Antismoking sentiment hasn't been hazardous to the health of Zippo, which has found new life in selling its iconic windproof lighters to collectors and fashion-conscious consumers. Zippo's refillable lighters (which come with a lifetime guarantee) are sold in more than 120 countries. Its Ronson unit makes cigarette lighters, lighter fluid, flints, torches, and more. Zippo also owns W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery (pocketknives) and makes key holders, money clips, pocket flashlights, tape measures, and writing instruments. George Blaisdell founded Zippo in 1932 after watching a friend try to light a cigarette in the wind. His daughters, Harriet Wick and Sarah Dorn (and her sons, George and Paul Duke), own Zippo.
Because making money from only lighters for the long-haul is limiting, Zippo has diversified its business. As a result, it has become much more than a maker of tobacco accessories. The company now produces a variety of consumer products, such as candles, camping supplies, watches, fragrances, clothes, hand warmers, and small leather goods. Its leather items came with the acquisition of Italian leather goods company DDM Italia, creating Zippo Fashion Italia, which specializes in handbags, belts, and wallets.
Zippo has manufactured nearly 500 million lighters since its founding. To ensure that the firm stays on top of its game, Zippo acquired the US and Canadian consumer products divisions of former rival Ronson in 2010 in a deal valued at about $11 million. The purchase eliminated a key competitor in the lighter and accessories business and added the Ronson brand to Zippo's portfolio, which already includes pocket lighters dedicated to Harley-Davidson, Playboy, the US military, motorsports, and more.
As a result of its efforts, Zippo lighters generate more than half (54%) of its sales. But unit sales are still low, considering 12 million a year in unit sales in 2011, down from a peak of 18 million in 1998.
Despite collectors' enthusiasm nationwide, as some lighters have been sold on eBay for between $11,000 and $20,000, Zippo has been looking outside the US for long-term growth. One country of focus is China. An online Chinese collecting club, Zippofans.com, boasts more than 40,000 members. Still considered a young, developing market for Zippo, it entered China in 1995 through a partnership with importer New Frontiers Ltd, based in Hong Kong. Since then, Zippo has opened more than 1,000 outlets in the country. It also counts China as its second-largest market outside the US in terms of sales, with an annual sales growth rate of about 10%. China, with its 320 million smokers, could represent some $10 million of Zippo's overseas sales, which account for about 60% of its revenue. The accessories manufacturer believes that the popularity of its brand is fueled by the young Chinese consumers' desire to own a status symbol and become more fashion-conscious than their parents.
A popular move for the company in China and among technophiles worldwide is Zippo's rollout of hip lighter technology. To spark interest in its products, Zippo in late 2008 partnered with Moderati to launch the Virtual Zippo Lighter. Designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch, the branded application is available through Apple's iTunes App Store. Since its debut, Zippo's Virtual Zippo Lighter iPhone application was downloaded 3 million times within one year. On the heels of this success, Zippo is working on providing a service in China that allows owners of its lighters to add their photos.