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In 1983, when Nick Croce, Jr's father, Nicholas, announced that they were switching from brassware to Gumby products, Nick Jr thought he was crazy. "I had watched Gumby when I was a little boy. He was a has been." But Nicholas had word that Gumby was making a comeback. One month later after meeting with Art Clokey, Gumby's creator, and signing a contract on the hood of Clokey's '67 Dodge Valiant, the Croces were the fifth licensor of Gumby products.
Although NJ Croce Company began with mugs, hats, coat bags, pins, key rings, and similar items, they wanted to do Gumby bendables: posable figures made of soft PVC with wire inside. Said Croce, "We approached the company doing those, and they agreed to let us distribute to the gift market. We were very successful at that. We became probably their top customer, buying their bendables and distributing to the giftware market."
They still carry many types of products in their original categories, as well as resin figures and photo frames, but today NJ Croce is the only company making Gumby bendables. In fact, licensed bendables are primarily what the company is known for. In addition to Gumby, some of the others are Elvis, Mr. Bill, Popeye, the Peanuts characters, Betty Boop, Felix the Cat and Speed Racer. Futurama characters make their debut in June.
Also making its debut is the Felix the Cat animated clock, the original model with the tail and eyes that move back and forth that was created in 1938, then discontinued. "It is not an imitation knock off," said Eric Kaufman, VP of Product Development. "We designed and manufactured it. We are also introducing a Betty Boop clock. Betty will have a leg that moves back and forth, and her eyes move back and forth, too."
After 25 years of selling licensed products, NJ Croce has discovered a thing or two. Said Croce, "We noticed some of these characters were fads, and had a nine month life cycle. They would take off and then they would die very suddenly. So we concentrated on the ones that would last a long time. I like to think that we have sort of a mutual fund of characters, and we pick cartoon characters that have a long life."
Kaufman echoed this. "There is a point where sometimes the licenses are not selling well, or they are past their prime, but other licenses are constant. They sell day in and day out."
As Kaufman will tell you, they are not just buying the toy; they are buying the power behind it. "Peanuts has a readership of 333 million readers every day in 2,400 newspapers in 75 countries and 21 languages. That is the power of licensed products. We have seen it."
Their new website, which they expect to unveil this month, will pass the power onto their retailers, and will be especially helpful to those with online businesses. "We use style guides to develop product. We are given a brand guide: the graphics and the look of the packaging that I need to produce, photos and what not that I am authorized to use," said Kaufman. "Our thoughts are that we are going to pass that down to the retailer and give them all the tools they need." In other words, their customers will have downloadable access to much the same information that NJ Croce receives from its licensing companies.
Although they have been online for five years, the main purpose of their site has been simply to be a showcase. Kaufman said, "We have pretty much been a catalogue wholesaler. We are building a new site specifically for businesses that want to do business on the web or order over the web. Our website is going to be completely revamped."
In addition to the style guides, the new site will have much more for their customers than simply the ability to order online. Certainly there will be the basics such as a shopping cart, numerous ways to order, and a newsletter. But there will also be a blog, multiple search functions, and a carefully constructed tier system to further ensure products are easy to find.
Kaufman said not everyone targets a particular licensed character, but rather may want something particular to a specific theme, thus necessitating the thorough search functions. "Maybe a biker store calls in. We will suggest that they consider some of the Biker Betty items, which is Betty Boop. They sell very well, based on the feedback we get from the stores that sell motorcycle accessories." Or a retailer in Arizona might be looking for Route 66 items. "It is really a case by case basis," said Kaufman.
NJ Croce's forte is licensed products, and they, "Offer the world's largest selection of licensed, bendable figures." Kaufman said they educate the retailer on some of the licensed products, what is selling where, and whether NJ Croce's POP displays would work well in the retailer's store.
"It depends on the square footage of the store and how they want to display them," said Kaufman. "Licensed products sell very well and have high mass appeal. We offer 700 licensed products, a low minimum order, and high profit margins. Our minimum order is only $200, and they do not have to load up on ten Charlie Browns if they only want one or two. We do not have case lot minimums."
He wants their customers to know that their underlying philosophy is great customer service and quality licensed merchandise, with a great return on investment. For resale, NJ Croce recommends doubling the wholesale price. "We make it easy to do business with us," said Kaufman.
Another of the reasons NJ Croce's licensed items sell so well are their likenesses to the characters. "Our products look like who they are supposed to look like. We never sculpt offshore. Our sculpting is done here in the U.S. It is a lot more expensive, and product development costs are significantly higher to do it here, but the accuracy is spot on," said Kaufman. "For instance, we have one sculptor who Matt Groening really likes. So we use him for the Simpsons and Futurama characters. We have other sculptors who are really great at Peanuts characters or Betty Boop or one of the others."
Croce elaborated, "When we first got the Simpsons, we tried sculpting them in China, and they looked like the Simpsons' ugly cousins. I think part of the reason is you have to know the characters. It is beyond just copying. You have to breathe life into it. Ours are dead on."
Character likeness is not the only hidden detail to which the company pays attention. Safety is also a priority. "We test our products continually. We have never had an issue with lead, and we are also going to phthalate-free PVC, which is the chemical used in plastic to make it soft," Kaufman explained. "Certain types of phthalates are going to be banned from products that are for children under three years of age. From a legal standpoint, we do not need to remove the phthalates. But from an ethical standpoint, it is something we decided to do."
Minimum order is $200. There is no minimum quantity.
For more information, contact:
NJ Croce Company
1330 Arrow Highway
La Verne, CA 91750
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