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Spring 2002 Positively Plush

If most of what you know about plush comes from a collection of stuffed animals on a tween’s twin bed, you may be in for a few surprises. The first one might be that the word for this perennially popular category is indeed “plush,” not “stuffed.” That’s because these animals and other items don’t have to be stuffed to be plush. Think puppets and poseables (“jointed” or not), including electronic critters. Of those items that are stuffed, most are stuffed primarily with polyester fiberfill. And even though plush by definition has to be soft, it doesn’t have to be furry: some plush has smooth, non-fuzzy skin.

Plush runs the gamut from traditional stuffed teddy bears to “greeting cards.” So here’s the rule of thumb: if the toy feels good in your hands and if it gives when you hug it, you’ve got plush.

Simply irresistible

According to insiders, the plush that sells doesn’t depend on the style you carry. The only rule is that any plush item has to be special to sell strong. “Plush is a different kind of purchase,” says Mike Klein, vice president of sales and development for Manhattan Toy (Minneapolis). “No one needs these products; they just want them.” But with so many items out there, the key to successfully selling plush is that the customer really wants it.

And that’s the key: Above all, a plush purchase is an emotional purchase. “The customer has to fall in love,” says Klein. “They need to hold the item for themselves.” And once they do, “they have to have it.” Erika Radich, marketing manager for The Douglas Company (Keene, NH) agrees. “The plush animal appeals to the child inside everyone,” she says. What specifically makes an animal a strong seller? Radich says, “If it has an endearing face, and then customers touch it and it’s soft, it’s really irresistible.”

Therein lies the key element: the feel of the product is of the utmost importance. Case in point: plush doesn’t sell well from catalogs, precisely because it can’t be touched. Soft is in, and cotton prints like toile and chintz are on the way out. Radich reports that chenille and chamois (“shammy”) are “going like gangbusters.” The material of the moment seems to be an incredibly soft fabric called Kohair. Puppet manufacturer Folkmanis, Inc. (Emeryville, CA) currently incorporates more sophisticated micro-fibers that consumers will swear feels like real suede, says Elaine Kollias, the company’s marketing director.

Since 1933, manufacturer Mary Meyer (Townshend, VT) says they placed their emphasis equally on texture and style, concentrating on the look and feel of the plush product as opposed to whatever may be trendy. “We have no licenses, for the most part. We think they have a narrow shelf life,” says Robert Zeif, VP of marketing and business development. “Instead, we are design-driven.” Perhaps best known is their FlipFlop line of 33 super-soft animals featuring beans in their extremities to create their droopy look. For plush products that are consistently strong sellers, Zeif says to stock the bears and—surprisingly—moose. That’s because so many people across North America live in the vicinity of bear or moose habitats, and they like them.

About style

imageNever the realistic or traditional dog, cat or teddy bear for Manhattan Toy. Instead, the company creates furry friends with a distinctive signature look. “Our interpretations are really unique,” says Klein. “We’re a little off-center and less traditional in our design and style.” The company’s Tiptoes line, for example, showcases this often comical look with the Clara the Cow character, udders and all. Manhattan Toy’s look, says Klein, is also enhanced by slightly under-stuffing the animals, so that they’re more cuddly and posable. And since Manhattan Toy also believes beauty is in the eye of beholder, animals don’t have to be cute to get carried off the cart. Sometimes homely can be a good thing. “Sad can still be lovable,” he says, “like the runt of the litter who screams to be taken home. As Americans, we like to root for the underdog.”

In the same “not cute, sells well” category are those obscure and often “creative” (all right, peculiar) critters some manufacturers like Folkmanis, Inc. produce. That company began 25 years ago with Judy Folkmanis cutting puppets in her living room and selling them on the sidewalk to earn nursery-school tuition. Her puppets were so successful that after a cross-country move and another four years of sidewalk sales, she and her biochemist husband turned her business into a full-time enterprise. The company is credited as innovators: the first full-bodied animal puppet (vs. hand puppets), and first to offer exotic wildlife designs. Today, Folkmanis, Inc.’s top focus is still unusual and exotic animals. The company now offers more than 250 in its “ark,” with prices ranging from $3 to $60. The collection of exotics includes species from the rain forest, the African savanna and other remote habitats. The company will create all but the most obscure animals. But whether an out-of-the-ordinary specimen like the 6′ boa constrictor, or a familiar, homegrown barnyard animal, Folkmanis prides itself on plush with personality. Far from mere hollow skins, “these puppets have soul,” says Kollias.

Just as realism is one important aspect of these puppets’ style and appeal, so is function. The puppets have to work, says Kollias: accuracy of movement is critical. “We think about our designs from the inside out,” she says. “Our puppets aren’t just stuffed animals with a hole in it… For us, it’s really important that noses wiggle and tails wag.”

Natural attraction

Who is bringing the animals home? Actually, the better question may be, Who isn’t? Plush animals have mass appeal. Anyone with a child in their lives—or in themselves—will find a plush something they simply must have. And when they do, they don’t just buy it, they adopt it: They happily bring it home, put it in a special, very visible place, give it a name and make it part of the family.

The number-one reason for stocking plush, say insiders, are pet-owners. Countless millions of North Americans own at least one pet, and they love them. Not only do they indulge their pooch or kitty (or bird or hamster) with toys and treats—pet-owners also indulge their own sense of kinship and delight with their animal pal. And that translates to buying anything that depicts their pet’s breed.

One manufacturer that’s known for supplying countless litters of different domestic critters is The Douglas Company. Their CuddleToys line represents 38 breeds of animals in a number of sizes and colors, and in two distinct styles. One is the “floppier” style that caters to kids. The other is a much more realistic, lifelike style geared to adults. “Our designers are really able to capture a quality about the dog they’re trying to build,” says Radich. “I think the beautiful real faces and distinctive expressions are the thing that makes our products special.”

The most popular plush varieties this minute, Radich says, are dogs, cats and horses, citing the golden retriever as the number-one breed in the canine class, with Labradors second and a toss-up among Yorkshire terriers, corgis and other lapdogs third. Collies, boxers, Jack Russell terriers, pugs, Rottweilers and schnauzers are also consistent sellers. Radich says some of unusual breeds have really taken off lately, as well. Papillons and Weimaraners, for example, are two of the less common breeds of dog that are gaining ground. The company is also seeing strong sales of their Woodland collection, especially wolves and (yes) moose, penguins, polar bears and manatees, which always sell well.

Nor should retailers underestimate the power of the primate. Introduced in 1999, the hanging monkey from Wild Republic (K&M International’s toy division) is now a classic. Kids go ape over them, especially little boys. So do their big brothers, who buy them to decorate their rooms in the dorm or at home.

imageWild Republic is known for the primates, but the company is spreading its wings with its new Audubon Birds plush series. Audubon Birds is a collection comprised of four different series—three “Backyard Birds” series, including chickadees and cardinals, and one “Water Birds” series, which includes a mallard and loon. Each series consists of six different lifelike birds (for a total of 24), and each one sings like the real thing. This new program operates in licensed partnership with both the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where the birds’ songs are authentic recordings provided by field experts from both organizations. These full-size birds typically stand 5″ tall; the baby birds are 3″ tall and come with clips for attaching to backpacks, key chains, or anything at all. And each bird comes with hang-tag information about that bird’s natural habitat and where its call was recorded (some recordings date to the 1930s and ’40s). The company also has a new line (or perhaps that’s “row”) of 11″ ducks. “The reaction [to the birds] has been unbelievable, well above our expectations,” says John Trenta, Wild Republic’s marketing director. “We’re advising our customers to plan for a high demand.” One reason for their popularity is that these products are considered educational; another is their collectibility. Either way, says Trenta, customers who love nature and their gardens will flock to these items. To display them, he suggests placing them in a mix of related merchandise, such as garden items. “The great thing is that they retail for $6 to $7,” he says. “Customers are buying multiple birds at a time… and they will come back for more.”

The collectible quotient

People of all ages and both genders collect plush: lots of it, and at a variety of price points. Traffic in collectible plush is brisk on eBay and other online auction sites, but that’s mostly “retired,” vintage, and antique items. Collectors who want tomorrow’s keepsakes today—currently available items—buy from specialty retailers. And the manufacturers are addressing and meeting the demand.

Examples of today’s new collectibles include the Audubon Series. But it was North American Bear Company’s Muffy VanderBear that led the parade to the collectible-animal fair. Poised to celebrate their 25th anniversary in plush, North American Bear (Chicago) found their niche in the plush-collectibles market by creating the posable Muffy and her circle of friends, including Happy VanderHare and Lulu McFluff. “First and foremost, Muffy VanderBear is geared as a children’s play toy. But the adult collectible world definitely caught on,” says Lorene C. Shiraiwa, the company’s PR manager. “[Muffy] has always been in a dual position,” straddling the line between stuffed animal and doll. An item that little girls love and grown-up “girls” appreciate, Muffy also finds favor with both because her motto—”Life is one big dress-up”—speaks to the dress-ability of these bears. “It’s really multi-generational, and also something adults and children can play with and display together,” says Shiraiwa. “Our collectors are a good cross-section of the consumer public.” In fact, Muffy is often purchased by an adult as a gift to start a girl on her own collection. “These bears can do everything a doll can do, but they’re soft,” she says. “After all, kids can’t cuddle with Barbie.”

Knowing that their puppets are sought-after as collectibles, Folkmanis Inc. serves collectors by including two categories on its Web site to keep collectors updated on specific items. Collectors can click on the “List of Soon-to-Be-Retired Puppets” for advance information on which items will be retired, and when: the date on which the company will stop producing that item, but will continue to sell from current stock till it runs out. The “List of Recently Retired Puppets” has the date each item was retired (or “Out”). On both lists, they suggest that collectors try Internet sellers and auctions to find them.

imageShiraiwa says the collectibles market had softened, but it’s changing with the times and will ultimately strengthen. “Fair-weather collectors will have to make a decision as to whether they’re [collecting] because it really means something to them, or because it’s trendy,” she says. “What’s left will be the core group who are truly dedicated to their collections. Really, they’ve always been there.”

What do they look for in collectible plush? Shiraiwa spoke with collectors and asked them that very question. For a while, she says, “everything out there was deemed a ‘collectible’ and was competing for the same dollar. But now… collectors they say they want things that are truly special and unique. They want to go back to the true meaning of the collectible.” They also told her that detail is a key element, so the company now adds even more detail. The already stylish bear’s new Muffy ClothesLine, with hand-beaded dresses and more, is lavish indeed.

Also popular with adult collectors is the poseable Praying Bears line from Blue Bell Bear Company (Blue Bell, PA). Each of the 43 boy and girl bear styles are fully jointed. And each design contains a digital voice-box that allows the bear to recite its own individual prayers and songs, most of them recorded by the grandnieces and nephews of owner Elaine A. Thompson. Collectors’ favorites include the Guardian Angel Bear that recites the “Serenity Prayer” accompanied by the hymn “Amazing Grace,” bears that recite prayers such as “The Lord’s Prayer” and “Hail Mary,” and bears that recite Jewish prayers in both English and Hebrew. But Blue Bell Bear has secular bears, too, including wedding-couple bears (into which personal vows can be recorded); the signature Blue Bell logo bear that sings “Teddy Bear Picnic”; and a Mother Bear that sings “Que Sera, Sera,” and recites the “Mother Poem.”

Customers love Blue Bell’s bears, religious or not, because they’re soft and cuddly. But there’s more to it. “Customers are drawn to our bears because they’re different looking—and because we have real children [recording] the prayers,” says Thompson. Plus, parents like the fact that these bears are safe, she adds: they received the highest safety rating from the Juvenile Product Manufacturing Association. But in the end, it’s the bears’ positive messages that they appreciate, respond to, and buy—especially grandparents.

And if there’s a second category of plush buyer (after pet owners) that specialty retailers should court and cater to, it’s grandparents. In fact, Klein says some of Manhattan Toy’s designs are created specifically as “Grandma bait.” Why? “Because Mom and Dad might not spend the money on the child for a very large animal, for example—but the grandparents absolutely will.”

Plush for grown-ups

Adults buy plush for themselves, too. They always have. But if they were circumspect in the past, that’s not the case today. That’s because plush has exploded beyond the “toy” image many consumers held for some time.

Today, plush crosses into the home décor category, where it’s often created and used as room accents and accessories. Folkmanis, Inc.’s life-size golden retriever in the living room, for example, looks like a real pooch, thereby lending a certain homey quality to the space. For a different take on the “homeyness” factor, Manhattan Toy’s massive Kodiak bear completes the “lodge look”; their dramatic, deep green, 14′ dragon, Cordelia, can work like fun soft furniture for a child’s room.

Adults also buy plush as gifts for other adults. At one end of the spectrum, Folkmanis, Inc.’s cockroach or fire ant can work as a gag gift. At the other end are more heartfelt or spiritual products, like Blue Bell’s Prayer Bears, which suit many occasions such as birthdays, new home, and weddings. In-between messages come from offerings like Manhattan Toy’s new Flower Power, a plush flower greeting concept that’s also suited to greeting-and-gift situations. The sender chooses one of 24 messages, including birthday and congratulations, which is inscribed on one of the petals, for a long-lasting keepsake.

And then there’s the fashion factor (no, not the infamous “swan” dress). The fashion-forward might enjoy wearable plush like North American Bear’s new animal-shaped soft handbags: “Plush with an actual function to it,” says Shiraiwa. Teens and women of any age who want an accessory to “pop” an outfit will gravitate to these 13″-14″ bags. Among the more realistic bag designs are several dogs (including a Boston terrier) and other critters like cat, bear, leopard, alligator and rabbit; fun designs include a whimsical unicorn and a funky pink poodle. The Goody Bag line is designed for kids; each bag is 6.” Teens are likely to go for the Huggins line from The Douglas Company, various 6″ and 9″ characters they can attach to backpacks and lockers.

Into the mystic

There’s fantasy in the future. Kollias says the fantasy genre has been selling well for several years, and has grown even hotter with the Harry Potter explosion. “People are starving for fantasy,” she says, “adults and children alike.” To feed that demand, Folkmanis has created characters like witches and wizards, unicorns and dragons. Manhattan Toy is also meeting the fantasy demand with its Spellcaster set, three little hand puppets—a unicorn, dragon and wizard—for little kids, and the Royal Renaissance line’s soft characters like the purple Dante Dragon and the spectacular, artful wizard, Atlantee.

On the other side of the fantasy frenzy is the plush monster. Influenced not only by the Harry Potter phenom but also by the success of Shrek and Monsters, Inc., the monster motif is huge—and it’s attracting boys in a big way. That in itself is something of a phenom, since by a certain age boys tend to relegate anything resembling a “stuffed animal” to the girl-stuff category. Tapping into this eager market is Manhattan Toy’s Galoompagalots (“gah-loom-pag-gah-lots”), a new breed of lovable monsters that include characters like Zottle, Trilby and Podge. “Kids aren’t afraid of these monsters,” says Klein, because they’re “their monsters.” Boys are also the main target for Wild Republic’s stuffed snakes. Kids are curious about snakes, says Trenta. Second only to the company’s line of monkeys are the 70 colorful varieties of snake, some coiled with tongue extended, and several rattlers that aren’t scary at all. Each snake has a hang tag with information.

From serious to silly: What kid of any age doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? Manhattan Toy’s new series of stuffed animals and puppets depicts the beloved Cat in the Hat, Horton, and the Grinch. Klein says the company doesn’t normally offer licensed products, but this time it made sense. “Dr. Seuss fits us [because] he always took a look at life from a different angle,” she says. “We thought that would translate well to soft toys.”

New stuff

The Douglas Company added Masterpiece Pups to their domestic line. Each one, with its authentic puppy-dog look, is fully posable. Wild Republic recently launched a line of hanging plush animals wearing new Wild Wear. This line of 55 animals dressed in funky new fashions: an orangutan in a safari outfit, a monkey in tribal garb, and a polar bear in a Hawaiian outfit, among others. Even more recent is their line of Wild Wear monkey outfits. “We’re hoping to inject new life into our monkey line,” says Trenta. Each of the 21 outfits, which are sold separately, can turn their plush primates into a character such as police officer or soccer player. “Now they’ll have even more personality!”

Blue Bell Bear plans to add more Prayer Bears, such as one that sings the popular Prayer of Jabez. Right now Thompson is concentrating on keeping up with demand for a special patriotic plush item, the I Am an American Bear. Decked out in red, white and blue, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and playing the national anthem, this best-selling bear débuted last year for July 4th, but met with low interest and lackluster sales. September 11th changed that: Thompson says “it absolutely makes sense. With everything that’s happened, people are getting back to prayer.”

And that leads to an important point. Since September 11th, the plush industry (along with many others) has changed to some extent. Kollias says that for the past several years, Folkmanis, Inc. had been creating a number of large animals; lately, however, they’re becoming more conservative because their consumers are. “Customers are nervous, and retailers are nervous about what people will pay,” she says. “I think the new trend is toward downsizing: cutting down on size and price but never compromising quality or value.”

But by the same token, recent events have also helped the plush industry. Now more than ever, the buying public is picking up plush as a method of healing. After all, to cuddle is to comfort. “It’s an emotional thing,” Klein says. He loves watching how his own two young boys look at their plush animals as friends. “People are nesting a lot more in their homes these days, and they’re thinking, ‘Let’s bring home some more buddies.’” Kollias agrees, and says the manufacturers are happy to help. “There’s a great need for all that warm and fuzzy stuff these days. And if [these] animals help, then that’s great.”

Lauryn Mittleman

Mittleman is a regular contributor to Specialty Retail Report

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