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Originally published Wednesday, December 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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As 2008 closes, so does business for those year-end glasses

The two Seattle inventors of the iconic glow-in-the-dark New Year's Eve glasses that show the year are not able to compete with cheaper knockoffs and are calling it quits after first marketing the glasses for 1991 festivities.

Seattle Times staff reporter

They thought they dreamed up a winner — that night of Jan. 27, 1990, when over some beers at a Ballard apartment, Richard Sclafani and Peter Cicero were doodling ideas on paper.

Their brilliant invention was those plastic, glow-in-the-dark, New Year's Eve glasses shaped like the year.

It turned out that Sclafani and Cicero really had come up with something:

From David Letterman to The New York Times, the two local guys saw their creation publicized, although never attributed to them.

The glasses would become the goofy icon that for the past two decades has been associated with the year-end celebration.

Their first Glow-Year Glasses were marketed for 1991, and since then, Sclafani and Cicero have sold 1.2 million of them.

But this is the last year that they are selling the glasses.

It's a bittersweet ending, their moneymaker now a loser because of cheaper knockoffs.

Glasses from competitors now retail for 79 cents, about what the two guys wholesale theirs for.

And then there is this final insult. They've never gotten proper recognition for their idea — patent number 335,134, "Novelty Eyeglass Frames."

"Nobody knows who we are," says Sclafani.

The next big thing

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Still, for a novelty item, it's been a good run.

Says Brett Dewey, owner of WickedCoolStuff, a pop-culture retail Web site out of North Hollywood, Calif., "The key in the novelty business is to be ready with the next big thing, and move on.

"If what you're selling is small and cheap, you're going to have competitors trying to knock you off, unless you have an army of lawyers ready to attack every knockoff company."

Dewey says that the New Year's Eve glasses weren't a product that inspired customer loyalty, even if the glasses sold by Sclafani and Cicero were made of thicker plastic than the knockoffs, and maybe even contained more of the phosphorescent colorant that made them glow.

"The majority of sales happen on New Year's Eve out in events. It's an impulse buy. I don't think people are looking for durable quality that evening," says Dewey.

Now, with the New Year's Eve glasses business winding down, what they have is a lot of memories, mostly good, about their brilliant idea.

Born from a doodle

Sclafani, 60, and Cicero, 58, met at a songwriting group that met monthly in the University District.

They both play guitar and got along. Sometimes they'd get together and jam, as happened on that Jan. 27 in Cicero's apartment in Ballard.

At some point, they put down their guitars, and began doodling on a sketch pad. Just ideas that maybe — maybe not might — make for a novelty item.

Their first sketches were of oversized plastic fly swatters, such as one made to look like a hammer. They decided to go on to something else.

Cicero came up with the New Year's Eve glasses idea, and they filled two pages with ideas for them.

Sclafani was particularly enthused.

"I don't think I slept for two nights," he remembers.

Sclafani wanted to go for it; Cicero says he got cold feet.

Sclafani got together $30,000 from his credit cards and money he borrowed; Cicero contributed another $6,000.

Just an aluminum mold of the glasses, needed by a Bellingham factory they found, cost $15,000.

The men decided that since Sclafani was doing most of the work, he'd get a much greater share of the profits.

Local play on TV

In October of 1990, they had 10,000 of the "1991" glasses. Sclafani went to local gift shops and party suppliers. He sold 5,000 of the glasses, at $1.50 each.

Cicero dropped off some sample glasses at KOMO-TV.

On a newscast, there were Kathy Goertzen and Dan Lewis and Steve Pool joking around, wearing them.

On a New Year's Eve KING-TV show, there was comedian John Keister wearing them.

Sclafani and Cicero got another brilliant idea of what to do with the 5,000 leftover glasses they had.

"We went to the library and got a book listing all of the Washington state schools. We made up our own mailing list, and sent them all a free sample," says Cicero.

Eventually, they had a list of 20,000 schools around the country, many ordering the glasses for graduation days.

Business was good, doubling every year.

Sclafani has a 1998 video he made of a Longs Drugs semi pulling up to his North End rambler — the business was run out of his garage — to load up boxes filled with 14,800 pairs of the glasses.

Their best year was the glasses for 2000.

They sold 541,000 of the millennium glasses.

In New York's Times Square alone, street vendors sold 80,000 of them.

Still, even for that best year, after manufacturing, boxing, shipping and advertising costs were added in, Sclafani netted $80,000, and Cicero got $12,000.

Knockoff competition

A couple of years before the 2000 glasses, however, Sclafani noticed there was competition.

There was a Time magazine article about the 1997 turnover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese.

A photo showed somebody in Hong Kong wearing ... a knockoff of their glasses.

Their New York City distributor later sent them a box with a dozen different knockoff glasses.

"Some people were selling them on the street for 25 cents," says Sclafani. "I always knew we had competition. I didn't know we'd get knocked pretty much out of business."

Then 9/11 happened, and the hotels and casinos canceled their New Year's party orders, orders that never came back.

Only 44,000 of the 2002 glasses were sold, and 20,000 unsold ones were taken to the dump.

For 2009, Sclafani had 10,000 glasses made and has sold only 2,800.

So it's over.

For 2010, Sclafani and Cicero would have to have a completely new mold made that'd cost $20,000.

That's because the "2" and "1" would have to be located higher than the two 0s.

Better to just call it quits.

Sclafani does have income from selling novelties produced by others — most manufactured overseas — such as Elvis glasses, noisemakers, plastic maracas that light up and glow bracelets.

"I get depressed on New Year's Eve," says Sclafani. "It used to be such a thrill to turn on the TV, and there were our glasses! Now, all I see is knockoffs."

He ponders the vagaries of the novelty business.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would," says Sclafani. "We did bring a smile to millions of people."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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