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November 2006 | Vol. V - No. 11




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Teddy Bear Stuffers Knows Its Stuff

Methodical Planning Keeps Success in Hand


“The machine that we manufacture keeps on going. … Our very first machine is still in operation.” Stanley Block, Teddy Bear Stuffers
Annette Block owned a successful corporate gift basket company when she and her husband Stanley saw their first bear stuffer — a machine that stuffs teddy bears for customers on the spot — in a mom-and-pop store in San Francisco that had been in business for 25 years.  The reactions on the customers’ faces told them that they’d spotted an opportunity, and they were inspired to sell Annette’s business and start Teddy Bear Stuffers (Gift Guide).  Stanley Block, self-described “husband of the owner,” tells TDmonthly how they methodically grew their business into the success it is today by carefully controlling quality, personnel and customer service.

The minute we saw the concept we said, “We’re selling the business.”  That was 1998, and in the middle of 2000 we started manufacturing stuffing machines. 

Grow It Large ...

In November, we bought a kiosk in the Northridge [Calif.] Mall to test the concept’s potential.  We had no intention of keeping the kiosk because we wanted to be in the wholesale side of the business.  After about three months, we sold the kiosk, and in March we sold our first stuffing machine.  We were making four to five machines per month, all by hand.  We started going to trade shows.  We started to grow.

Most of our customers are toy and gift stores.   We also sell machines to people who do home birthday parties — more than 100, I would say — and about 50 to 60 to people who bring them to fairs.

At the time, our warehouse was 5,000 square feet.  It’s now 30,000. Originally, we had $200,000 to $300,000 in inventory.  We now carry a little more than a million dollars’ worth.

We maintain stuffing machines for immediate delivery.  A variety of standard colors are available, but we’ll make any color you want.

When we started importing our plush in 2000, we only had 13 animal-skin designs.  Currently, we have about 115.  We began with approximately 25 outfits for the toys, and now offer more than 300. 

... While Keeping It Small

Annette does all of the designing and merchandising of the product. She is really the driving force behind this company, but we’re talking about hiring a full-time designer.

People can cause a company to sink or swim.  One reason we’ve maintained slow growth is that it’s hard to find reliable people. 

We haven’t faced significant obstacles because we started off slowly and didn’t overreach.  We could do two to three times the volume that we do now, but we’d probably make less of a profit. 

Put Quality First

One thing that’s unique about Teddy Bear Stuffers is our excellent quality.  The machine that we manufacture keeps on going — like the Energizer Bunny.  Our very first machine is still in operation.

We probably have more than 800 stuffing machines in operation, but if Customer Service gets two to three calls a month, that’s a lot.

Our first machine was so antiquated that it took up almost an entire room.  We reduced that to a footprint of 1.5' by 2'.  A new machine will be coming out soon that has a diameter of only 36".

The quality of our skins and fabrics is outstanding.  It’s way above “carnival quality.”

Also, there are various options for closing a stuffed animal skin, but our animal-skin closure is the best on the market.  We have a locking zipper that can’t be replicated.

Spread the Word Online

I would say the most effective marketing technique is the Internet.  We used to do a lot of print advertising, but that didn’t create results, so we only do some now.

With trade shows, you have to be very careful.  We’ve spent $10,000 and not made one sale.  We’re doing five to 10 next year, and we’re picking them more carefully.

Happy Customers = More Customers
 

The advice I would give to someone starting out is that customer service is most important.  If there’s any problem with any of our machines or our product, we take care of it, no questions asked.

We give operation and customer-service manuals to our customers, so when they start out it’s like they’ve been in business for years.  They already have layers of knowledge. 

A big part of our business is referral business: We keep our customers.



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Elizabeth GreenspanWriter's Bio: Elizabeth Greenspan edits and writes for trade and technical publications. She has interviewed and collaborated with some of the top practitioners in their fields. She lives in Philadelphia and travels extensively for her work. Read more articles by this author

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