Isn't It Funny How a Bear Makes Money, Year After Year?

--By Cynthia Crossen

It has all the earmarks of a mature industry: a 100-year-old product that has been made in every conceivable size, style, fabric and price combined with a saturated market.

Yet the teddy bear industry stands as a model of strength and durability, perhaps the only software that doesn't become obsolete. Every year, bear makers create and market hundreds of original models.

"Each bear here has its own personality," said Bruce Raiffe, president of Gund Inc., waving at a display of hundreds of stuffed animals at the International Toy Center in New York last week.

In plush, as stuffed animals are known in the toy industry, teddy bears are the gorillas, accounting for 70% to 80% of the $1 billion market. "Bears sell across every season, occasion and holiday," says Del Clark, director of merchandising for Fiesta, a Verona, Calif., maker of stuffed animals.

Last year sales of plush products in geneal rose an estimated 38%, a stastic that can be explained in three words: Beanie Baby hysteria. But even in more typical years, bears are a steady seller, and the business has other advantages--returns are almost nonexistant, for example.

Considering the limited palette of the teddy-bear medium--fur, eyes, nose, mouth--it seems unlikely, if not impossible, that people could still create unique bears. But designers pooh-pooh that notion. "There are always new fabrics coming out," says Joyce Haughey, a bear designer for Kellytoy U.S.A. Inc.

Indeed, Ms. Haughey's bears are usually inspired by a fabric, rather than a face or pose. "If I see a lady's coat that's pretty, I can see a face on it," says Ms. Haughey, who has just created a new family of nattily dressed bears for Kellytoy called the Bearthropes of Beverly Hills.

The Bearthorpes are an example of the collectible bear, which are bears not meant to be drooled or spit-up on by their owners. This growing segment of the teddy-bear market would include the "Professor Higgins" bear from a "Pygmalion" series of teddy bears; the "Breughel" bear dressed as a painter; the "Huckleberry Finn and Becky" bears; the "Jesse Owens" bear; the "Annette Mousekebear" a licensing deal with bear collector Annette Funicello; and a set of six Marine bears re-enacting the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima in 1945. Collectible bears start at about $25 but can easily cost $1,000 or more.

"In the past five to 10 years, we've seen a tremendous growth in the upscale bear, the limited editions, the artist designed bears," says George B. Black Jr., director of the Teddy Bear Museum in Naples, Fla. Mr. Black's museum has roughly 3,500 teddy bears, "which doesn't include bear statues, paintings, posters, and other bearaphernalia," he adds. "We also have a libeary."

How does Mr. Black decide which bears are good enough for his museum? Simple. "I never turn down a bear," he says. "I don't know anyone who wouldn't want Michelangelo's early drawings. So if you consider bear making an artistic form, you want early examples of artist's work."

Bear collectors have two magazines--Teddy Bear Review and Teddy Bear and Friends--where they can buy and sell old bears, such as a 1907 bear made by the German company, Steiff, that sells for $3,200. This year there will be major bear shows and jamborees in at least 25 states, as well as hundreds of bear-making working shops and retreats.

Ms. Haughey estimates there are about 1,500 individual bear artists turning out new teddy bears by hand (each bear takes four to six hours to make), in addition to the big manufacturers like Gund, based in Edison, NJ.

Like most manufacturers, Gund makes collectible bears. But it is also the leading maker of toy bears, which are designed to be played with, rather than looked at, and sell for $15 to $40. "The secret to making a successful bear is to make it huggable, soft, and appealing," Gund's Mr. Raiffe says. The fabric of a toy bear is such an essential part of its appeal that Gund designs its own textiles, even working with fiber makers to create the right raw material. Over the years, toy bears, which are typically stuffed with polyfill or pellets have become loose packed, so more of them now flop instead of pose.

Although there is a greater variation of teddy-bear faces than you might think--open or close-mouthed, fabric, plastic or embroidered noses--they all tend to look childlike, innocent and needy. "You want a face that looks back at you, and the face will sell the bear," says Ms. Haughey, who made perhaps 5,000 bears over a seven year period. "You want them to look like they need you and you need them."

But all serious bear enthusiasts warn that what appeals to one owner might make another owner whine and be naughty. "You go to a bear show with maybe 100 bear artists," Mr. Black says, "and you watch people walking around, and something happens. A particular bear begins to talk to one person, and that person has to have that bear."

"Why that bear chose to talk to that person rahter than the person next to him, I don't know," concedes Mr. Black, with the kind of fuzzy-wuzzy earnestnesss that vaults people to the top of the teddy bear industry.

Indeed, if the names of the industry's retail establishments are any indication, creating or selling bears requires a willingness to forebear bear punsters. In this country alone, there are stores called Bear-a-dise, the Bear Neccessites, Bearing Gifts, Bear Bottom Toys, Bear With Us, Bearied Treasures, Bears Repeating, Beary Special Things, and Grin and Bear It. Bear sellers say many of their buyers are adults, buying for themselves. "For older people, a bear can take the place of a spouse or loved one who has passed away or left," Mr. Black says. "It's very difficult to stay sad when you have a teddy bear."

Mr. Raiffe of Gund agrees. "No one's ever gotten a divorce from their teddy bear," he says.