Fitzgerald, Toni

Chances are the last time you walked to the grocery store, the bag boy didn’t offer to drive you home. When you pulled up to the bank’s drivethrough window, the building wasn’t a quaint yellow house with a perfectly manicured yard leading out to an old-fashioned brick sidewalk. And when you ordered a McGreasy cheeseburger, the only response was, “Do you want fries with that,” instead of, “Great, we just got your favorite cheese in on order!”

That’s the difference between the bear world and the real world. In addition to offering us the new limited edition we crave, teddy bear retailers do it with a smile-and some panache. That’s because when you deal with teddy bear collectors, it’s about so much more than simply providing the merchandise; it’s about understanding and anticipating what collectors want. And these days, with many fervent collectors having room to add only a few more items after decades of dedicated plush accumulation, that anticipation has never been more important.

So what’s hot in the bear world, and what special measures are retailers taking to distinguish themselves from the banks and burger joints? To find out, Teddy Bear and Friends spoke to retailers across the nation taking part in Steiff’s Best of America program. What we learned: Though overall purchasing has slowed in the past 10 years, higherend items such as Steiff bears are in greater demand. Though many collectors like to browse on the Internet, they still like to buy at bricksand-mortar stores to see what they’re getting. And although younger generations have been slow to identify themselves as “collectors,” they love teddy bear-related giftables that add to home décor.

Oh, yes, we also confirmed what we figured in the first place: There’s not a nicer bunch of folks than teddy bear shop owners.

Singing Steiff’s Praises

Bears &. More owner Linda Burner takes a moment as she rings up a customer sale to inquire about the woman’s new puppy-Linda remembers the woman mentioning the pup on her last visit. They banter back and forth about dogs as Linda wraps up the purchase, and the customer leaves with a smile. That personal touch is part of why Linda and her daughter-in-law, Valerie Burner, decided to move their shop to a different part of downtown Glendale, Arizona, after more than 10 years in business. They wanted the more personal feel of an old house located on the city’s first paved road to suit the shop’s homey feel.

“I think people like something that looks different,” says Linda about current bear trends. “They’re buying reproductions of pieces that are anywhere from 90 to 100 years old. They want a more antique look, but they don’t want the actual antiques. They want the real thing made new, like an antique-looking Steiff.”

From Arizona to Alabama, high-end bears, such as Steiff, are selling well. Several shop owners say that while their most loyal customers buy fewer bears than they used to, many of them are still spending the same amount of money. Toni’s Collectibles in Walnut Creek, California, for instance, stopped stocking its lowest-end plush bears because they weren’t selling. People are saving to treat themselves to high-end bears, even if that means one teddy bear purchase per month instead of three.

“People are buying more $200 or $300 bears, but I have no trouble selling [Steiff’s] $300 or $400 bears,” says Sue Markel, owner of Sue’s Bear Haus in York, Pennsylvania. “I keep picking up new Steiff customers all the time. I think people know it’s been around forever and it’s made well, and the resale holds its value. It’s proven that time and time again. That’s why they’re still collecting and why people are willing to pay more.” Sue says that because artist bears tend to fluctuate more in value over time, she’s seen decreased interest in them during the economy’s recent downturn. But other retailers report that artist bears are bouncing back right along with the brightening economic outlook.

What else is popular right now? Annette Funicello’s bears are flying off many retailers’ shelves, parr of a nostalgia trend in full force right now. Bears with a history, i.e. some type of storyline, also do well, especially in limited editions- customers like to feel as though they’ve found something special. And store owners love to help them.

From Internet to Entering Shops

Most retailers have added a Web presence to supplement their bricks and mortar shop. It’s a matter of practicality- browse ahead of time to see what a store has to offer, or even stay home and do the ordering from your bedroom laptop. But retailers say the convenience of the Internet still can’t compare to the enjoyment of a shop visit. Many shops are destinations in themselves these days, such as the Teddy Bear Museum of Naples (Florida). Browsers read about die museum on the Web, then pack up the kids or grandkids for a fun day trip.

“We get about 25,000 to 30,000 visitors per year,” says director George Black. He says most visitors are not collectors when they arrive but rather are curiosity seekers who nonetheless have bought their first bear by the time they leave. “We do well with the 12-inch cuddly bears. Not only do we carry them as a museum souvenir, decked out with a museum T-shirt, but most of the major manufacturers-the Gunds, the Russ, Merrythoughts-they all have the new mohair and whatever that’s so soft and cuddly. People lift the fabric right up to their face.”

Toni’s Collectibles debuted its Web site last summer. Frank Weinstein, who owns the shop with his wife Toni, says that collectors often go online to get ideas before driving to the shop. They may also e-mail inquiries about special orders or layaways, which Frank says are important to keep customers happy. Toni’s is so eager to please that sometimes that means fighting the Bay Area traffic.

“We have one lady who lives in Berkley, and we will actually deliver to her,” Frank says. “When she comes to the store, we will have someone to drive her home. She buys bears and also dolls, so if she has large items, we will provide that service. Not a lot need that, but occasionally we will do it. We try to create a friendly and warm environment.”

Pat Pajor, owner of Cape Cod Bears & Friends in South Dennis, Massachusetts, sees mostly tourists at her beach town location. She says she’s noticed a rise in customers (many of whom don’t identify themselves as collectors) interested in homeware items, such as bear prints, dishes, and even afghans. Pat also gets lots of business from people interested in the “Friends” portion of the store. One woman actually wanted to buy an afghan printed with bunnies and not the usual teddy bears to complement a home garden theme. Pat, of course, helped her find it, and secured a lifelong customer from the sale. “A lot of people with large collections are downsizing to smaller pieces-they say they just don’t have enough room.” she says. “You certainly get a lot of folks who have dedicated rooms [for their teddy bears], but for the average collector, a person only has so much space.”

Y’All Come Back Now!

So what keeps customers coming back? Attention to detail, liking what they’re collecting.

“In order to kind of draw people’s attention to the shop, you need to do special things,” says Sharon Raney, owner of Toys in the Attic in Joplin, Missouri. “If you want to be really knowledgeable in the collectibles field, you want to love it as much as they do and show them that you do.” Sharon travels to Toy Fair in New York City each year to find bears she thinks her collectors will enjoy. She once held a community-wide “bear hunt” (a scavenger hunt of sorts that ended at her shop) and often hosts artists at the shop. Every season she switches the displays in the window, and she’s eager to share tips with collectors on how to arrange their home bear displays. Other stores hold teddy bear-making workshops, formal teas for bear lovers, and even community events, such as Bears & More’s fire safety awareness day and the Teddy Bear Museum’s fall fair, complete with games and rides.

Sharon is particularly proud of the friendships she has forged with her customers. She recently received an unsolicited email from a longtime shopper that brought tears to her eyes. “As I browsed through an antique mall in Missouri, I came upon what I thought was a fantasyland: Toys in the Attic. And that’s where it all began,” reads the e-mail. “It was love at first sight.”

How many letters can, say, your local dress shop boast that begin like that? Bear retailers are, indeed, a special breed. And so are their customers.

“We like to keep piquing the interest of our bear collectors, but it keeps it interesting for us, too,” says Bears & More’s Linda. “We do it for our customers, but we’re customers, too!”

Copyright Ashton International Media, Inc. Nov/Dec 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.