Heavy hitters warm up to local inventors’s bat

On May 1, 1985, Cincinnati Reds slugger Dave Parker was struggling with no home runs, five runs batted in and a .280 batting average–an inauspicious start for the man who would later emerge as a top contender for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.

Enter Bill Dirksing, manufacturer and co-inventor of an adjustable-weight warm-up bat.

Dirksing had taken an early model of his warm-up bat to Reds trainer Larry Starr the day before, hoping for some feedback from the pros. Sitting in the stands and looking into the dugout through binoculars, his surprise at seeing his bat laid out with the others turned to elation when Parker carried it onto the on-deck circle to warm up.

The rest is baseball history.

With Dirksing’s bat in tow, Parker was named NL Player of the Month in May, finished among the league leaders in hitting, home runs and RBIs and placed second to Willie McGee in 1985 MVP balloting.

Although Parker could not be reached for his opinion, Dirksing, not surprisingly, likes to think his bat played a part in Parker’s stellar performance. Moreover, he’d like to build on that success in 1986, and turn it into profit for himself and the company he formed to make and market his Brutus warm-up bats.

By day, Dirksing, 39, is a packaging machine designer at The Procter & Gamble Co.’s Winton Hill Technical Center. By night and on weekends, he’s president and sole owner of Dirx Co., an Ohio corporation set up last August.

Dirksing plans to recoup his initial $10,000 investment this year, making and selling 1,500 bats in two styles, Brutus Maximus and a lighter-weight Brutus Bumpus.

What makes the mens slowpitch softball bats unique, and is the basis of a patent application now pending with the U.S. Patent Office, is an adjustable weight that can be screwed up and down the bat shaft, varying the resistance and effective weight of the bats.

Parker used Dirksing’s bat all last year, with the aforementioned results. Other major league players, including former Red Ken Griffey, now with the New York Yankees but still a Cincinnati resident, have requested and obtained bats from Dirksing.

In addition, Dirksing plans to travel to Florida next month and visit all the major league clubs training there. He’d like to see at least one or two of his bats with every major league team for the 1986 season.

Nevertheless, while professional acceptance and exposure is valuable, at $49.95 a bat, Dirksing knows he won’t get rich selling to major league clubs. His primary target market is the thousands of softball teams all over the country, some 3,000 of which are right here in the Greater Cincinnati area.

While on a recent trip to the East Coast to get approval from a national softball sanctioning body, Dirksing said he talked with a representative from the largest softball bat maker in the nation. The official estimated there are 40 million softball players in the United States, Dirksing said.

In order to begin tapping that market, Dirksing is finalizing a one-year marketing agreement with a local sales organization to sell the bats throughout a five-state area, including Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia.

With some 50 bats already either given away or sold so far, Dirksing has purchased materials for 500 bats and has plans for another 1,000 when those are completed. All the components and finishing are purchased from local vendors. The bats are assembled by Dirksing and his two sons in their 12-by-28 garage in Mount Airy, with a drill press and an air compressor.

At this point, Dirksing is unsure where his venture will go after this year. He’s done some advertising in a local softball publication, but doesn’t have any present plans for wider distribution just yet; mainly because he can’t produce any more.

Though he wouldn’t release for publication what it costs him to produce each bat, Dirksing indicated his margin will increase as sales climb and he seeks new bids for larger quantities from his suppliers. As things stand now, he should get back all his out-of-pocket expenses this year, excluding the labor he and his sons have invested, Dirksing said.

Eventually, he may decide to let someone else manufacture the bats for him or sell the patent rights, he said.

Dirksing filed a patent application last April while the product was still in its early stages of development. His son John, who first came up with the idea, and brother Jack are also included on the patent application.

Working with a local patent attorney, who did not wish to be identified, Dirksing drafted a claim that covers not only the present model, but also other innovations which may be incorporated into the bat later, he said. He would not elaborate on those, pending his patent approval.

Dirksing’s patent lawyer expressed confidence that the variable-weight bat is sufficiently different from prior bats that a patent will be granted within a year or so.

The patent office could deny the application on the grounds that Dirksing’s bat is not novel or was obvious in light of existing products, but he doesn’t expect that to happen, he said.

The lawyer said although patent litigation can be very expensive, recent developments in patent law have been favorable in upholding patent rights. Also, it is not prohibitively expensive to obtain an injunction to prevent patent infringement, he said.

A valid patent also would put Dirksing in a much stronger bargaining position if he ever decides to sell the rights to a large sporting goods manufacturer, he said, since they are usually not interested in products with questionable legal standing.

Patent lawyer Peter J. Manso, with the Wood Herron & Evans law firm in Cincinnati, said the strength of a patent claim depends on how extensively an applicant searches prior developments and how broad he drafts his claim.

If an exhaustive search fails to turn up any comparable products, Manso said, then an inventor can have a very strong claim, giving him the right to exclude all others from making, using or selling the product for 17 years.

The only way someone could get around it, he said, would be to design around the existing patent or have the patent invalidated by showing that it was improperly issued, he said.

Blatant disregard for an existing patent is rare, he said, because courts can now impose treble damages for willful and wanton infringement.

The Crystal Ball Was A Bit Smudged This Year

POWER ON: Electricity will surge next year. As we enter a new era of e- commerce, look for Internet and in-store electronic sales to go full throttle. We’re not just talking computer sales — there will be in- store kiosks where consumers can activate a screen to make purchases. Kmart has added them, and it’s creating a new world of virtual retailing: fewer sales staff, less SKUs, more sales potential.

And don’t buy this talk shoppers have to see a shoe to buy it on a computer; that may be true for mature people, but to a 14-year-old who spends hours each night browsing Web sites, it’s an electronic world. They’ll soon be as comfortable buying womens running shoes for high arches and apparel on computer screens as they are purchasing books and CDs.

E-commerce is on the rise: A Kurt Salmon Associates survey found 59 percent of people own computers and 39 percent have online access. More than one quarter — 28 percent — go online one or more times a day, and KSA noted that’s more often than many visit a store. And 84 percent of those who purchase online are satisfied. It’s estimated the number of Web shoppers will rise to 128 million by 2002, representing $400 billion in e-commerce transactions.

WHY Y?: Graying baby boomers may grab marketers’ attention, but keep your eyes on Generation Y. Young teens today are fueling a major push in the fashion market, making their own statements with retro looks and electronic techno music. Even little kids are shopping specialty and high-end department stores. They’re setting new standards in what’s in and out, and they even have their own electronic fashion Web sites to purchase from. They are the most educated, wealthiest and computer- literate young generation in history.

NICHING UP: It’s niche time. The market can’t absorb too many more mass-market trends. Specialty footwear niches are coming forward and breaking new ground. It could be for the luxury market, cold weather styles, active casuals…whatever. But it may take smaller, creative concepts to flesh out retail sales projections. Remember when in-line skates, aqua sandals and comfort heel cups for plantar fasciitis were considered niche markets? Other new concepts will be out there breaking new ground.

NEW CUSTOMS: We live in a specialty world, and consumers increasingly want something special. Customization — or at least specialty sizing and fit — will be the answer in footwear. According to KSA, footwear rated poorly with consumers on fit. Only 36 percent were satisfied. And 36 percent would pay more to have certain items custom made. But while 28 percent have bought customized apparel, only 7 percent have had shoes custom made. Of those who have bought custom-made goods, 59 percent would do so again. KSA noted 14 percent would pay more for custom made shoes.

Some brands already are giving customers more choices. Nike’s Alpha project has shoes with one form of cushioning for size 7-10, another for 10 and up. Look for firms to start similar sizing trends this year as consumers respond.

A DEAFENING QUIET: Don’t expect shoe sales to turn around dramatically this year. No fashion trends are particularly hot, ad campaigns aren’t exactly setting consumer appetites on fire, and few firms have been that innovative or adventurous. Consumers perceive the industry malaise and are voting with their wallets. Voting not to buy, that is. People still need new comfortable shoes for bunion sufferers. The fashion world continues to roll out new themes and styles. But retail sales are quiet. Until something dramatically new comes along, cash registers may not be ringing too often.

THE CONSUMER SPEAKS: We’re entering the era of the consumer. They’ve been rising in power in recent years, but in 1999 will be more powerful than ever. It’s a new age of consumer behavior: They’re shopping less, buying fewer items, but still demand better service and sales help. They want to get in and out of stores quickly, with no hassles, but still expect a full selection and service. Look for consumers to get even more vocal and demanding next year.

KEEPING DRY: I’ve been predicting waterproof footwear would gain popularity for a while, but I really feel the timing is here: The weather across the world has been the worst in decades, with an ongoing string of hurricanes and tropical storms. And El Nino, or whatever it’s called these days, still is in the news.

Wet weather is everywhere, and consumers increasingly want footwear that guarantees their feet will stay dry. And while waterproof outdoor boots have gained popularity, better-grade styles — like those from Aquatalia — have stepped forward and proven style and waterproofing is a winning combination.

ATHLETIC GAINS: Enough already with this talk of athletic styles quieting down. Fashion cycles come and go, but time-tested categories stay alive. Look for athletics to hang in there and return near full force when casual and outdoor looks run their course. Of course, the basketball lockout won’t help sell. And research reveals team sports are less popular. But look for running to continue its comeback and tennis to continue its spurt. Casual styles have been strong, but in many regions in America, athletic shoes are a way of life. Consumers who have grown up with them may be experimenting with other looks, but they’ll be back. Maybe the real reason for the slowdown is marketing campaigns haven’t inspired people to run out and buy. But athletic shoe sales will rise again.

IT’S IN THE BANK: Dollar days used to be big at discount stores. This year they’ll be happening at banks. When the stock market surged years ago, people cut back savings as mutual funds shot up. Now that reality has sunk in, look for consumers to start shifting back to savings again. That’s not great news for retailers — if shoppers are stashing cash in savings accounts, they may choose not to run up big credit-card bills and extend debt. Impulse buying may be hampered, making it even more difficult to stimulate sales.

Fun At The Fair

LUXURY BRANDS WILL INTRODUCE THEIR LATEST KEY MODELS AT BASELWORLD. HERE ARE THREE.

DIOR VIII MONTAIGNE

Two years after the launch of the Dior VIII, Christian Dior is introducing a variant, the Dior VIII Montaigne, which reflects founder Christian Dior’s fondness for gray by reinterpreting the watch in steel.

The new timepieces take the pillar line in a more feminine direction, with slenderized horns, a slimmed down case and a softer version of the bracelet featuring pyramid-shaped links. Whereas the Dior VIII came in two sizes – 33 mm. and 38 mm. – the Dior VIII Montaigne is available in 25 mm., 32 mm. and 36 mm.

Laurence Nicolas, president of Christian Dior watches and fine jewelry, noted it was a departure from the sporty black ceramic models that made up the core of the Dior VIII collection.

“Steel is essentially a way for us to talk about the Dior gray,” she said. “No doubt, it will also allow us to attract customers looking for something more understated, particularly with the 25-mm. watch. It has a very timeless feel, a refined but discreet elegance, especially with the alligator strap, which is also a novelty for us this year.”

The collection consists of 20 references ranging from stainless steel quartz watches to a limited-edition Grand Bal automatic timepiece featuring a pink gold oscillating weight on the dial decorated with mother-of-pearl marquetry and set with diamonds.

With prices ranging from 2,800 euros to 58,000 euros, or $3,900 to $80,770 at current exchange, the line will go on sale worldwide in July.

The ad campaign, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, will break on June 20.

CHANEL J12-365

Chanel hopes the new version of its cult J12 watch is the kind women won’t want to take off.

It has dubbed the timepiece J12-365 to reflect its appeal as a more feminine spin on the sporty black and white timepieces launched in 2000, which have been credited with popularizing the use of ceramic in watch manufacturing.

Nicolas Beau, international director of watches at Chanel, said the case has been made slimmer and slightly smaller, with a diameter – coincidentally – of 36.5 mm., compared with 38 mm. to 42 mm. for the previous versions.

“Originally, the J12 was a unisex and rather sporty watch,” he noted. “We wanted to create a totally feminine version.”

The watch has been stripped of its rotating bezel, giving the dial a fresh feel, accentuated by guilloche finishing and a running seconds subdial at six o’clock. Diamond settings are now placed inside the case, instead of on the bezel.

“Opening up the dial makes the watch feel quite big. It is 36.5-mm. wide, but the visual perception is almost identical to a 38 mm.,” Beau said. “That remains an important element of the J12, which has always had a strong presence, both visually and on the wrist. Only now, you have the comfort of a small watch.

The watches come in black or white ceramic with accents of stainless steel or beige gold, a new alloy exclusive to Chanel.

Priced 4,500 euros to 15,000 euros, or $6,270 to $20,890, they will go on sale in June.

EMPORIO ARMANI SWISS MADE

Emporio Armani is taking its watches upscale with the launch of Emporio Armani Swiss Made. The 51-piece range, which goes on limited release today, will be officially unveiled in Basel and start shipping globally in July.

Giorgio Armani said the timepieces, inspired by the Thirties and Forties, were “not overly precious” and designed for everyday use.

“Designer watches are usually just beautiful objects. I strive instead for something more,” the designer said. “I have created a new watch collection for Emporio Armani that while being elegant, streamlined and subtle, is also wonderfully functional.

“I wanted to create the most precise watches – when it comes to technology and manufacturing – and to match this precision with the most precise design, which is where my expertise comes in,” he added.

Kosta Kartsotis, chief executive officer of Fossil Group Inc., the licensee for Emporio Armaniwatches, said Armani brought his exacting eye to the design process.

“Throughout his career, he has melded old-world craftsmanship with modern technology to create indelible images in the fashion and design industries. The creative process for this collection was fascinating,” Kartsotis said.

Prices range from around $700 to $1,500.

The launch is part of a broader move by Fossil to bring Swiss technology to its fashion brands, specifically by increasing its production capacities for watch movements and cases in Switzerland, with an eye to catering to Asian demand in particular, said Luis Samaniego, senior vice president of luxury brands at Fossil.

Despite economy, watches are timeless

The sense of ongoing regional gloom did not spoil the relatively upbeat mood of the recent Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair.

The show is one of the leading trade fairs in the world for the fine watch and jewelry industry, surpassed in scope only by the World Watch and Clock Fair in Basel, Switzerland.

Hong Kong watch exhibitors were looking to add to already healthy export orders. Through May, exports to the U.S. and Europe, Hong Kong’s leading markets, increased by 9 and 11 percent, respectively. Last year, combined watch and clock domestic exports and reexports from China (sales by Hong Kong manufacturers working on the mainland) topped $6 billion.

Unlike many trade fairs staged in Hong Kong, this one boasted a significant U.S. presence, with heavyweight importers and volume retailers in attendance. The show, which ended its five-day run Sept. 13, offered 800 exhibitors from 15 countries. Some 80 percent were from Hong Kong, slightly up from last year. Some 15,000 visitors walked the fair.

Big buyers like Kmart or Wal-Mart want new designs every day,” said Kimberly Fayet Whiley, director of Far East operations for Fantasma, a New York wholesaler that produces licensed character watches in Hong Kong and China. “That’s very difficult for most manufacturers, even the largest ones, so buyers will still look at what wholesalers are offering.”

Egana International, a leading Hong Kong manufacturer with worldwide licensing and distribution rights for brands such as Esprit and Cerruti, had a steady flow of visitors.

“In addition to the Esprit watch line, which we have built up over the past four to five years with distributors in 44 countries, we’re here showing Esprit’s silver jewelry line, which we introduced earlier this year,” said product manager Eva-Sofia Schlachtberger.

She said she made new contacts from Australia, Asia and the Mideast at the fair.

“We see more European buyers at Basel, while U.S. buyers are mostly looking at low-end here,” she said.

For many of the 39 prestige imported brands that exhibited with their Hong Kong dealers in the Premier section, a new feature of the show, the fair seemed to have been a success.

“We’ve had very positive results and met with lots of new China customers,” said Nigel Luk, general manager of the wholesale department for Cartier, which operates eight stores in China.

Luk said the market there was stable and showing growth the last three years.

“The TDC [Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the fair organizers] have also joined Hong Kong dealers in jointly sponsoring trips for China buyers,” he continued. “We used to show in Beijing, but the Hong Kong event is more cost effective. We also have lower insurance costs and are able to show a larger collection.”

“We really like this event,” echoed Daniel Rogger, vice president of sales and marketing for Tissot, a division of the Swatch Group. “We’ve met so far with Chinese retail buyers from about 30 cities.”

Rogger added that Chinese consumers were rapidly becoming more sophisticated and were some of the most demanding in the world.

“Although rural people still like gold or goldplating, urbanites prefer stainless steel,” he said. “Our retailers tell us that whereas only five years ago Chinese-made watches dominated the market, now up to 80 percent of watches sold in major cities are imported. Also, more and more Chinese are going after sporty or diver watches and chronographs. This was unheard of even a year ago.”

Helping to spur sales of imported watches in China are plummeting import duties — now in the 20 to 25 percent range, down from roughly 110 percent a few years ago.

L.A. Gear moves into watches

L.A. Gear, Los Angeles-based fashion athletic shoe company, has expanded its focus from feet to wrists. The firm has added a line of watches, starting with the holiday season. The watches are being produced in a company factory, recently purchased in Hong Kong.

Robert Greenberg, president of L.A. Gear, estimated first-year wholesale sales of $2 million. “The L.A. Gear name will attract the customers attention, and that is what we are initially relying on,” said Greenberg. “We’re looking to find our own niche in the watch market.

Greenberg said the company is adamant about keeping the watches distinctly different from other sport watches on the market. “We have our own silhouettes, colors and band treatments that are true to the L.A. Gear name.”

Since the watches wholesale for $18, greenberg hopes to see consumers buying them in multiples, wearing two or three at a time.

Aimed at the teenage market, the collection consists of 35 different styles categorized into two lines: sport and basic. All watches have metal cases and either Japanese or Swiss movements. Leather and plastic bands come in pastel and bright shades, and two expandable bands are also included.

“Nineteen-eighty-nine is our year of unbelievable growth,” said Greenberg, “and the watches will add to that.”