No cane, no gain: Niche fashion company sticks it to the competition
A Largo entrepreneur launched a decidedly un-trendy business while he was in college some 20 years ago. Now Hollywood stars and even a former U.S. president use some of the company’s products.
Key takeaway: Launched amid the dot-com bubble in 1999, Largo-based Fashionable Inc. and its Fashionable Canes brand have made canes cool again.
Core challenge: Fending off competition from cheap, Chinese-made knock-offs that populate Amazon.com.
Canes aren’t just for injured and disabled people anymore. Judging by the sheer quantity and variety of canes shipped out by Fashionable Inc., a Largo-based maker and distributor of stylish canes and hats, they’re becoming popular choices for gifts and fashion accessories in their own right — regardless of whether the recipient needs one for mobility or stability.
Founded by Stephen Carroll in 1999 while a student at Florida State University, Fashionable Inc.’s Fashionable Canes brand offers more than 1,000 styles of canes, many of them custom-designed by Stephen, 44, and his wife, Elizabeth, 40.
So how did two young people become interested in a career in cane-making, and where will they find growth opportunities for such a unique but niche product category?
“I started [the business] right after the dot com bubble,” Stephen Carroll says. “It seemed like people were selling businesses for billions of dollars without doing anything at all. So, I was like, ‘I have to get an Internet business.’ My dad used a cane, and so I was trying to find a product he couldn’t find at Walmart.”
At first, Carroll sold canes, walkers and crutches, but he eventually decided to focus solely on canes — and not just any canes. His canes, some of which are equipped with hidden swords and stun guns for personal safety, are reminiscent of Batman supervillain The Penguin. He even sells canes that have flasks embedded within them.
‘My dad used a cane, and so I was trying to find a product he couldn’t find at Walmart.’ Stephen Carroll, founder and co-owner of Fashionable Inc.
But that’s not all — far from it.
“We sell a bull-penis cane,” Carroll says, totally straight-faced. “They’re made from three-foot bull penises. We sell a lot of them.”
What’s more, in an odd twist on the supply-chain problems that have been plaguing businesses from coast to coast, such organs have become tough to procure, Carroll says, because they’re a popular ingredient in dog treats.
“Now we’re competing with dog treat makers,” he says, “so it’s been hard to get them.” (File that under things you now know but maybe wish you didn’t.)
On a more serious note, FashionableCanes.com was named a 2022 Best Online Shop by Newsweek magazine. It was ranked No. 9 overall in the accessories category, a grouping that included household brand names such as Vera Bradley, baseball cap maker New Era and backpack specialist Jansport. Carroll says the recognition hasn’t translated into a significant uptick in sales, but it’s nice to have “bragging rights.”
One satisfied local customer is Dan Berman, a Business Observer 40 Under 40 honoree who suffered a neck injury in a boating mishap a few years ago. Chronic pain makes walking difficult for Berman from time to time, so he decided to explore options for mobility support.
“I was wonderfully surprised to find a local shop with a wide variety of quality, stylish canes,” Berman says. “They were quite helpful with measurements and adjustments to get the ideal fit."
Fashionable Canes’ products are not as pricey as you might expect, given the wide range of customization options. A super-basic, no frills cane costs between $30 and $40, while a more fashionable, hand-carved cane runs anywhere from $90 to $200. The canes can be engraved with a user’s initials or name in case they misplace it. “People leave them in shopping carts all the time,” Carroll says.
The primary challenge facing Fashionable Inc. comes from Amazon, which is rife with Chinese manufacturers offering cheaply made canes at prices that undercut Fashionable Canes’ offerings.
“People in China selling direct on Amazon is a threat,” Carroll says. “They don’t have any overhead.”
Fashionable Inc. mitigates that threat by offering unique styles that can’t be found anywhere else. It also helps that the company’s canes have pop-culture cachet thanks to celebrities such as "House" star Hugh Laurie and actress Selma Blair, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, using them. “You kind of feel famous when you see your cane on TV,” Carroll says.
The doctor-drama House, in particular, has been and continues to be a big driver of sales. “When the show was running here, we sold a ton of them, so many,” Elizabeth Carroll says. “We couldn’t keep them in stock. And now we always know what country it’s on in.”
Stephen Carroll adds, "All of a sudden, we'll be shipping 20 canes to Germany, France, Switzerland, even Malaysia."
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Original article written by: Brian Hartz, Tampa Bay Editor
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