STRATEGY

Snap, Crackle, Pop!

Some things never change. Take those old wooden mousetraps that your grandparents used to have around the house. They're still being churned out in Lititz, Pa.
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THE REAL WORLD

Those old wooden mousetraps that your grandparents used to have around the house haven't changed much over the years. And they're still being churned out in Lititz, Pa.

In the DreamWorks movie Mouse Hunt, a mouse eludes a maze of Victor mousetraps scattered throughout a house. On Late Show with David Letterman, a trickster snaps a Victor on his tongue. And the Guinness Book of World Records showcases a mocking version: a Bunyanesque nine-and-a-half-foot-tall replica of a Victor trap, built by students in Ohio.

What better evidence of an American icon? For almost a century the Woodstream Corp. and its predecessor companies in Lititz, Pa., have been cranking out the Victor snap traps, which work pretty much the way they always have. The ultimate low-tech machine consists of a thin pine block, a wire spring, and a few bits of metal. The 1894 invention is testimony to American ingenuity, but even more striking in the global economy is that the production of the Victor has stayed put in placid Lititz.

How can that be? Harry Whaley, the 43-year-old M.B.A. who has run Woodstream for the past decade, answers that question in a way that would have pleased Ralph Waldo Emerson. The paraphrased version of Emerson's famous maxim holds that the world will beat a path to the door of someone who builds a better mousetrap. "There's nothing that you could design, at that low cost, that will achieve the level of efficacy of the snap trap," says the square-jawed and straight-faced Whaley. Period.

It's not that the nation lacks inventors who take Emerson literally. In a 1996 article, American Heritage magazine noted that "the mousetrap is far and away the most invented machine in all of American history." A decade ago a cheeky Californian attempted to defeat the Victor head-on, if futilely, by launching his Better Mouse Trap Co. Rarely does a week pass that an inventor doesn't shop a new mousetrap design to Woodstream. Recent examples: an alarm-equipped mousetrap for the attic and a contraption made for summer cottages that dispatches four-legged visitors into antifreeze over the winter. Both were deemed too expensive.


Victor, the ultimate low-tech machine, was invented in 1894.


Not that it's beneath Woodstream to acquire the rights to mouse-control gadgets that it thinks will sell. It has cut deals with outside entrepreneurs allowing it to market such items as the Quick Kill Mouse and the Sonic Pest Chaser, which cost more than the 50¢ retail price of the classic but offer the particular attributes that their names imply.

Of course, the basic patent on the Victor classic expired long ago -- in 1920. Yet Woodstream prevails as the world's largest mousetrap maker against copycat competitors in China and other countries where labor costs are much lower than they are in Lititz. Nothing about the exterior of Woodstream's conventionally bland, metal-sided factory on North Locust Street suggests that the company enjoys a competitive edge. And the factory's four 1940s- to 1950s-vintage trap-making machines rely on Rust Belt-style gears and pulleys. However, each can churn out a maximum of one million high-quality mousetraps a week, and the production lines are fully automated. The labor cost? "It's de minimus," says Whaley.

What's more, the foreign knockoffs lack the trademarked, widely recognized red "V" that Whaley says elevates Woodstream traps above the level of a commodity. "Those traps have been around forever. Our parents and grandparents knew Victor," concurs Randy Kipfer, a product manager for the Do-It-Best Corp., a hardware distributor based in Fort Wayne, Ind. And then there's the secret, which is to Woodstream what the syrup formula is to Coca-Cola. "There are design elements that others haven't been able to duplicate," confides Whaley. "And I'm not going to tell you what they are."

Mousetraps alone could not bring in the almost $50 million in revenues that Woodstream expects to reach in 2000. Over the years Richard Woolworth, who headed Woodstream for 24 years before his retirement, in 1990, diversified into sporting goods that ranged from fishing rods to ski goggles. By the 1980s Woolworth had factories humming in Louisiana, California, Washington, and Canada, as well as in Lititz, that employed more than 800 people (compared with 250 today). Revenues peaked in 1989, just shy of $60 million. After that, both foreign competition and the antitrapping movement caused a waning market for the company's animal leghold traps -- its signature business along with mousetraps from the company's earliest days. Whaley halted Woodstream's leghold-trap production for good in 1998.

That particular trap didn't jibe with the kinder, gentler image that Whaley has been cultivating for his company. He's leveraging Woodstream's two strongest brands -- Victor and Havahart -- to create a wide array of new products. All are promoted either as poison-free ways of zapping pests like yellow jackets and mice or as caring devices to control or coddle birds, raccoons, and other animals. To help people gently rebuff deer, for instance, Woodstream markets an electronic repellent -- acorn scented no less. The company's two missions of killing and caring coexist in an uneasy harmony, offering customers choices while straddling their sensibilities.

Bullish about what he sees as Woodstream's two-pronged mission, Whaley led a management buyout of the company in December -- taking it back into private hands after an earlier acquisition by a conglomerate. He says the company is "well positioned for the 21st century." Still, he is tiptoeing into the new economy with a modest Internet strategy. Fearful of undermining relations with the 100,000 retail outlets that carry Woodstream products, Whaley is showing restraint in his online commerce. Woodstream does offer its URL-imprinted mousetraps and other products for sale directly to the consumer on its Web site, but online buyers must pay a premium above the prevailing retail price.

No matter the strategy, it's hard to get around a simple truth about mousetraps: Sales spike up or down from one year to the next depending on the weather and its effect on mouse and rat populations; the traps have never been a fast-growth item. "The mousetrap business is just a very stable business," says Woolworth, the former Woodstream chairman. "It's not Mousetrap.com."

Joseph Rosenbloom is a senior editor at Inc.


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: May 15, 2000




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