The museum of food failures

No matter how hard designers try, not every new supermarket product is a success.

Take the egg designed to cook in a toaster, for example. Or the deodorant that smelled like cucumbers.

Those are just two failures collected by Robert and Jean McMath. They have spent decades snatching up 70,000 new foods, drinks, and beauty supplies.

That's twice as many items as you'd find in a large supermarket. And that doesn't even count the ones that raccoons ate in the collection's old home (a barn).

They're all on display in a former car showroom in Ann Arbor, Mich., called the NewProductWorks Product Collection. The packages are arranged by category on grocery-store shelves. There are 12,000 drinks alone! But it's only open to companies who want McMath's firm to consult on new product ideas for a fee.

Most of the packages are empty. The products would simply melt or spoil, since they are not stored in refrigerators or freezers. Bugs would eat the snack foods. Some drinks would eat through the cans if they sat too long.

But the McMaths and their friends do get to sample everything before adding the packages to their collection. Even after trying so many different foods, Mr. McMath still gets excited about some new ideas, like colored ketchup. He still isn't sure chocolate french fries are a good idea. "Nobody wants to try them," he says.

The McMaths keep finding new products in visits to supermarkets, drug stores, and trade shows where manufacturers show off new products. The couple says it's hard for them to go to shopping and just buy a few groceries. "There's always something new to see," he says.

Such trips add between 5,000 and 7,000 new products to the collection each year. But that's just a small part of the 30,000 new packaged products introduced annually. Most fail. Just one or two out of every 10 new products succeed.

Why doesn't a new product catch on?

It may taste bad. Or it may change something that people like. When Coca-Cola introduced "New Coke" in 1985, it flopped. Pepsi found few takers for "Crystal Pepsi," a clear cola, in 1992.

People may find a product difficult or confusing to use. For instance, Planter's introduced a new package for its peanuts: a coffee-style can. Some customers thought it was a new kind of coffee and wound up ruining their coffee grinders trying to grind the peanuts like coffee.

A new product may have a strange or hard-to-pronounce name. Or the name of the product may be hard to read. Many "copycat" products fail, too. When one manufacturer comes out with a successful new product, others may try to duplicate their success with a similar item.

Companies thinking about introducing new products come to the McMaths' "supermarket" to learn about what didn't work in the past. It may cost millions of dollars to create a new food product, design its package, and advertise it. They can save a lot of money by studying previous failures.

Next year, the McMaths plan to retire. But Mr. McMath doubts he'll ever be able to go to the grocery store and come back with just a few items. "If we see something new, we'll probably still want to try it ourselves, particularly if we thought it was something crazy."

Some notable flops

Garlic Cake: It was supposed to be served with sweet breads and meats. But the company forgot to list ways to use the product on the package. Consumers wondered, 'What is garlic cake, and why on earth would I buy it?'

'Hey! There's a Monster in My Room': This 'monster buster' room-freshener spray smelled like bubble gum. It was supposed to give parents a way to ease their children's fear of bedtime 'monsters.' Instead, it scared kids even more.

Gerber's Singles: Small servings of fruits, vegetables, and entrees came in the same jars used for baby food. But adults didn't like eating out of jars, and the name of the product made them feel lonely.

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