NEW YORK (
) - What do duck-hunting whistles, ugly sweaters and even
paraphernalia have in common?
They are just a few examples of the world of niche retailers - a place where small businesses and entrepreneurs can flourish.
Starting a small business with a crazy idea sometimes pays off.
"At the end of the day, it's what makes a retailer different that helps drive their business," says Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "Companies that can separate themselves from the competition will usually always find customers who are eager and interested in what they have to sell."
But selling the strange and unique is not for everyone, especially if the merchandise is truly specialized. Many times, these businesses are created after a consumer sees a hole in the marketplace. But that's the key - making sure there is indeed a demand for the product. Entrepreneurs who have a clear picture of their target market and competitors as well as a strategy to keep customers coming back are more likely to succeed.
Here are five companies selling odd, yet popular merchandise.
1. Pet Petal Pullcart
Made by Pawsitively Purrfect Products
Sheryl Bass and her husband Neil Cline stumbled on an idea for a business as they were planning their wedding in 2006. Both wanted their dogs to participate in the wedding but didn't want anything that would be uncomfortable to wear or anything that would be toxic. Bass wanted her dog to fulfill the traditional "flower child" role, but no such product existed for the pet to hold the flower petals as they were distributed.
and its "Pet Petal Pullcart" was created.
It just so happens that Cline is pretty handy, Bass says. After testing various contraptions on their own pet, they came up with a wooden cart that attaches to a harness and dispenses flower petals from the back. The customizable hand-carved pull cart is for small dogs (less than 30 pounds) and sells for $130 on the company's website.
Bass and her husband, who both have full-time jobs as a publicist and psychotherapist, respectively, have hit on an explosive trend -- consumers are expected to spend
on pets in 2012, according to the American Pet Products Association. Boutique businesses that offer pet outfits, treats (that literally look good enough for humans to eat) and toys are on the rise. And so is the trend of including furry loved ones in weddings.
The Pet Petal Pullcart is so popular that the couple cannot keep up with production (pull carts are made-to-order given the pet's weight and length specifications), Bass says. However, the couple has had to turn away customers, especially those looking to use the product for bigger breeds.
Bass says they hope to license the product, so that a bigger company can mass produce the item and come up with a solution to the big-breed dilemma. She also wants to add other products to the business down the line, she says.
2. Golf ball marking stencils
Made by Tin Cup Products
Falls Church, Va.
Tin Cup Products
makes a stainless steel ball marker that places customizable stencils on golf balls. A golfer simply traces a chosen logo or design onto the ball with a fine-point Sharpie pen. What seems like such a simple idea has become a multi-million dollar business for two golf lovers who turned their passion into profit.
Based on U.S. Golf Association rules, players must be able to identify their ball during play. Apparently up until a few years ago, no one had thought to capitalize on ways to help players comply with the rule. Tin Cup was launched in the spring of 2009 by Jim Millar and Cabell Fooshe and now has roughly 100 designs in its repertoire. The marker sells for $19.95 and can be found online, at retail stores and in pro shops across the U.S.
Tin Cup says it had a 300% sales jump in 2011 over 2010 to $1.2 million.
Some of the company's more popular stencils include the Jolly Roger (a skull and cross bones), Luck of the Irish (a shamrock) and Five O'Clock Somewhere (a martini glass).
Last week, Tin Cup rolled out a "Marine Cup" showcasing official U.S. Marine Corps logos, approved by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A portion of the proceeds goes to
Birdies for the Brave
, a military outreach initiative supporting U.S. troops.
3. Bacon products and accessories
Made by BaconFreak.com
caters exactly to who you think it would cater to: bacon lovers. The site offers a full range of gourmet bacon flavors, bacon club subscriptions and bacon-related novelties. (Bacon soda? This site has it.)
BaconFreak.com actually has roots in the wine business. Founder James "Rocco" Loosbrock also has a subscription service selling wine. After attending many chefs' dinners where he would be pitched the latest and greatest sophisticated wine, he realized that customers for the most part are not that sophisticated. He wanted to bring the subscription business model to a simpler dish. He came up with bacon.
"We like the subscription model
because being a small business, it's great for cash flow," Loosbrock says. "People pre-pay you for an item. In the first few years we would have never survived. I needed the cash."
Loosbrock emphasizes that his bacon is no ordinary supermarket bacon. "We don't add water to our product," he says, which many manufacturers do to up the weight count of the meat. "We hand cut, we hand cure, we rub spices
instead of a machine."
"We're taking the time to make an artisan product," he adds.
The company emphasize that its products are also great for gift-giving.
Loosbrock has taken the subscription service to other businesses as well, including GourmetFoodClubs.com, BaconChocolate.com and his newest venture, SausageFreak.com.
4. Men's undergarments and hygiene necessities
Made by ManPacks.com
Admit it. You wish you thought of this idea.
is a service catering to men in which every three months customers receive new underwear, socks, razors or any other essentials without having to go to the store.
Calling itself the
for men's products, the subscription service was
launched in 2010
by co-founders Ken Johnson and Andrew Draper.
Johnson says a lot has changed for the company since then -- in a good way.
"There's been a lot of change. We went to an incubator program in Providence, R.I. We raised $500 million. Now we have investors and advisers. That's all been good from a business standpoint. In terms of the service ... we added a lot of product categories," he says.
The website started only offering men's undergarments and socks. "Since then we've added everything from toothbrushes to condoms to shampoos. We're sort of more of a service for men's life than just underwear," Johnson says. "We find that guys are historically kind of lazy for shopping for these things so we make it really easy for them."
Johnson acknowledges that a subscription service is still a scary thing for many customers so the company makes the process as easy and accessible as possible, emphasizing that the goal is to make life more convenient, "not as a way to lock them in a billing cycle," he says.
ManPacks is adding more items and catering to different demographics, such as the military, but Johnson says the company is being selective in the products it adds. He doesn't want the site to become a generic retail site for men.
So what's the one thing you can't currently get in your ManPack? Deodorant.
But Johnson says that's coming.
5. Tacky holiday sweaters
Made by SkeDouche.com
Everyone knows that ugly Christmas sweaters are always the hit of the party. People even have themed "ugly sweater" parties just for the fun of it. But if you're attending one of these said parties and haven't kept your mothball-ridden tacky sweater circa 1984, where the heck can you buy one?
Self-titled tacky sweater aficionado John Kaplar took his love of these sweaters to a new level -- and started
Kaplar began designing his own sweaters when he came to the conclusion that what was already out there was "boring." He started with over-the-top holiday sweaters like the Lighted Fireplace Sweater with 3-D Stockings and the Santa Pimp Sweater.
Kaplar's holiday gear has earned notable mentions and he was recently featured in Jimmy Fallon's "12 Days of Christmas Sweaters."
"Our Christmas sweater store is overflowing with the tackiest, ugliest, most festive and obnoxious Christmas sweaters around. And everything is brand new," the company's website states.
Customers can also buy things like LED Christmas sweaters, Hannukah sweaters, candy cane scarves, hats and in its latest expansion, St. Patrick's Day gear.
Kaplar hopes to expand his collection to other holidays.
-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.
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