museums&MORE Winter 2009
Creature Comforts

It’s no news flash that the retail world is much different than it was 20, 15 or even two years ago. E-mail is replacing paper, your computer and phone systems are outdated the day after you buy them and video games are more prolific than board games. Through it all, though, one thing remains the same — you can’t keep a good plush down.

Plush toys — always called ‘stuffed animals’ when I was a kid — satisfy the need for tactile sensation that is universal,” said Mark Gross, vice president of marketing and communications for Matter Group LLC. “You can’t cuddle with a video game, and plush toys provide a sense of security and companionship that is very real (and very important) to children. It’s not a coincidence that plush animals play a big role in providing therapy to kids in medical settings — the toys provide comfort and spark imagination in ways that even
another person can’t.”

However, companies have recognized and responded to this customer need for innovation with new product lines exploring contemporary features, such as plush with technology, plush crafted out of unusual materials or “functional plush” that can be changed into other products. Today’s plush also have a more realistic quality that’s helping to drive sales.

“Quality never goes out of style, but styles do change and plush has certainly changed and adapted,” said Ticia Will, senior product manager for International Playthings. “As much as plush can be considered a ‘classic’ toy, the materials, workmanship and realistic detail that can be achieved today are phenomenal. The end result is that instead of something that seems “old-fashioned” to a child, plush looks remarkably
realistic and very cool.”

Elaine Kollias of Folkmanis acknowledged that while kids want all the bells and whistles, at the end of the day, a kid can ride their bike, play marbles, create something, put on a puppet show, play a board game, etc., and have a different outcome every time. Toys that are open-ended like the classic plush are necessary for good childhood development, whether it be teaching fine or gross motor skills, engaging the imagination, encouraging thinking and more.

“Most of the tech toys on the market will yield the same result or outcome over and over,” Kollias said. “Eventually the child tires of it. Many baby boomers are parents or grandparents and retailers would be wise to capitalize on the nostalgic factor that this segment craves. Boomers want their offspring to enjoy the same toys that the boomers enjoyed themselves.”

And while higher quality does mean some higher prices, Sandy Willens, managing director of Bestever Inc., said that consumers are recognizing the product’s value.”We have always been very stringent on our quality and design standards to ensure that we avoid safety problems,” Willens said. “Consumers are ready to step up and pay for quality products they know are being made with the most stringent quality and design standards, and they are not just thinking about price.”

Learning Curve

All of this is very good news for retailers, as plush sales continue to stay strong. They have always sold well where animals are the main attraction — at aquariums, zoos and theme parks — but can now just as easily be found in nature parks, museums and anywhere else children visit. More than ever, kids seem to view their plush toys as a collection, and the toy industry has done a good job over the past 20 years of making plush something to collect and not just possess.

Customers demand more, and to keep up companies have expanded their offerings to include more than just the standard stuffed toys of childhood. Erika Radich of Douglas Toys feels that they have a responsibility as a manufacturer to be tuned into the wishes of their audience; using an old favorite (plush) and marrying it to a desirable trend makes sense.

Deborah VanAllen of Stuffed Animal House agreed, sharing that they have had backpacks, purses and fanny packs in their line for some time now, and have recently offered more opportunities for customers to
customize their plush.

“Souvenir retail is our largest category,” VanAllen said. “National parks, museums and others have been pleased to see us add an interpretive tag with our animals, giving it that
learning tool.”

And it’s that learning tool that has helped keep plush fresh in the retail market — it’s more than a toy, it’s a tool. Parents want every one of their child’s experiences to be enriching in some way, so including fun facts about each real-world animal on hangtags increases the value. Because there are generally no instructions and directions, plush are a natural learning tool for creativity. Children have to create the stories and the situations when playing with plush, and retailers who focus on the educational and creative aspects of the product will move more than those that simply market them as a stuffed animal.

“Every one of our National Geographic Amazing Animals comes with a collectable card that includes fun facts about that animal,” said Will. “Kids love collecting the cards and respond to the kinds of facts that we include — such as how much meat a tiger can eat at one time and how a polar bear stays warm. By focusing on what makes each animal truly amazing, we try to plant the spark of intrigue that will encourage kids to indulge their curiosity, to learn more and to ultimately develop an appreciation for the animal and its habitat and an awareness of how fragile it may be.”

Added Value

This added educational component is often tied in with the current eco-friendly demand. The demand for “green” products has exploded, becoming a lifestyle and not just a trend. In response to the market demand, Aurora World Inc. introduced a line called Aurora Naturals in June 2008. These natural plush animals are made from soybeans (exterior) and the sustainable rainforest crop called Kapok (stuffing).

“Using soft designs from some of our best animals and sustainable materials was an innovation that seemed natural for Aurora in order to develop more uses for plush for kids,” said Paul Roche, vice president of sales. “Purses, backpacks and the like are a natural extension of plush.”

Gross said that one of their most popular products are Xeko Pals, a line of Earth-friendly stuffed animals based on the endangered animals featured in the Xeko game.

“We chose soy-based fabrics and organic cotton for the toys’ ‘fur,’ and we have developed a soy stuffing that takes the place of the polyester fill normally found in plush toys,” Gross said. “Aside from being eco-friendly, which may soon be a basic requirement for most any consumer product, we added value to our plush toys with Mission Codes that bring the endangered species toys to life
on the Web.”

The animals in the Xeko Pals line are featured on the Web site, where kids can get more info on the animal they’ve “adopted.” This adds to the educational component and encourages children to learn more about the environment and habitat of the animals.

“Offering a product with some kind of Web presence is rapidly becoming a standard requirement for plush toys that wish to be viewed as educational,” Gross continued. “You can only fit so much info on a hangtag, so a Web page dedicated to each toy helps to add educational
value in the consumer’s eyes.”

Folkmanis also saw an opportunity to incorporate the digital age into their realistic plush puppets by offering an enhanced Web-based experience that has an educational and environmental message. By introducing WebWilds, they feel they retained the cuddle and warmth factor while giving the user the tech angle that is so prevalent.

Wills feels that the realistic nature of the product and the National Geographic name lend credibility to their plush, both in terms of the accuracy with which the animals represent their species and with respect to the fact that all net proceeds support exploration, conservation, research and education. Informing customers as to how their sale is helping out a cause can make them more apt to make a purchase.

“The purchase of one of our Amazing Animals has benefits for the child who will adore the toy and for a real animal in its actual habitat,” said Wills. “It’s a purchase that the buyer feels good making, on a lot of levels.”

Tips for Selling

The key is to get them to make that purchase, and display and merchandising techniques are limited only by the retailer’s imagination. Along with attractive and functional displays, good signage and images of the plush together encourages multiple purchases.

“I always suggest to retailers to cross-merchandise their products,” Kollias said. “If you have a special
museum exhibit on bugs, use creative display techniques and feature bug books, bug kits, bug plush, bug games, bug accessories, etc. in one attractive display. The odds are that a parent will select more than one item from this bug display. If it’s all scattered about the store, the consumers may not have the knowledge or patience to bring it all together themselves.”

Gross suggests grouping animals by type — plush dogs and cats in one area, plush tigers and zebras in another — seems to work better visually than does grouping by brand. He added that retailers can do a lot to help the plush come to life by adding natural elements such as wicker baskets, potted palms and wooden crates to displays of plush toys that have a safari theme.

Large animal displays are popular and allow for great photo opportunities. After getting their picture taken with a giant giraffe or lion, what child isn’t going to want to take one home with them? This is just one more way that you can draw attention to the product and keep plush profitable.”

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