Sand Dollars

Twelve years ago, Barbara Bigford, a part-time dental hygienist, had a eureka moment on the Jersey Shore. Now her colorful beach accessories are sold in hundreds of stores nationwide

by Caroline Mangan O'Halloran
Bigford touted other companies' products on QVC before she began selling her own Beach Pockets on the network.
Photograph: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao

Then, one windy day in July 1999, Bigford was sitting on the beach with her kids at the Jersey Shore, struggling to prevent their umbrella from being blown away. She thought, Why not use the sand—there sure is plenty—to somehow weigh down the umbrellas? Of course, to do that you’d need a place to put the sand—and the idea of a pocket was born. Later that day, she found a fabric store and went home with several yards of something similar to parachute fabric, strong but lightweight. Using her mother’s old sewing machine, she quickly stitched her first “beach pocket”—about the size of a volleyball—and poured sand into it. Then she rushed off to Home Depot to look for tools so she could fasten the pocket to the umbrella pole. The next day, “I was in the basement, using a 1950s Black & Decker, drilling holes in metal,” she says. She outfitted a few of the family’s umbrellas that year—three pockets per umbrella did the trick. “I wasn’t thinking about starting a business. I was just trying to make my life easier.”

But the next summer, when Bigford’s umbrellas stood tall on the beach while others went sailing, strangers started coming up to her and asking, “Where did you get that? Can you make one for me?” After one man pressed her for the minutest details, Doug Bigford warned his wife, “If you don’t do something with this, that guy will.” Two days later, she visited a patent attorney—“so no one else would take my idea and run with it,” she says. Two years later, her patent came through, and she thought, I can’t just lock this away in a drawer and forget about it. I’m going to have to learn how to manufacture and sell.

So Bigford set up an office in her Paoli, Pennsylvania, home and launched her business while still employed part time as a dental hygienist. With a $34,000 home-equity line of credit to cover start-up costs and her first factory order—a modest 4,000 Beach Pockets—Bigford began planning. First, she would handle everything herself, including package design, contracts with factories, warehousing and accounting. Second, after introducing the pockets, she would bring out one new product every year: coordinating umbrellas, followed by cloth carry bags and finally beach chairs. And third, she would get her products sold in Walmart, even though very few applicants are accepted as vendors. “I knew if I wanted to see my umbrellas on beaches everywhere, my best path was through them. The revenue would be amazing.”

In the first years of her start-up, Bigford experienced two heart-stopping setbacks. She’d ordered more than 15,000 umbrellas, packed in display boxes, from her manufacturer in China, and in May 2004, on the day they arrived at her New Jersey warehouse, she received an urgent cell phone message. “Eighty percent of your beautiful boxes have been crushed,” said the caller. “We’ve just -e-mailed you pictures.” Bigford rushed home to open the attachments. “I broke down and cried hysterically,” she says. Then she went into rescue mode and insisted the manufacturer make good on the loss. It did.

Her second off-the-charts stress attack occurred the day she got word that a distributor she’d hired, someone recommended by a supermarket chain, had swindled her out of $43,000. “From that day forward, I did background checks on everyone I did business with,” says Bigford. “I never paid up front and never hired another distributor.”

By the spring of 2006, with Sea-breeze products in national retailers like Supervalu and Walgreens, Bigford decided she was ready to pitch Walmart. The exhaustive application process required her to supply wads of documentation and the signatures of six store managers (and their respective district managers) who would vouch for her product. Seven weeks after she mailed her application, Walmart issued her a vendor number that allowed her to sell to 18 stores in three Florida districts. She was in.

First Published June 6, 2011

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