Winter 2008
Crazy About Collectibles By Randall Mielke

Collectors' Choice Awards

Hosted by the Collectors Information Bureau, the Collectors' Choice Awards recognize the best in the collectibles industry. Prizes are awarded in many categories, including ornaments, figurines and dolls.

A complete list of previous winners can be found on the bureau's website. Public voting for the next round of awards will start in March. An awards presentation will be held in July at the Atlanta International Gift and Home Furnishings Market, at the AmericasMart Atlanta.

Gotta Have It

For years, it seemed like collectors, faithful to their favorite lines, followed one credo: There’s always room for one more. Every time a new piece was introduced, vendors would rest easy knowing that dedicated consumers were ready to buy and add it to their ever-growing collections.

But all that changed in the mid ’90s, says industry expert Susan Peterson. “People who were into collecting used to have hundreds of pieces of a certain brand or a collectible. Today you don’t see that as much,” says Peterson, owner of Peterson Consulting in Danvers, MA, a firm that helps to launch products and to position collectible companies’ lines. Present-day collectors, Peterson says, are more discerning. Although hard sales data have been difficult to come by, the general consensus in the industry is that after a down period, sales of collectibles are slowly on the upswing. Vendors, for their part, have changed their offerings in keeping with changing customer preferences. Melinda Seegers, manager of consumer services for Department 56, a wholesale giftware company, has also seen customers get more discerning, and she says her company has responded accordingly.

“Our designers are taking their time to create and design pieces that people really want to add to their collection,” Seegers says. Department 56 is a division of the Lenox Group Inc., headquartered in Eden Prairie, MN. It offers such collectibles as the Original Snow Village Collection and the Dickens’ Village Series of village scenes, among others.

Down memory lane

While other factors certainly help, the overriding emotion that fuels the collectibles market is nostalgia. Sybille Strunk is marketing and sales manager for Wendt & K hn, a German manufacturer of handpainted and handcrafted traditional wooden music boxes and figurines, that has U.S. offices in Atlanta. She says sentiment and tradition play important parts in collectors’ decisions to purchase expansions to existing lines. “People remember that their grandmother had angel collectibles and passed them on to their grandchildren,” Strunk says.

Leslie Hermanson, director of product development for Mr. Christmas, of New York City, agrees. “People respond to a sense of nostalgia. Any light or animation that recalls a childhood experience, either real or imagined—that is what people respond to,” says Hermanson, whose company wholesales miniature music boxes.

David Lin is president of Adora Inc., headquartered in Edison, NJ, which manufactures several lines of limited-edition, high-quality vinyl dolls. He has also seen that a part of collecting is reliving the past. “With dolls, many times people begin collecting because of childhood nostalgia,” he says. “The dolls they collect remind them of the dolls they played with or wished they had many years ago.”

If the market is mostly about nostalgia, how do new lines position themselves? Lin says to focus on the quality and emotional appeal of the collectible. “I’ve observed noncollectors falling in love with the beauty of a particular doll, and that sparks a passion that begins their collection,” he says.

Seegers says Department 56 items can appeal to young families who want to start new traditions. “Young families will go out on Thanksgiving weekend and buy one piece for the year,” she says, adding that “people want to do more things with the family.”

What else drives the craze?

People become collectors for many reasons. “As many as half of the collector population received their first collectible as a gift. Many then began adding to their collections,” says Linda Kruger, executive director of the Collectors’ Information Bureau, a manufacturers’ trade association. She is also executive editor of the magazines Collector Editions, Collectors News and Village D-Lights.

Peterson adds that when a collectible is handed down or given as a gift, it is a tangible expression of a connection to the person who gave it.

Jeanne Acheson, director of product development for giftware and collectibles for Roman, Inc., in Bloomingdale, IL, says collectibles stir up special emotions. “The collectible has meaning to [collectors],” says Acheson, whose company sells Fontanini nativity figures and accompanying structures, and Seraphim Classic figurines, which are modern interpretations of angels. “They start with one figure, maybe because of the name, or it means something to them, or what is represented in the item has meaning to them.”

Kruger says that the quality of workmanship and a desire to own pieces by one specific artist also help drive sales. Limited-edition pieces fan the desire for ownership, especially if a collector is dedicated to a particular line. The information age has helped the market, too. The ability to access more information on websites, about the hobby and specific products, has helped drive collectors, Kruger says.

Still others see collecting as an investment, although Peterson warns that collectibles aren’t sure bets.

Popular collectibles

The collectible lines available in the marketplace are as varied as the consumers themselves.

Webkinz pets by Ganz are hot items for kids. Webkinz are plush animals that each come with a secret code that enables their owner to go online and care for a virtual version of the pet, answer trivia questions and play games. Peterson says the interaction that Webkinz allow is very appealing to youngsters. “Interaction is what it is all about today,” she says. “Use it, touch it, be part of it.”

Kruger, of the Collectors’ Information Bureau, identifies as popular, Swarovski Crystal figurines and collectibles, Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments, Department 56 villages, M.I. Hummel figurines, the Cabbage Patch Kids collection and the Walt Disney Classics collection. “These continue to be among the top sellers with active clubs, secondary markets and expanded collections available to a wide range of collectors,” she says.

Peterson says the Willow Tree line by DEMDACO has done well. “They have come into it the right way,” she says. “They have an artist [Susan Lordi] who they are promoting. It is affordable and it is a classic design. They are not calling it a collectible yet, but they will.”

Kruger makes a similar point about collectibles. “In recent years, companies have positioned collectibles, first and foremost, as gifts,” she says. “Many of these lines are created by artists who have earned a place in collectors’ hearts. Lines like DEMDACO’s Willow Tree, Fitz and Floyd’s Charming Tails and Jim Shore and Thomas Blackshear products are prime examples of successful artist-driven lines.”

Holiday items, especially established lines like Roman’s Fontanini nativities and Seraphim angels, Pipka Santas by Prizm Incorporated, Byers’ Choice carolers and Kurt Adler’s Polonaise collection also continue to sell well, according to Kruger. Becoming popular, she says, are new lines of ornaments such as Ornaments to Remember and the Baldwin Collection, under license by the ChemArt Company.

Of course, since a collectible can be defined as something that a consumer will collect, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a figurine. Handbags by favorite designers or even tabletop by artists can become collectibles; it’s all up to the consumer.

“Must-haves” delivered on time

While some consumers of contemporary collectibles have abandoned the “buy the whole line” attitude, many still want that one special collectible that has just been introduced, and they want it now.

Retailer Brian Young, of City Lights Collectibles in San Diego, does everything he can to keep these customers happy. The year-round Christmas and collectibles store offers free shipping in the continental United States. “Even if it is only one piece at $18, we ship it free. We will ship within 24 hours—guaranteed,” he says. With floor and storage space in many gift shops at a premium, and with owners catering to the occasional obsessive customer, drop shipping is a possible solution, especially for larger collectibles that might occupy a lot of floor space. In drop shipping, the retailer sells the product and the wholesaler ships it to the customer, complete with the retailer’s label on the package. Since policies vary, retailers should check with individual vendors about drop-shipping.

Display tips

Displaying large segments of a collection is important for success. As retailers know, merchandise display is challenging enough when large volumes are not involved, but it is even more difficult when some collectibles need larger areas to be displayed effectively.

Seegers, of Department 56, suggests building displays taller as opposed to wider. Her company shows retailers creative ways to showcase its villages: under a tree, on the mantel or even on a counter.

Adora also focuses on vertical space. The company offers retailers a vertical shelving unit that can display dolls on all four sides.

Alicia Ariza, a marketing associate for Bearington Collection, says some retailers have designated store areas for bears, while others have displays throughout the stores. Wooden products such as rocking chairs, benches, sleds and stands are sold separately. “The bears can be set in scenes,” Ariza says. “They can be swinging in a swing or walking on a sidewalk.”

Lin, of Adora, agrees that props can help sell the products. “Most people, both collectors and noncollectors, buy dolls that touch their hearts,” he says. “It is important to pay attention to the types of customers in the stores, and merchandise the dolls in a way that speaks to the customers. You can use props, accessories and even other products to create touching lifestyle displays. Some stores use one doll as a floor sample, so that customers or kids can hug and play with the doll. That initial attachment leads to a higher percentage of successful sales.”

The special touch

Peterson says gift shops are keeping the collectibles industry going strong. “Independent stores are the link to the consumer,” she says. Since strong emotions drive sales of collectibles, it is essential to beautifully showcase collectibles. Educating yourself about individual lines also helps. “There will always be a spot for that special touch,” Peterson says.

Randall Mielke

Mielke is a freelancer who writes about retail, business and economic development for a variety of publications.

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