larger percentage of earnings because of the product's high margin.

With something so successful, everyone knew the knockoffs would come.

"They had the same problem with Dustbuster," said Bentley Offutt, an analyst with Offutt Securities. "Every time they have a successful product like this, they are constantly in court defending their patents."

The SnakeLight launch came without patents, which protect inventions from imitation and are secret until they are issued.

The result was a game of nerves between Black & Decker and its would-be competitors.

Black & Decker was vulnerable to anybody who could mass produce a flexible flashlight quickly. Until it had patents, the company could use only weaker arguments that other products unfairly resembled SnakeLight or had names that sounded like SnakeLight.

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