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At 65, Tupperware transforms itself with new products, colors

Tupperware, it seems, is enjoying a renaissance 65 years after it hit the market with Wonder bowls, Bell Tumblers and Ice-Tup molds for homemade frozen treats. Long gone is the signature burp, that whoosh of air from pressing on the center of a lid to tightly seal in the goodness. Also gone is the color goldenrod, fussy floral accents, and the soft pastels of the 1950s and '60s.

Today's Tupperware is drenched in edgy shades of "purplicious" and "fuchsia kiss," and crisp in greens dubbed "margarita" and "lettuce leaf." You can buy contemporary takes on Wonderlier bowls and those little salt and pepper shakers, but Tupperware Brands Corp. also sells an appetizer tray that looks like a caterpillar, fancy chef's knives, bakeware, and heavy stainless steel pots and pans.

The company has choppers, whippers and microsteamers. Updated FridgeSmart containers with the two familiar vents are embedded with dishwasher-resistant charts recommending how much air to let in for various fruits and vegetables. Broccoli's a heavy breather, for instance. Asparagus isn't.

The Orlando company has acquired a sense of humor with a set called Thatsa Bowl and Thatsa Mega Bowl, but it left the Jel-Ring Mold pretty much alone while aggressively modernizing, diversifying and pursuing emerging markets around the globe.

A few years ago, the company boasted that a Tupperware party was held somewhere every 2.3 seconds. Now it's 1.7 seconds, driven by a direct sales force of 2.6 million — still mostly women — in nearly 100 markets, said Rick Goings, the chairman and chief executive who arrived 20 years ago from Avon.

Worldwide sales last year totaled $2.3 billion, including beauty and personal care products.

"I got here and found out the company was in trouble," Goings said. "The headquarters was for sale. They had just written off $100 million. Everybody loved (Tupperware), but they loved it in a historical sense, like the Model T."

One of the first things he did was hire Susan Perkins, the company's first female chief of design, to replace generations of stuffy industrial wonks who likely never had to use Tupperware at home.

Also on Goings' plate: making products more appealing to young people and ceding ground to lower-cost plastic containers and bags, which, according to him, are lousier than his wares for the environment because they don't last as long or work as well.

The company has had more than seven straight quarters of positive sales growth and expanding earnings, due largely to markets outside the United States, but nothing quite so explosive as the early decades.

The "party plan" for selling in homes to friends and neighbors was put in place by inventor Earl S. Tupper's right hand, a divorced mom from Detroit named Brownie Wise, after Tupper's failed attempts to sell in stores. Home parties remain the way most consumers scoop up their Tupperware, though there's an option to host online parties, and the company sells from its website.

Admired by House Beautiful in 1947 as "Fine Art for 39 Cents," Tupperware today is functional, fun and fashionable, but it's price — pricey, that is, in today's palooza of plastics.

There wasn't much by way of comparison in 1938, when Tupper got his hands on a sticky black glob of polyethylene slag, then figured out how to turn it into squishable kitchen storage and cereal bowls.

Plastics of the time were hard, brittle and smelly, prone to leaks and easily breakable. Without lids, homemakers used moist towels, tin foil or shower caps to make food last on the counter and in ever-improving refrigerators.

At 65, Tupperware transforms itself with new products, colors 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 4:31am]
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