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During the holiday shopping season, people with armfuls of bags are a common sight across America.
Mary Tompkins knows that sight all too well. She recalls shopping trips to the mall that would leave her worn out from carrying bags of gifts, trying to fit everything into one trip.
For the last decade, Tompkins has worked to come up with a simple solution to the problem-the Mall Tote.
"I came up with the idea when I was Christmas shopping and struggling with bags," she says. "Everyone was looking miserable, and I thought that there had to be a better way to do it."
Looking like something between a golf cart and a rolling suitcase, the Mall Tote has wheels for easy movement and a long handle onto which shoppers can slip their bags. Tompkins, 56, launched The Mall Tote Inc. this year.
She developed the product with ease in mind. The tote is able to carry several bags on its eight hooks, and it weighs only about 3 pounds, she notes. It folds up easily so it can be transported and stored in a car or closet.
The wheels of the Mall Tote are built to pass over obstructions without slowing, so the tote can get through parking lots even when they are covered in mud or snow, Tompkins adds.
Though the concept came clearly to Tompkins at first, she had difficulties transferring that idea into a product that worked as easily as she imagined it would. She got a patent and spent a considerable sum trying to create a working prototype, but she could not come up with one strong enough to hold heavy bags.
Frustrated but not defeated, Tompkins remained determined to make her product. To finally bring the Mall Tote to life, she worked with Joe McKenzie of Quality Systems, who was able to create a prototype.
Tompkins is now developing other products based on the Mall Tote design, including one for transporting surgical equipment in medical facilities. Another is made for business and legal professionals, while another one is built for off-road use, such as lugging coolers and lawn chairs.
"There are so many possibilities we can use it for," McKenzie says. "It moves along so easily."
The Mall Tote has already caught on with malls. In October, the Mall at Greece Ridge began renting the totes to customers, and McKenzie says the company has been working on more settings as well.
"We've talked to mall owners in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., and they're all interested in our idea," he says. "We're designing a vending machine for these malls that will hold 10 of the Mall Totes. You can rent them using a card; that way if they aren't returned, the card will get a charge."
McKenzie says Mall Tote has made sales across the country, from Portland, Ore., to New York City and even to Puerto Rico. The goal is to reach 400 distributors by the end of the year, he says.
The Mall Tote also sells online at www.themalltote.com for $48.95, with a "build your own tote" option for $59.99.
Though Tompkins says it is too early to determine annual revenue for her company, she has high hopes.
"I've been working on this for 10 years, but now that it's caught on it's spreading so quickly. We've come such a long way even since earlier this year," she says. "The Mall Tote is something that really helps people."
Small Business is a biweekly feature focusing on entrepreneurs. Send suggestions for future Small Business stories to Associate Editor Smriti Jacob at email@example.com.
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