Moms’ tote bags find new markets after celebrity sightings

Ontario company started by stay-at-home mothers gain traction through ‘swag bags’ in California

BalancedDay: A lunch bag with accessories from Balanced Day Bags of London, Ont.

~~When schools in Ontario started switching to a two-lunch system, called the “balanced school day,” Kathi Blackwell and her sister Lynn Petcoff wondered how they would send food to school with their children. After trying two lunch pails, and numbering snacks #1 and #2, the stay-at-home moms from London, Ont., decided to take a crack at designing something themselves. In 2007, after a succession of prototypes, they came up with something.

“We thought, ‘Oh we’re going to order 500 – we can try to sell them at the school as a fundraiser,’” Blackwell said. “And they all sold in about 45 minutes.”

Someone from Scholar’s Choice, a chain of school supplies stores, happened to be at the fundraiser and bought up all of their remaining stock. Blackwell and Petcoff then placed an order for 2,000 additional bags from their supplier.

“It kind of snowballed, and all of a sudden we had all these stores calling us constantly. We had to keep making more, more, more,” she said. “We had no business experience – we just kind of winged it.”

A growing number of schools in Ontario and Manitoba are adopting this school meal schedule because studies have found it results in better nutrition and improved concentration in students. Today, Balanced Day Bags Inc. sells roughly 15,000 bags a year in these two provinces through their website and other online retailers, as well as in stores such as Scholar’s Choice.

Additionally, schools in Canada are encouraging parents to pack litterless lunches, to reduce waste from individually wrapped items, and Balanced Day Bag sells a line of containers that eliminates the need for packaging. This has led to their bags gaining traction in California, which has a similar anti-litter effort.

The bags have also been seen in the hands of celebrities after they were carried by the VIP “swag bag” company Jewels and Pinstripes.

“We were so fortunate to have so many celebrity sightings. Gwen Stefani was pictured three or four times with different bags of ours,” said Blackwell.

The lunch-bag systems didn’t sell as well outside California, but another one of their products, the 12 Hour Shift Bag, was a huge hit. Blackwell designed the two-sided, insulated lunch bag with the nurses in mind who had helped her foster daughter when she was in and out of hospital with a medical condition. The bag has been popular with construction workers as well.

In 2011, the sisters went to their first trade show in Texas. It was here that they connected with a company called Be-Active, which sells products on the Web retail powerhouse Amazon. As a mother with five children, Blackwell was happy to let someone else handle the marketing, shipping and warehousing of the product. She places the order with the factory in China, and the bags are shipped directly to Amazon’s warehouse in the United States. Be-Active places the ads, takes the orders and delivers the product to the customer.

“They started selling so much that we said we would pull the 12 Hour Shift bags out of all other places and let them have the entire market because they are fulfilling that end of the bargain so well,” Blackwell said.

Through its partnership with Be-Active, the company is also testing the market in Britain with a line of ice packs, which come in different shapes and colours. “We decided to try those over there, because we don’t want to send a huge cost item to test out a market,” Blackwell said.

If they do well on Amazon in Britain, she would like to send over the company’s new drink tote, a multi-compartment coffee carrier that she thinks will sell well across the pond.

One of the stumbling blocks for Balanced Day Bags is the large volumes the company must purchase in order to enter a new country. To sell the ice packs in Britain, for example, the factory requires the company to order 5,000 of each design, which makes it a risky venture.

Blackwell has received requests from companies in Australia that want to carry their products, but the quantities she would have to order are simply too large. “Our big challenge internationally is that we have to really do our homework on what products are going to sell and for what price,” she said.

Blackwell feels confident the company will eventually do well in Australia.

“We have to bridge that gap between a small company that’s doing really well and a larger company,” she said. “We have to get over that hump to be able to take those next steps.”

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