Business gives the term ‘working stiffs’ a whole new meaning
|IN YOUR FACE: Laurel Burke, co-owner of MannequinStore.com in Bellingham, stands next to Sarah (far right) and Jo. The company has grown substantially every year since it was started in 2002, and Burke said the market is still strong.|
There are many times when Laurel Burke’s wares end up as simulated victims of auto accidents, or as make-believe prey at the end of a homicidal maniac’s bloodthirsty hands in a low-budget movie.
Some simply end up on daytime television.
“I remember selling a sitting male to one of the soap operas a year-and-a-half ago,” she said. “They were going to put him out on a boat and blow the boat up.”
Burke is the co-owner of MannequinStore.com, a branch company of Bellingham-based SpookShop.com. The business — in operation since 2002 — sells a wide variety of mannequins for a wide range of uses. Since its birth, MannequinStore.com — which has four full-time employees, not including its two owners — has shown substantial growth every year of existence, Burke said. It ships to customers around the world, and this year did between $250,000 to $300,000 in sales, she said.
The company has sold its products to a wide range of customers, Burke said, including Dreamworks, Universal Studios Hollywood, CSI: New York, Neiman Marcus, the U.S. Navy, and the Home Shopping Network.
Burke said Bellingham is a good place to run her Web-based operations.
“For importing mannequins, for instance, it’s a pretty good spot because they come into the Port of Seattle and it’s not very expensive to truck them up to Bellingham,” she said. Both Spookshop.com — which sells Halloween props and products — and MannequinStore.com are run out of two nondescript warehouses on Marine Drive in Bellingham.
The MannequinStore.com warehouse — a roughly 2,500-square-foot structure — houses about 300 boxed mannequins in all shapes and sizes. It is out of this facility that the company’s mannequin business resides.
When Burke, 42, and her husband, James, 40, first came to Bellingham in the mid-‘90s, they started a shop called Gargoyle Gifts at Bellis Fair mall in a 700-square-foot space. The business carried various unique gift products, such as gargoyles, lava lamps, inflatable furniture and Beanie Babies.
The couple decided to leave the mall and moved to a space at Sehome Village in 1997 to start SpookShop, which specializes in Halloween products. After the Halloween season concluded that year, the couple decided to close the Sehome Village shop and go completely online.
“It started very small, and it has changed immensely over the years and grown,” Laurel said. However, the online store didn’t become “a viable Web site” until 2000 or 2001, she said.
It was around that time that MannequinStore.com started operating. She said she got the idea for the business when she was searching online for mannequins to help her model costumes for SpookShop.com.
“I went online and I hunted and hunted,” she said. “To find a new mannequin, the minimum price was $400 to $500, or you could go onto eBay and find one that was beaten to pieces.”
Her first mannequin, which she named “Sarah,” cost a little more than $100.
“The first one that I bought — the only one that I bought used — had no arms, and she had chips of paint missing,” said Laurel. “I thought that there had to be a way to get the price of mannequins lower than that.”
After conducting some research, she found a manufacturer in China. Soon after, the company was born.
MannequinStore.com sells fiberglass mannequins ranging in price from about $100 up to $500, depending on fiberglass quality and the level of physical details. Most mannequins are sold for between $200 to $250, she said.
“It really depends on what you are after,” she said. “The inexpensive ones are fine if you are not looking for extreme realism or outrageous poses. If you want to get into sitting poses, or lying-down poses, reclining poses, on-your-side poses, all those sorts of things are a little harder to find and a little more expensive.”
Django Bohren, 29, owner of Merch Bot in Bellingham, recently bought four mannequins (two males, two females) from MannequinStore.com. One, positioned just outside his downtown store, models a hooded sweatshirt and gas mask. Before he purchased the figures, Bohren said he searched online to find a local mannequin provider, and was surprised to find the Bellingham-based company.
“I think it’s rad,” said Bohren of MannequinStore.com’s success. “I always like seeing other Web sites that are doing well.”
Bohren should know about online success: Merch Bot sells T-shirts and novelties on the Web to customers around the country.
“We’ve been doing that for a few years. To see someone else doing something similar is exciting,” he said. “We’ve been really pleased with our mannequins. They are nice and sturdy, and they do their job.”
All of the MannequinStore.com’s mannequins are produced in China, although Laurel said the company did try to find a North American manufacturer.
“I did check into Canada and American production, and price-wise, they just can’t compete,” she said. “To have someone sit here and hand-paint a face on a mannequin would cost more than the whole mannequin costs from China.”
While the Chinese factories do most of the work, MannequinStore.com employees add the extra details that may be needed, she said.
“We do some of the feature work, like French nails, piercing ears and custom paint,” she said.
As her revenue stream has grown, the business has evolved, she said.
“I suppose the biggest change is that more people have jumped on the bandwagon as far as (selling) inexpensive mannequins,” she said. “It took a year or two to really see anybody else out there that had prices similar to mine. But now they are all over the place. In fact, you can go online and buy a new mannequin for $90.”
The mannequins have changed, too.
“For the first couple of years, everything I ordered was just stock molds,” she said. “I started thinking that maybe this would work, or maybe this would work, and had the manufacturers create a few things.”
The company now offers an eclectic assortment of mannequins and forms, ranging from muscular males to full-figured women, and even children and pets. The need for less expensive, new mannequins is strong, Laurel said — although modifications are common. She remembers some constructive criticism her company received when it first started.
“People were complaining that they had to stuff their mannequin’s bra to display (our SpookStore.com sexy) costumes on them, which was very true,” she said. “And it doesn’t look good— it’s lumpy and it doesn’t look very nice.”
The solution: a much bigger bust, and a line of “Sexy Mannequins.”
“We’ve got that line, which is still expanding and still popular,” she said. However, the most popular mannequins are the forms with more abstract features, she said.
“Featureless ones seem to be more popular than ones with painted faces,” she said. “(Featureless) faces are almost like they’ve pulled a stocking over their head or something.”
There has also been a considerable amount of demand for pregnant and plus-size mannequins, although the market is not as large yet, she said.
“Finally the costume manufacturers are realizing that not everybody out there is a size 6,” she said. “Most people out there aren’t a size 6.”
“Women definitely sell better than men,” she said. “I think that just reflects the buying public. Women are more likely to shop for clothing.” She estimated that at least 60 percent of the mannequins sold are female.
Just outside the MannequinStore.com warehouse is a pile of fiberglass body parts. Various appendages and headless upper torsos — disassembled — sit outside the building, creating a bloodless but macabre scene.
Walking inside the cold warehouse, a bare-chested mannequin seems to stare at passers-by as they walk in the door. Behind her is a large warehouse scene, one of hundreds of large cardboard boxes. Working with the very human-like products doesn’t “creep” her out, Laurel said.
“(The mannequins) are in boxes,” Laurel said. “And I think there would be a big difference if they were out of their boxes.”
However, there are several other mannequins and mannequin busts outside of their cardboard homes, including “Sarah,” the very first.
“I almost feel like they are people, I do. I’m probably insane,” she said. “I talk to them. I don’t like have a conversation. But if I’m moving them, ‘I’m going to shift you this way.’ Even (if I bump them), I’ll say, ‘sorry dude.’ It’s silly. I know they are pieces of plastic, but if I bump into them, I’ll say I’m sorry.”
She also said she names the mannequins. The face of the business is undoubtedly “Rex,” who can be seen front and center on the company’s Web site clutching his fists in a fit of masculine energy.
“He’s got a lot of personality,” Laurel said. They all do.
Take “Jo,” a female “sexy mannequin.” While Jo is fiberglass, her features are detailed— including a pair of fake eyelashes.
“She is actually our most popular (sexy) mannequin,” Laurel said. “Usually, I don’t name them until I get a face on them.” More than likely, Jo will end up in a lingerie store somewhere in the United States, Laurel said.
“We sell more to small boutique-type stores than we do to something like a Neiman Marcus or a Sears,” Laurel said. “I’ve learned something with every order I’ve placed. Right now, the big thing seems to be cheap mannequins. Everybody wants a $99 mannequin.”
Laurel said the mannequins may be used for a variety of things by customers, ranging from museum and store displays, to scarecrows, courtroom props, decoy patrolmen and fake “roommates.”
“I can custom-build almost anything,” she said. “The question would be a matter of balance, and whether the stand could be incorporated into the design so it would look nice.”
Perhaps the strangest request the company had was a woman who wanted mannequins with fish heads, an order that didn’t end up getting filled. When it comes to what customers want, pose is often more important than facial details, Laurel said.
“Most people don’t seem to care as much about the face as they do the pose,” she said. Still, with their full, detailed features, it is hard not to feel the mannequins are more than simply molded fiberglass, something that Laurel admitted as she pushed “Sarah” across the warehouse. She said she is mindful of where her hands touch the mannequins when people are watching.
“I handle them differently if there are people watching,” she said.