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  • The Plush Life
    By Mike Falcon


    Plush toys can be a profit center for florists, if you know how and what to buy.

    When Ginny Haberlin says, "It's a zoo in here!" she really means it. Hundreds of plush animals are displayed at Haberlin's shop, Judd's Flowers and Plants in Danbury, Conn. - some so realistic that startled customers almost jump.

    Jumping, too, are Judd's sales, of which plush animals account for a stable 20 percent year-round. Haberlin believes the prominent plush displays entice passers-by into the store, resulting in more sales of flowers and plants as well. The displays, which always place the toys within the customer's reach, fall into four thematic groupings: farm, jungle, pets, and plush for babies.

    "We carry something for virtually everyone," she says, from full-size dogs down to tiny, whimsical stocking stuffers. "Kids with $5 know they can come in here and buy something nice."

    Only the Best

    Inexpensive, however, doesn't mean cheap. One of the keys to her success with plush, says Haberlin, is that she sticks with high-quality merchandise, so that a less-expensive item would be a smaller, keepsake-quality creature, rather than a larger low-end piece. "A great $5.99 teddy bear might be small, but it could last for years," she says.

    Besides durability, Haberlin looks for an appealing animal face ("They've got to be cute!"), sturdy construction with hidden seams, and the right feel: "If the animal doesn't feel right," from its fabric or fur to its stuffing, "it won't sell," she says. "Have you ever held a real puppy that feels limp and lumpy?"

    Searching for What Sells

    Haberlin works hard at sourcing plush products so that her selection is perceived as both diverse and distinctive. In her aggressive marketing of the shop's plush line through newspaper and radio ads, Haberlin makes sure customers know she'll get them absolutely anything - including a $300 armadillo. And, "while there are exceptions, I tend to avoid what wholesalers typically carry, because every florist seems to have it," she says, going instead directly to the best plush manufacturers.

    Still, that leaves a lot of choices. Multiply 30 or so reliable plush manufacturers by the number of products carried by each one and you wind up with thousands of possibilities. Haberlin offers the following pointers for purchasing plush:

    • Take measured risks, spreading out your purchases among a variety of vendors and types of animals, realizing that not everything sells right away. (Those that don't sell as gifts or on impulse may sell as add-ons to a floral arrangement if a telephone salesperson suggests it when taking an order.)
    • Teddy bears sell best, by far. Cats come next, with specific popular dog breeds, realistically rendered, a more narrow focus. Mix the realistic and the whimsical.
    • Get to know your vendors. Ask them what's selling now, as opposed to what they think will sell in the future, and pay them on time. Good reps know what sells, in their own lines and others. They will also go to great lengths to obtain or suggest those hard-to-find, special-order items that make Haberlin a hit with her customers. Of course, you need to be honest and reliable with them as well.
    • Go to gift shows and look at the product close up. "Before I invite a rep into my store, I look at every line I can at the shows," says Haberlin, "because that gives me a chance for real comparison. A catalog picture is sometimes far better, or worse, than what you actually see and touch."

    Follow Haberlin's tips and, while your shop may still be a zoo, it could turn into a far more profitable one.


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