Getting a handle on innovation


Sometimes the simplest innovations are the most useful. To see what I mean, let me describe my recent shopping experience at Staples. I decided to pick up a replacement chair mat from the local store, instead of ordering it online. I actually went this route because retailers roll the chair mats into a tube for shipment, and it’s a huge pain to straighten them out again. I got a tip that the ones in the retail store never get rolled up, so I set about picking one up from the store.

When I took the mat off the rack, I noticed something ingenious. In addition to the tiny holes that allow the mat to hang on the display rack, there were small carrying handles on each side. Now, I don’t know if these were added for the benefit of store employees, consumers, or both — but the value was instantly clear to me. No longer would I have to perilously clutch the smooth surface or hard edges of the mat while taking it out of the store. (Yes, I’ve done that before with mats, rugs, and other bulky items — it’s not fun.) Instead, I could simply grab a handle and carry it.

This type of design innovation costs almost nothing on a per-unit basis. I’m guessing it only adds a few cents to the manufacturing costs. However, I would estimate the value to the customer to be around one-hundred times that. In other words, I think people would happily pay another two or three dollars for the version that you can easily carry out of the store and effortlessly move out of the way for cleaning.

But where can you get ideas for low-cost, high-value enhancements like this? Simple: just watch your customers and see where they struggle when using your product. If you can’t observe them directly, then ask them. Or draw from your own experience with the product. In my case, somebody probably got sick of dropping their shiny new chair mat on the way out the door, and decided that something this heavy and bulky should really have a handle.