Most merchandise managers follow design trends. David Ross, tool storage merchandise manager for Burnsville, Minn.-based Northern Tool & Equipment, took matters a step further by designing his own trend. From the initial drawing on the back of a napkin to rollout in stores, Ross spearheaded the introduction of the retailer’s Crank Case Rolling Toolbox.
“It’s a throwback to a muscle car,” Ross explained. “It’s not for everybody.”
With exhaust pipes, flame accents and five-spoke mag wheel casters (optional), the heavy-duty product, which starts at $399.99, speaks to the “gearhead,” the company’s affectionate term for the serious auto enthusiast. “We want it to be like him opening the hood of his car,” Ross said.
According to Ross, the Crank Case was the result of identifying a need for a colorful, flamboyant alternative in the heavy-duty end of the category. Ross’s experiment in tool-storage design shows individual initiative, but it is also a reflection on the entire category of tool storage, which continually evolves through trends in design, materials and functionality. As Ross describes Northern’s tool storage category as “an exploding” area, manufacturers (including Stanley Works and Custom LeatherCraft) are busy promoting innovations to their boxes, bags and buckets.
Tool storage used to be so simple. The merchandise mix consisted, for the most part, of red toolboxes and black toolboxes—both constructed of a durable metal and chrome hinges.
Those classic metal, hand-held boxes fell out of fashion about 15 years ago, according to Ross’ estimate. “Everything went to plastic, and that’s really the way it was for a long time,” he said.
The metal carry box is making something of a comeback, he said, as vendors approach him with retro designs. Large and small toolboxes are evolving, offering improvements that revolve around efficiency, endurance or portability, or all three.
Ross describes soft-sided boxes, bucket-tool organizers, truck boxes—both cross bed and under body—as all part of the storage universe. “DIY is a big, broad audience,” said Ross. “It goes from the guy who doesn’t know jack to the pseudo-expert.”
According to research from the Home Improvement Research Institute, what manufacturers are doing appears to be working. There is a general high level of satisfaction in the category.
Of the 16 hand tool and accessory categories tracked in the HIRI report—toolboxes had the highest level of “very satisfied” at 81 percent. (The rest of the categories ranged from 46 percent for stud finders to 80 percent for saws.)
Moreover, 52 percent of consumers reported the top reason for their purchase of a toolbox was merely a “new product addition,” as opposed to a replacement or “to have on hand for repeated use.” Only wrench purchasers pointed more frequently (56 percent) to “new product addition” as a top reason for purchasing a product.
The research, conducted by Synovate, included responses from 6,614 consumers and was released in May.
The study also found the average price for a toolbox was $41, while the median price was $20.
On one end of storage spectrum are products such as Northern’s customized Crank Case and the high-tech Craftsman AXS. On the other is the entry-level plastic carry case from Northern Tool that carries a $5 price point.
In between are a host of increasingly specialized and sophisticated products, and helping to generate more interest in the category are innovations.
“People today have higher expectations in our categories,” said Ian Kilgour, product manager, storage for Stanley. “We’re constantly under demand of the end user to create better products.”
It’s not just style that drives sales in this category, he added. There’s a bottom line incentive, particularly when selling to pros.
“If you’re an electrician and you know exactly where your wire snippers are and your electric tape is, that makes you that much faster,” he said. “Ease of use and speed put money in [the professional’s] pocket.”
During a new product press event in New York City in May, New Britain, Conn.-based Stanley unveiled new storage products, including the line of FatMax Xtreme Tool Bags.
Some of the features of the soft-sided tool bags include a one-piece polypropylene-injected bottom for added strength. “From what we see, the tool bag typically gets thrown around a lot,” he said. “The impact in a soft-based bag, even if it has little feet on it, can damage the tools inside, especially if you have a volt meter in there.”
Strong plastic bottoms, combined with leather, ballistic nylon and strong polyester (1200×1200 denier) also help keep water out, he added.
Soft-sided storage revolves around the concepts of flexibility, storage and efficiency, he said. “In storage, our job is to help people take everything they’re using from A to B to C and back to A,” Kilgour said.
Weatherproofing is one of the areas of innovation that has caught the eye of Tom Wissink, senior merchandise manager at Jensen Distribution in Spokane, Wash. Specifically, he pointed to the new line of “Climate Gear” tool storage bags from Custom LeatherCraft (CLC), which offers particular value to tradesmen in the rainy Northwest or those in marine areas.
The Climate Gear line features soft-sided but durable interwoven tarpaulin construction, polyester bottoms with rubber strips and weather resistant zippers to keep tools and equipment dry. The line offers a half-dozen variations on the water-resistant theme.
In general, Wissink was quick to agree that the tool storage category lends itself well to experimentation.
“They continually come out with bags that are more useful to people in the various trades,” he said. “And this is a good thing to see.”
South Gate, Calif.-based CLC specializes in tool holders and storage bags. At press time, the manufacturer’s CLC Megamouth Tote Bag is described on the Ace Hardware Web site as “top seller” (at $37.99) and “top rated” in the Web site’s tool buckets category.
Tool storage of the heavy duty and high-tech variety made an appearance at a recent unveiling of Sears Craftsman products. The Craftsman Magnetic Tool Storage Mat, MagMat, was among the showpiece products, as was the high-tech, garage-focused AXS tool storage system. Among the features, it serves as a docking station for an MP3 player and a digital information center that provides time, date and temperature in the work space.
Whether it’s automotive-related, word-working-related or home improvement-related, tool storage is described as a recession-proof category—at least relatively recession proof.
“Storage is a very healthy category for Northern,” said Ross. “Everybody has stuff, even in recessive markets. Maybe a guy isn’t buying a house, but he still has stuff to store and, he has to put it somewhere.”
Northern Tool purposely talks about the customer as a male.
“We have a strong automotive segment in the grand scheme of what we do. We serve the warrior,” Ross said. “The whole philosophy can be summed up by saying, ‘My wife owns the entire house, and I own the garage. That’s my cave.’”
That cave continues to be a source of product evolution in the tool storage category, with no signs of letting up.