A KISS is still a kiss, sweetheart, but pliers may never be the same.
In recent years, manufacturers like Sears and Black & Decker have been rethinking traditional tools and coming up with new and improved versions, or with new devices altogether to perform traditional -- and some nontraditional -- tasks.
In 1993, Sears introduced its Craftsman Professional Robogrips, a type of carefully engineered, hand-friendly pliers that are spring-loaded and self-adjusting. "As of early this year, they became the best-selling tool in the world," said Mike Mangan, of MKM Communications in Chicago, a home-improvement consultant for Sears.
Sears' Craftsman line of hand tools has added screwdrivers that generate 40 percent more torque, and have ergonomically designed grips and serrated tips to avoid slippage. Fixed-joint pliers reduce the amount of force needed to perform a task by an average of 27 percent. And a new finish, Cobalt Enloe 200, is 50 percent less subject to rust, the company says.
Power tools have slipped the cords that bound them to electrical outlets and now run on rechargeable batteries that are dozens of times more powerful than their ancestors from the 1970s. A few years ago, Black & Decker introduced its VersaPak system of tools, which use interchangeable batteries that have become the industry standard.
There are several factors driving the redesign and redefinition of tools. Retailers and manufacturers hold focus groups to ask what features people would like to see in a tool, and many ideas come from there. They also visit tool shows, such as the annual one in Cologne, Germany, to see what's up in Europe. And they get ideas from engineers and inventors.
"I can't tell you how many ideas we get," said Bill Plummer, Sears' buyer for mechanic's tools. The Robogrip pliers were invented by a retired Pullman engineer who worked with his dentist on developing them. "You never know when you're going to get a new Robogrips."
Some changes are the result of forces that have nothing to do with tools. Increasingly, tools are coming in sets, or packed in their own carrying cases. That's convenient for consumers, but the change came about because the plastic and cardboard traditionally used for packing got more expensive, Plummer said.
"Rather than give customers something expensive that has to be thrown away, it's better to give them something they can use. It doesn't add much to the cost of the product."
And some changes are in people's behavior. More people are working on their cars or houses, Plummer said. In addition, tools increasingly are being bought by women, according to merchants like Tom Krol, manager of the newly opened Sears Hardware in Bel Air.
Packaged sets of tools and tools in general are especially popular during the holiday season, Plummer said. "We do about 40 percent of annual sales during December -- mainly from people buying gifts."
Mangan said Sears' most popular item this season is the Handi-Cut utility cutter, a scissors-like device that can cut virtually anything, from rope and dowels, to fabric, vinyl tile and carpeting.
Like Black & Decker's must-have SnakeLight flexible flashlight when it was introduced two years ago, Handi-Cuts are vanishing from store shelves faster than they can be delivered.
Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun. If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at homeworlark.net, or write to us c/o HOMEWORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will run in occasional columns.
Pub Date: 12/08/96