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While Astra is celebrated as a pioneer in the use of plastics, this leading Brazilian manufacturer of toilet seats and bathroom fixtures actually began life fashioning items out of wood. When it was founded in 1957, in Jundíai, a small town some 60 km (37 miles) from São Paulo, this small joinery specialized in the production of wardrobes, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, and toilet seats – all crafted from wood.
Revolutions in Plastic
In the early ‘60s, the nascent business was still finding its footing when a major revolution occurred in Brazil – the arrival of plastic. Recognizing its importance, Astra immediately began incorporating this new material into its mix. At the time, the plastic hinges that accompanied its wooden toilet seats were considered a cutting-edge innovation.
Following this initial success, the company resolved to stake out a place at the forefront of the plastics revolution, investing in and developing new processes and technologies that allowed it to consolidate its place as an innovative market leader in its niche.
“We were the first to use plastic hinges on toilet seats,” recalls Manoel Flores, managing director of Astra. “And then in the late ‘60s, we were the first to make toilet seats using a blow molding process for which we created a patent that lasted for 15 years. At the time, nobody else was using this technology and it really leveraged our growth throughout the 1970s.”
At the dawn of the 1980’s, Astra once again created an upheaval in the marketplace, being the first to launch a blow-molded toilet seat cushioned with molded polyurethane foam. To this day, it remains one of the firm’s best-selling products.
“We’ve always been a company that invests a great deal in innovation, in terms of both processes and products,” confesses Flores. “This is true not just in terms of toilet seats, but with respect to all of our lines, including flush systems, mirrors, cabinets and hydraulics.”
Over the years, Astra’s expansion into new segments led to the creation of the Astra Group, consisting of three brands that cater to the construction industry: Japi, Integral and Astra. Product lines range from bathtubs and whirlpools to state-of-the-art garden planters made from lightweight Polyresin. Despite this broad mix, it’s with three key lines – toilet seats, bathroom mirrors and cabinets, and flush systems – that the company continues to dominate the Brazilian market.
In order to maintain its leadership position, Astra is always looking for new ways to expand a product mix that currently numbers 6,100 items, far more than any of its competitors. Each year, it adds an average of 200 products to its catalog. With the new models, Astra constantly strives to outdo itself. One of its most successful updates is a flush system whose more efficient mechanisms yield considerable savings in terms of water usage. Suitable for all porcelain toilets, it’s been a big seller throughout South America.
Another key element of its strategy is to offer customers the most complete line of products possible. This translates into the use of different materials, such as sink basin valves made out of blown PVC, acrylic resin (ABF) and both rigid and pleated polypropylene. It also extends to expanding a product’s uses, such as sinks of varying sizes sold with and without a diverse array of cabinets and vanities.
While function is an important consideration so is form. “None of our competitors in Brazil offers as many different types of finishes and colors for its items as we do,” points out Flores. “In terms of our bathtubs and toilet seats, we have colors that match those of all the porcelain manufacturers. We also make an effort to keep up with industry color trends. With respect to toilet seats alone, we have over 40 chromatic variations.”
Astra also takes pains to offer a mix that caters to every socioeconomic segment of Brazilian consumer, with price points to match. “For example, within our catalog we have simple, inexpensive tubs for a small apartment as well as luxurious hot tubs suitable for a back garden or penthouse,” says Flores. “Our ultimate goal is to complete all of our lines by offering every variation possible of a given item.”
Looking Forward to a Digital Future
With the constant launch of so many new products, marketing is key. In 2017, Astra invested some R$20 million (roughly US$6 million) in sales and promotions, including events at trade fairs and point-of-sales. Such investments have contributed to a list of active clients (who made purchases within the last year) that hovers around 33,000.
The group hopes to increase its roster even further by preparing to go digital. Unlike the United States where online commerce represents around a quarter of all purchases, in Brazil it’s still in its nascent stages. “Currently, digital commerce accounts for only around 5 percent of purchases, but 5 years from now it could be at around 20 percent,” predicts Flores. “We’re already preparing for this new reality, investing in new software and organizing ourselves to conform to this expanding market.”
Among the advantages Astra envisions are less costly, more efficient logistics and simplified packaging. Says Flores: “Today, packaging helps to sell the product in store, but a well-designed web site will both market the product and provide crucial information about it. In the future, packaging will just provide basic protection.”
Flores also predicts that moving more business online will allow consumers to customize even further, personalizing processes, materials and colors. It could also help the group grow its global sales, which in 2017 accounted for just over 10 percent of business. Although Astra exports to over 30 countries throughout the Americas and Africa, overseas sales have been tricky due to the combination of low-cost products and high-cost freight. “It tends to fluctuate,” says Flores. “Sometimes the external market grows more, other times it’s the domestic market.”
Having just celebrated its 60-year anniversary in 2017, Astra is undaunted by such changes, particularly the dramatic economic ebbs and flows that are a Brazilian trademark. “One thing we’ve shown in 60 years of being in business is that we’re never shaken by crises,” declares Flores. “We’re always careful with our costs and focus on security and consistency. Whether the market soars or crashes, our financial health is always robust.” Echoing its trademark product – the toilet seat – Astra is all about stability.