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Old idea is reborn in online shopping

By Nicole LaPorte | The New York Times | Updated: 2012-11-18 07:59

When asked how the Elephant Trunk, a large, lockable mailbox, got its name, Vanessa Troyer laughed and rolled her eyes. You could tell she had been asked the question many times.

"The name Elephant Trunk came about just because the Elephant Trunk can hold a lot," Ms. Troyer, 48, said recently, sitting in a conference room at Architectural Mailboxes, the company that she and her husband, Chris Farentinos, 45, run in Redondo Beach, California. "It was as big as a baby elephant" - and not just its nose."

That, it turned out, was a problem.

Back in 1999, when Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos dreamed up the Elephant Trunk, it was designed to be large enough to hold the television-size computers that people were ordering as e-commerce began to take off.

But before it was produced, flat-screen computer monitors came along, defeating its purpose.

"It was deflating," Ms. Troyer said. "All this time and money and energy had been wasted."

If Ms. Troyer did not sound all that deflated, it's because the Elephant Trunk is back - in a slightly modified form. Now more the size of a baby panda, it is being introduced in 157 Home Depot stores around the country in a three-month test run.

Mr. Farentinos, a former designer of baseball bats, says he wants it to become a "lifestyle product" that no household can do without. Just as everyone has a mailbox for snail mail, he hopes that everyone will soon have an Elephant Trunk for home-delivered packages.

The couple were featured in this column in 2010 for the Oasis, a lockable mailbox for regular mail that they started selling when the Elephant Trunk fell through. Their story shed light on how an idea can be as dependent on timing and adaptability as anything else.

Even after shoving the Elephant Trunk into the proverbial drawer, the couple were convinced that it would eventually see the light of day; it was just a matter of when.

Sure, computers had become skinnier, but as more and more people were shopping online for a wide range of products, they often were not home to accept the packages.

Beyond the annoyance of coming home and finding those packages "behind a planter," Ms. Troyer said, or wet from the rain, there was the danger of parcel theft.

Still, when they floated the idea of a mailbox for packages, the response from retailers was, "I think it's too soon for that," Ms. Troyer said.

Mr. Farentinos said: "They'd say: 'I don't get it. It's too big.' "

According to a report by Forrester Research, 167 million United States consumers now shop online.

Amazon.com is experimenting with a service that lets shoppers have their purchases sent to metal lockers, much like post-office boxes, that are set up in convenience and other stores.

Last year, Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos met with Theresa Graham, a buyer from the Home Depot chain of stores. As they chatted, Ms. Graham explained that she was a working mother who often came home to boxes strewed all over the porch. She said to Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos, "You know, what I'd really like to see is not a mailbox, but a parcel drop," Ms. Troyer recalled.

"Chris and I looked at each other and our eyes lit up. It was like, O.K., it's time."

After researching what types of items people most often buy online - the answer was clothing - the couple experimented with different dimensions for the Elephant Trunk, settling on a model that is narrower and less deep than the original Elephant Trunk. They also modified the original design so that now it can accept multiple deliveries.

Another hurdle was persuading a major parcel carrier to deliver to the Elephant Trunk.

Ms. Troyer spent months trying to contact executives at United Parcel Service. In the end, U.P.S. agreed to deliver packages to the Elephant Trunk if residents provided instructions to do so.

The product "satisfies a growing need to provide a secure drop location of parcel deliveries," Ms. Graham said. "No one wants their purchases left out in plain sight."

Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos are already envisioning different types of Elephant Trunks for the future - say, for apartment dwellers or people who simply want a bigger mailbox.

"There's going to be more," Ms. Troyer said.

The New York Times

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