Duct Tape: On a Roll


Forget intercontinental ballistic missiles, anti-aircraft guns, mutually assured destruction, missile-defense systems, or old-fashioned diplomacy. On Feb. 11, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge unveiled the Bush Administration's simplest and most cost-effective weapon yet: duct tape. While it may be some time before anyone knows how much protection duct tape provides, one thing already is clear: The duct-tape industry is going to enjoy a boomlet.

Ridge's suggestion is a reaction to fears that terrorists could attack the U.S. with toxin-spewing chemical and biological weapons -- meaning that duct tape, normally is used to bond joints in heating and cooling ducts, could become a thin gray line of defense by sealing cracks around widows and doors. Who knows how long the average citizen would want to live in a duct-taped world -- or even if the fabric-based material can actually keep poisons at bay. Duct-tape manufacturers stress that they haven't tested their products for such use, although they note that it's probably better than nothing.

"It's as good as any other substance to create a temporary seal to keep air out," says Brian Miller, vice-president for retailing and marketing at Intertape Polymer Group (ITP) in Brandenton, Fla.

A THOUSAND USES. That reasoning has made the past few days the best time in recent memory to be a duct-tape salesperson. Since Ridge's warning, the stuff has rolled off store shelves at double and triple the usual rate. At this point in a normal year, nearly everyone has long since laid in their winter supplies of duct tape. Most years, February "is an average month," says Scott Sommers, product manager at Duck Products, an Avon (Ohio) division of German manufacturer Henkel Group, the market leader in the $150 million business.

Intertape's Miller says his outfit's sales usually come in the fall, in anticipation of winter's sealing and insulation needs. But over the past few days, stores like Lowe's (LOW) and Home Depot (HD) have set up special displays to sell duct tape and other items on the Homeland Security Dept.'s do-it-yourself list, things such as batteries, bottled water, plastic sheeting, and shortwave radios.

Those in the know have long recognized the silver sticky stuff's special utility. Miller calls it a "universal substance." Sommers touts the "Three Rs" of duct tape, "Rescue, repair, and recreation," and he cautions that "everyone should know where their roll is." Indeed, duct tape's versatility and durability have created something of a cult. At Duck Products' Web site, www.duckproducts.com, visitors can submit "Duck Tape art, fashion, or poetry" for all the world to see.

READY TO SERVE. Consumers have never had better reason to buy duct tape than national security, however, and manufacturers have sprung into action with patriotic zeal. Henkel has moved its plants to round-the-clock production, increasing output by 40%. Intertape, which makes the Intertape brand and many retailers' house brands, is meeting demand by reassigning production teams from masking tape and other products. A spokesman for Tyco Adhesives says the unit of the embattled industrial conglomerate hasn't increased production but will do so if demand continues to rise.

It just might. Retailers are reporting shortages, especially in the Northeast -- in particular, in New York City -- and all along the East Coast, in Texas on the Mexican border, and in California. That has created a supply-chain dilemma. Intertape's Miller says companies that outsource tape production face the toughest distribution challenges: "It's really throwing their supply chains into a tizzy."

Outfits like Intertape and Henkel, which manufacture their own duct tape, insist they'll be able to ship every roll they make. Sommers says Duck Products monitors store supplies in real time so that shipments can be dispatched without delay. None of the manufacturers say they have plans to hike prices.

STICK TO QUALITY. That's probably wise, since no one expects the bull market in duct tape to last for long. Henkel figures the bubble will be over in a few more weeks, while Intertape's Miller points out that the Homeland Security hype will probably only "push sales forward" without boosting revenues overall -- since consumers will be set for years once they've bought a roll or two.

Still, consumers might become enamored of their adhesive ally. And if they do, they could grow more discerning. "Consumers are going to realize that not all duct tape is created equal," Miller predicts. He recommends holding two rolls side-by-side and comparing thickness and thread count to determine durability.

Folks who haven't shopped for duct tape in a while may be surprised to see so many different colors on the shelves. The extra-vigilant may even want to choose Duck's camouflage pattern. In fact, Americans can now find a tape to match each Terror Alert color. So if you can't escape from the toxins duct tape is supposed to intercept, you can at least go out in style. By Brian Hindo in New York


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