After two decades in the flag, sign and banner business, Party Animal, Inc. is taking a bold jump into the toy and collectible market. Under the leadership of founder James Cantrall and sales manager Jeremy Edwards, the company is leveraging its strength in sports licensing to launch a line of toy figures, featuring hundreds of skus. It is an ambitious, but not out-of-character move for a company that has evolved and grown over the years.
"We started off 22 years ago in the sign business," says Edwards. "We did corrugated plastic lawn signs for birthdays, graduations, weddings and events. That evolved into making NFL lawn signs, after we got a license with the NFL about 20 years ago. We did really well with them, and from there we added pennants, and from pennants we added house flags. Once we did the NFL, which is about 55 to 60 percent of our business, the other licenses just fell in line."
Party Animal has always employed a small work force, but that has made the company flexible and maneuverable, thanks to the direction and creativity of Cantrall. "Going from the '80s into the '90s, the company was very small, really a mom and pop company," says Edwards. "James Cantrall is still the owner, he comes in every day and is part of the decision making process." When a surge in the flag business gave the company extra working capital, it was time to do more. "After 9/11, we did a really brisk business with American flags," he says. "Then the owners decided to take a jump to expand and make the company younger. They brought on some new people, and I was one of them. We just brought some new ideas to the company, and we took it from one level to another, roughly tripling the bottom line from 2003 to 2010."
Recent years, in fact, have been among the most innovative and productive. "In 2005 we added baseball, and just in the last two years we've added the NBA and hockey. We've really rounded out and expanded our product line," says Edwards. "We've gone from roughly 350 to 400 skus to well over 1,000 skus at this point. We're the only company out there that's doing anything like that for all the licenses. We have the licenses for the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, hockey, and 72 colleges coming up in 2011. We're having our best year ever, and going to be up about 30 percent over last year, so we're doing something right," he says, laughing.
The primary products for Party Animal, Inc. remain in the core flag lines. "Our main product lines are appliqué and embroidered flags and banners," says Edwards. "The appliqué is a nylon that's two to four times as thick as most normal flags. Instead of the emblem being ironed on and visible from both sides, so on one side it reads backwards, what we do is computer-embroider that image onto both sides. That way if you have an image with words on it, it will read properly from both sides. We retail our flags at $30. A typical screen-printed flag retails for $22 to $28. For two dollars more, the difference speaks for itself." However, when Cantrall and Edwards were challenged to expand beyond the banner business, they took a chance.
With a record of dependable delivery of quality, licensed products, Party Animal is one of the companies that the National Football League depends on for innovation and new business generation. Moreover, Party Animal depends on its founder for inspiration and new ideas. "He's very creative," says Edwards, talking about Cantrall. "He sees the big picture and has a great vision. He's come up with a lot of stuff. He and I were sitting in an NFL retail summit, and we were challenged to come up with a great product for the kids' market. We came up with a whole bunch of different ideas." One of those ideas was the now long gone fad of collecting 25-cent helmets from vending machines. Another idea was the current trend toward small collectible toys, like Webkinz. Putting these concepts together, the two came up with a new idea: Lil' Teammates, which are two- to three-inch-high collectible action figures, customized by pose and uniform.
Edwards explains the design process as one that considered both children and fans. "We wanted kids to enjoy it. It fits into a kid's hand perfectly, but we also wanted to appeal to the collectors' market." The figures are issued in multiple series, with some varieties being deliberately more rare than others. "We're trying to do something that gets everybody excited. I think so far we've hit on that," says Edwards, "and it's been tremendous. We planned to just get this product out there in 2010 and find out if we had a winner. We released more than 200 different skus in our first year. We realized quickly that we were biting off a lot, and it took us a while to get the molds right and the uniforms right, but the response through the first year has been tremendous."
An entry into an entirely new business, the toy market, has been a learning process, and Party Animal has been responsive to customer feedback. "The only complaint we've had is on the price. It is under $10 at retail, but could we get it lower?" says Edwards, explaining a challenge the company faced. "After our first year of upfront costs, making the molds, doing the testing, getting them certified, now we know what we can do and what our factories can do. Now we can buy more and get a better price, and pass that price on to our customers. We're taking that $9.99 down to $7.99 retail, and we are taking our wholesale cost from $5 to $4, cutting 20 percent off the price."
Party Animal is willing to do this not only to please retailers, but also to encourage the birth of a new fad. "The only way to get this thing to really take off is to get it out there in volume," Edwards explains. "If we can get the price lowered, we can get the sales doubled, tripled, quadrupled, then we can get this thing everywhere and get it to be a collectible phenomenon, which is kind of what we're going for." So far, the signs are good. The company has beaten its out-of-the-gate sales projections for 2010 by 20 to 25 percent. Party Animal has faced supply chain issues in the face of brisk demand, and it had to scramble to bring a few teams back in stock in time for the playoffs. "We're completely 100 percent stocked up now," says Edwards, "and we are really excited about 2011 going forward."
Party Animal did its due diligence, and discovered that the key to keeping kids coming back to buy again and again is engagement. "We went to our first Toy Fair in 2008, when we just had a prototype," says Edwards. "One of the big things we learned was that the product is only half the battle. The other half is keeping the kid interested, and a big way to keep the kid interested is to create an interactive website. So we created lilteammates.com, where the users can go on and register their figures. They show up in a trophy case, which gives them an incentive to collect."
That site is designed for end users; that is, kids and collectors, but they cannot make purchases there. "We're exclusively wholesale. We do not sell to the public," Edwards says. The idea is to build demand for repeat sales. The site has sports team info, quizzes, and other activities, all of which let registered users earn points. "You can take these points and use them in exchange for Lil' Teammate figures or for our other products," says Edwards, explaining how the site generates fan interest. "We found through our website that many of the people who are really getting into this product in the first year were the collectors. We've had people contacting us who say, 'I've bought all 64 NFL figures. Do you guys sell a case to display them in?' Some people have painted numbers and names on the back. They've used them in their own board games."
However, there is more to come. "The website will be revamped in 2011. We're going to add a lot more to it. We've been doing focus groups and asking our users what they want to see," notes Edwards. "We're going to integrate it with social media, with Facebook and Twitter. We're not sure exactly which way things will go, because it will be based on what our customers tell us works and doesn't work, but once the user purchases the product, we want them to come back once or twice a week." Party Animal has just hired a web and social media specialist to implement all this.
For merchants and vendors, the company's main website, partyanimalinc.com, is still the primary point of contact for business-to-business needs. "The Party Animal site is where our wholesale customers will go. They can order right off that site. The Lil' Teammates site is just to support the product," says Edwards. "Once a customer has a login and a password on partyanimalinc.com, they can see the prices, download the art, place an order, and get confirmation when product ships." However, that user has to be a business partner. "We want to make sure the company contacting us has a resell license or a tax ID, or some other proof they are selling the product," he says.
Party Animal has created a huge set of retailers who need wholesale pricing, and keeping those customers satisfied is Edwards' top priority. "As sales manager, I'm very high on customer retention and making sure my customers stay happy," he says. "We're always listening." It was in response to customer requests, for example, that the company added the NBA and hockey licenses. Small accounts are just as important as big ones. "We have loyal customers," Edwards reports. "We give them $100 minimums, and we do not discriminate. We have the big guys, like Dick's Sporting Goods, Best Buy, and Party City. On the other side, we have little mom and pop baseball shops that take advantage of the $100 minimum order. We have a 4,500 strong customer base, and we strongly believe in keeping those customers happy before we go out and recruit new business."
However, new customers are also welcome, and Edwards believes that a small minimum order size is a real advantage there. "We want them to try us out. Once the product gets into their hands, they see the quality. Maybe the cost is a buck or two more, but the quality is twice as good. The quality speaks for itself," he says. A primary point of initial contact is the Party Animal, Inc., website, since new customers can request information through a form. Then, someone at the company will get in touch and set up an account. Once a retailer becomes a customer, numerous deals and specials are available, often sent out through email.
For more information:
Party Animal Inc.
1350 Chester Industrial Parkway
Avon, OH 44011
Toll Free: 800-456-0145
Websites: partyanimalinc.com, lilteammates.com
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