On sale: Your brilliant invention

With store sales stagnating, merchants and manufacturers are asking Americans to come up with innovative products.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

When will the economy begin to turn around?
  • Later this year
  • Early next year
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  • In 2011 or after

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With store sales rapidly shrinking, some merchants are reaching out to their customers to come up with innovative and exciting products that might actually sell.

Earlier this week, home accessories retailer Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY, Fortune 500), in partnership with Web-based product consultant Edison Nation, launched a search on its Web site for the next "product idea" that could eventually be sold in its stores.

"This is the first time that we've done something like this," said Bari Fagin, spokeswoman for Bed Bath & Beyond.

Bari said the concept is a "way to listen to what our customers want. Nobody has better ideas than our customers."

"Somewhere out there is the next great product. We hope we find it," said Fagin.

Fagin said the company is seeking ideas from women inventors only, since the search is designed to commemorate March as Women's History Month and the 200th anniversary of the first patent awarded to a woman.

However, if the initiative proves to be successful, Fagin said the company could consider expanding it to include all inventors. "This is a learning process for all of us," she said.

More importantly, Fagin said she hopes the retailer's initiative will inspire people during a "difficult [economic] period that they can do something great."

Mining the masses for fresh ideas

Matt Spangard, co-founder of Edison Nation, said he's noticed a pickup in interest from other store chains who are eager to tap into good-old American ingenuity from the masses - rather than their in-house research and development labs - for new product ideas.

"For all those retailers that are on the brink today, selling the same stuff isn't going to help them," Spangard said. "This is another way for retailers to find other new products."

Spangard's company, which he started last summer, is an offshoot of the PBS invention series "Everyday Edisons." The television show holds casting calls around the country in search of the most innovative product ideas.

The winning dozen or so ideas are developed and eventually appear on store shelves. One such example is an invention called the Emery Cat, a scratching pad for cats covered in sand.

"This was a product from season two of the show," said Spangard. Next week that product will be available at Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500).

But for every product selected for the show, there were hundreds that were not selected. The intention behind launching EdisonNation.com, Spangard said, was to keep these other ideas alive and partner with retailers and manufacturers to bring these ideas to market.

Would-be inventors can submit ideas to the company's Web site for a $25 fee per idea. The selected ideas receive a $2,500 advance and 50% of the licensing fee for up to 20 years.

Besides Bed Bath and Beyond, the company is also currently partnering with Spencers, WestPoint Home, BYB Brands and Hammacher Schlemmer to find ideas from everyday people.

As the economy worsened and layoffs accelerated in recent months, Spangard said submissions to his Web site have steadily increased.

"There are many people out there who have lost their jobs and they're looking for other ways to live their lives," he said. "For people who have seen their 401(k)s drop 40%, they know that investing in themselves and their entrepreneurial ideas is a [better] bet than investing in another company."

Lifetime Brands (LCUT), which markets such brands as KitchenAid, Cuisinart and Farberware to stores nationwide, is also partnering with Edison Nation for the first time.

The company launched its product search with Edison Nation two weeks ago. "We received 32 idea submissions in the first few hours," said Dan Siegel, executive vice president of corporate innovation strategies with Lifetime Brands.

"This is a great formula for us and the consumer," said Siegel. "It's a win-win situation because it offers excitement that people need in this tough environment. And Lifetime gets additional innovative items that we can turn into positive sales."  To top of page

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