Spring 2007
Plush with Success By Emily Lambert

Tried-and-True

It’s no secret. Plush isn’t a fad; it’s a reliable, tried-and-true product category. In fact, teddy bears celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2002. “It’s the most stable thing I have. I can always count on it,” says retailer Ellen Durand, co-owner of Village Toy Co. in Grosse Pointe, MI. Why is plush forever in fashion? Because plush is far more than a stuffed bear or dog or cat; it’s packaged affection, security and love. It delivers hugs and smiles, and often becomes a child’s best friend.

That’s the emotional side. On the practical side, plush crosses age groups and is not expensive, says Alison Marek, managing editor for TDmonthly, a Los Angeles-based trade publication for the toy, hobby, game and gift industry. Not to mention, it’s the perfect gift for many occasions. Which is why plush shows up just about everywhere: in florists’ shops, hospital gift shops, casino gift shops, tourist destinations, chocolate boutiques and bookstores, to name a few.

It’s a jungle out there

Clearly, teddy bears rule in the world of plush. Not only are they 100 years old and going strong, they’re also in the National Toy Hall of Fame. “There’s something about a teddy bear that people love,” says Mindy Kinsey, editor in chief of Teddy Bear and Friends, a Boston-based magazine for collectors and manufacturers. “Almost everyone owns one. It’s like shoes. You can’t have just one.”

Dogs are another favorite. “Our dogs have realistic faces and some body characteristics that belong to the breed,” says Erika Radich, marketing manager of Douglas Co. Inc., which wholesales approximately 50 breeds of plush dogs, including golden retrievers, Border collies and cairn terriers.

Durand attests to their popularity. “Dogs are huge for us. We try to carry a variety of breeds, because people want the one they have at home,” she says.

And it doesn’t stop there. Yomiko, Russ Berrie and Co. Inc.’s number-one product line includes koala bears, Dutch bunnies and walruses, in addition to dogs. “The mom and baby penguin does extremely well,” says Jeffrey Bialosky, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the company, which is based in Oakland, NJ. Bialosky credits the recent penguin movies “Happy Feet” and “March of the Penguins” for the plush penguins’ success. Because what happens in Hollywood often affects which animals are hot sellers, Russ Berrie representatives keep in touch with movie studios.

Keep in mind, animal popularity varies by region. In Maine, lobsters are a hit, while alligators and flamingos sell better in Florida, notes Tara Rubino, sales manager for Mary Meyer in Townshend, VT, a family-owned plush manufacturer. Another example: GUND’s armadillo sells better in Texas than in the Northeast.

Licensed products are another category to consider with proven success. Russ Berrie sells several licensed products, such as Raggedy Ann & Andy, who are 92 years old and still going strong, and Curious George. GUND has experienced licensing success with its Sesame Street line, and has collaborated with Sesame Workshop to introduce a new series of licensed characters, such as Pinky Dinky Doo, a 7-year-old girl who uses her imagination to solve everyday problems.

According to the New York-based Toy Industry Association, U.S. plush sales dropped from $1.5 billion in 2004 to $1.3 billion in 2005. What then accounts for the resounding successthat many retailers and wholesalers are seeing? The answer: Interactive plush.

Plush has now invaded cyberspace. Webkinz, plush toys made by Ganz, come with secret codes that allow kids to enter cyberspace and adopt their chosen pets online, decorate their pets’ online rooms and play games. Retailers such as Pam Davis, senior buyer of Berean Christian Stores, headquartered in Cincinnati, are touting the toys as well. Davis points out that even 10-year-old boys collect them.

“Parents like them because it gives their kids a chance to be on the computer in a safe way,” says Marek of TD monthly. Anita Frazier, industry analyst for New York-based NPD Group, a provider of consumer and retail market research, agrees. “It is a great example of how the toy industry is responding to challenges for consumers’ time and disposable dollars, by stepping up the extent to which toys can engage kids and adults alike,” she says.

Russ Berrie is entering the online world this spring with its Shining Star line. It encompasses 24 plush characters, including cuddly dogs and magical dragons, bearing star-stamped paws and feet and sealed hangtags with special codes. Consumers use these codes to enter the shining star universe and play games. The best part: Each star is linked to the International Star Registry, so consumers can name stars and have them registered with the U.S. government. “You collect and build your own constellation in the universe,” says Bialosky. Shining stars make particularly good gifts when celebrating an achievement, or simply wanting to convey that the gift recipient is a shining star.

Jason Glime, vice president of business development for Jaag Plush, a Madison Heights, MI-based line of lifelike and innovative plush products, says growth in the plush industry is all about what customers can actually do with it. For example, Jaag wholesales Time’s Up & Time’s Out animals, which come with timers in their bellies. These timers can be used to keep track of TV watching or other activities by children. Jaag’s number one product? A 3-D Pillow Pal that’s part pillow, part stuffed animal, such as a dog, giraffe or frog. “We sell [the Pillow Pals] like crazy, because there’s nothing else out there like it,” says the Village Toy Co.’s, Durand.

Going gaga over babies

While cyberspace is intended for an older audience, babies are still a big business for selling plush. “Every baby gets some kind of plush product. There’s a huge potential,” says Dan Ahlquist, general manager of First & Main Inc., in Lombard, IL. His company wholesales bearbugs, brightly colored toys that play “You Are My Sunshine” as they sway back and forth, and their cheeks brighten. “We expanded a lot of our baby line and added musical chips inside the bears to give them a little more appeal,” he says.

Bearington Collection, a nine-year-old company known for its dressed bears, will triple its baby collection within the next year. “It’s a big section of the market right now. There’s a mini baby boom going on out there,” says Greg Peppler, director of sales and marketing for Bearington, in Kennesaw, GA.

Mary Meyer’s Rubino says the company has seen great success with its baby lines, which are dedicated to infants and include activity toys, blankets and teddy bears in six different themes, such as Lucky Ducky and Charlie Choo-Choo.

Calling all mini movie stars & dragon slayers

In the plush world, one size does not fit all, especially when you’re a trendy girl. Girls today are following in the footsteps of movie stars and toting around their (plush) pets in (plush) pet carriers. “Pet carriers a la Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are all the rage,” says Sean Hellenbrand, director of sales for Aurora World Inc., a Pico Rivera, CA-based plush manufacturer that makes plush replicas of the stars’ carriers. The outfits the dogs are wearing are equally important (picture denim jeans and pearl necklaces). “We’re dressing more plush than ever before. It’s been phenomenal,” he says. Aurora’s pet carriers are targeted toward the 8- to 12-year-old market, which is big and has a lot of buying power, says Hellenbrand.

Douglas Co. offers a similar line, the Sassy Pet Sak Collection, which targets a younger (ages 3 to 9) but equally fashion-conscious customer. “It is interesting to combine a toy with a popular accessory and watch it become very desirable in the market,” says Radich.

For boys, Douglas offers a plush line of prehistoric animals, including a wooly mammoth, a triceratops and a pteranodon. Market research points to dinosaurs as items that appeal to boys. Douglas also wholesales fierce-looking dragons in its fantasy line, Flights of Fancy. “I think Harry Potter had a lot to do with the rise in fantasy play, but it is just a great imaginative, creative outlet for child play,” says Radich.

Collectors’ craze

According to Kinsey of Teddy Bear and Friends, many women, some in their 50s and 60s, are ardent collectors of bears.

“Most of our bears are really designed for adults or decoration in children’s rooms, not as a child’s best buddy,” says Drew Housley, director of Settler Bears, in Tucson, AZ. Settler’s new romance collection, Parcel for Darling, has been a tremendous success, with bears that come in pinks and reds, sporting floral-printed dresses and bows in their hair.

Bearington also has a loyal following. “Thousands of people collect [our bears] across the country. Some have hundreds. We see more and more younger mothers starting to collect and use them around the house to decorate. They’re great accent pieces,” says Peppler. Bearington bears include Lady Flurry, who is dressed in an ivory gown trimmed in faux fur with jeweled buttons and hair bows; and Peter Putter, who is complete with golf polo shirt, pants, club, shoes and visor.

Durand carries Steiff plush, German-made jointed bears with a trademark button in their left ears. At Village Toy Co., these collectible plush items range in retail from $50 to $300. “People buy them for their kids as collections,” she says. Durand has bought one each year for her son since he was a baby. She keeps them displayed in a lit case in his room.

Minimum space, maximum effect

As with any product, the better the display, the more you will sell. According to plush manufacturers, a good display is a good grouping. Merchandise can be grouped a number of ways—by price point, brand or breed. Housley advises: “Sell [your] product as a specific brand. For instance, you can carry many brands of bears, but you should have a distinctive display for each company, so your customers can come to appreciate the subtleties of each line, instead of seeing only a jumbled display of ‘bears.’ ”

Seasonal displays are another way to go. Plush is the perfect gift for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and graduation. No matter the season, variety is key, Ahlquist advises. “We try to keep our order minimums low, so retailers can be flexible with the amount they have to buy. Smaller gift shops can then get a wider range of products. If customers see you offer a wide variety—dogs, cats, baby items, seasonal items—even if they don’t make a purchase then, they might go back,” says Ahlquist. Also remember to appeal to your customer. Durand says, “We have our plush displayed in cubbyholes,” grouped according to animal, where children can easily access them. “We constantly straighten. We want the faces to be facing out.” Faces are often what draw a child in.

And don’t forget the importance of good price. “A lot of people don’t want Wal-Mart, but they don’t want to pay an exorbitant amount of money either,” says Peppler. Bearington’s average retail price is $20 for a 14-inch dressed bear. Twenty dollars is the magic price point for many customers. Today, that price offers a lot of value. Manufacturers have made great strides with material for plush. “It’s so soft, and it’s inexpensive,” says Durand.

Frazier says manufacturers are also turning out plush products customized for retailers, either focused on the store’s location or simply incorporating the store’s logo.

Given the many audiences to which plush appeals—the young, the old, the boy, the girl—you can be assured you will provide your customers an unmatched gift-buying opportunity. “[Plush] appeals to people at an emotional level and evokes a tenderness that other gifts don’t always accomplish,” says Radich. The cost of a bear hug? Priceless.

Emily Lambert

Lambert, a regular writer for GIFT SHOP, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at emilylambert@comcast.net.




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