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Posted on Sun, Nov 14, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

Ann Arbor 'product museum' showcases consumer items from around globe - and drives innovation

By Janet Miller


NewProductWorks, part of GfK Custom Research North American, helps clients with innovation, developing new products, packaging and formulas. It also has a collection consisting of more than 100,000 different grocery, beauty and health care products spanning 40 years. It's a living collection: Curator Carol Sherry (pictured) shops every day for new products.

Janet Miller | For

The day when opening a carton of milk could be like wrestling an alligator is gone thanks to the inspiration that came from Ann Arbor-based NewProductWorks.

The idea of using a twist top opening rather than the finicky pull and pinch cardboard spout was born out of NewProductWorks, a museum-like collection of consumer products from around the world.

With 110,000 different items (and growing every day), it is the only collection of its kind in the world, said curator Carol Sherry.

NPW is part of Ann Arbor office of global consultants GfK North America, which recently moved from State Circle to new and larger offices in Valley Ranch Business Park, just north of West Ellsworth Road south of downtown Ann Arbor.

The move allows for anticipated growth of GfK and the NPW collection, said Elizabeth Lawrence, senior director. GfK is the fourth largest marketing/research company in the world with 110 branches around the globe.

Walking into NPW is like entering a mid-size supermarket. Rows of metal shelves hold food and beverages, health and beauty products, house care and pet care items.

However, instead of having 20 or 30 cans of a single product, there’s just one. And perishables, such as cookies, have been removed and dutifully eaten by staff, Sherry said.

“The typical grocery store has 50,000 SKUs,” Sherry said. “We have twice that.”

Clients from around the country visit the collection to draw inspiration on product formulation, packaging, positioning, technology and more, she said.

That’s what happened with Citrus Hill orange juice after a visit years ago. At the time, most orange juice was frozen concentrate but Citrus Hill was looking to introduce ready-to-serve juice in a cartoon. A package of Japanese laundry soap - with a twist off lid on top - inspired Citrus Hill to put it on juice carton and others, including the dairy industry, followed.

But there are also cautionary tales within the collection, reminders that not all innovation has a happy ending: There’s a display of products that stumbled, from clear Pepsi (consumers want their cola an amber color) to Ben-Gay aspirin (too closely associated with the brand's menthol odor).

Phil Roos started the small boutique Arbor Strategy Group in 1998. After years of rapid growth, the company merged in 2008 with GfK, which has an international presence. Roos had purchased NPW from Robert McMath, marketing veteran and author of “What Were They Thinking,”; a book about product development.

Today, the Ann Arbor GfK office works with major brands all over the country to develop new products and services, revitalize ailing brands, find new markets, design new packaging.


Toaster eggs are an example of a product that didn't catch on with the public.

Janet Miller | For

“We try and identify the future focus,” Lawrence said. “We identify where the market is going in the future, how a category will evolve.”

She gives the example of sun care products. The trend a number of years ago was to increase the SPF.

“There were SPF wars,” Lawrence said. “But you can only go so far. If you’re at 100, 110 doesn’t make much difference.”

That’s when sun protection went toward a new direction: Convenience. By looking at other products whose delivery systems were more advanced - hair spray and house paint, for example - it was logical that the next big thing for sunscreen was the continuous spray containers now on the market.

The NPW collection helps companies track trends and then offers inspiration when they are adding or changing products, Lawrence said.

“It is the heart of the process of finding innovation. It’s a living, growing collection of innovation.”

Each day, Sherry goes shopping to build the collection, adding about 400 new products a month. She looks for products that have a “bonus benefit,” such as the Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen package with a nickel-size mirror on the front.

She buys what catches her eye: The sleek and modern packaging from the Method brand of house and body care products. She watches for repositioning, when the same product is marketed a new way, such as the “space saver” packaging of Scott napkins. And the different: Dessert pizza from Bove’s.

Sherry also has buyers around the world, focusing on the Asian markets. That’s how she got Ice Cucumber Pepsi from Japan and a packet of gum, also from Japan, that has a small reserve on the top for chewed pieces.

“We look to Asian countries because they have short product lifecycles,” Sherry said. “Their consumers have a high need for novelty, even more than here.”



Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 10:39 a.m.

Marshall McLuhan would love this. What would be really interesting would be their cataloging system - surely they have developed a fascinating checklist of characteristics and attributes.


Sun, Nov 14, 2010 : 5:40 p.m.

from the story: "Each day, Sherry goes shopping to build the collection, adding about 400 new products a month." I think I would be perfect for this job, I bet I could out do her 400 products a month. I have years of shopping experience.


Sun, Nov 14, 2010 : 1 p.m.

This is really, really cool! I think it's really interesting to see products marketed in other countries.

Dr. I. Emsayin

Sun, Nov 14, 2010 : 9:45 a.m.

Seems like that this organization could do some interesting outreach in the public schools. There are units or courses that deal with consumerism throughout the curriculum.


Sun, Nov 14, 2010 : 9:14 a.m.

After learning of this warehouse on the tube several years ago, it seemed a natural that it would someday be open to the public. Not yet.