Want three words that best sum up the mannequin business these days? How about “proceed with caution”? Also, “return on investment.” As visual budgets take a hit, retailers say they are left with half the money they had last year for props, fixtures, mannequins and other enhancements. So they’re treading carefully, purchasing with more caution and flexing their creative chops with items they already own.
“Every company expense or investment – from mannequins to light bulbs – is being thoroughly scrutinized,” says Victor Johnson, the director of store environment for women’s specialty apparel retailer White House | Black Market (Fort Myers, Fla.). “If we’re going to spend money, the return on investment needs to be significant and immediate.”
ROI has always been difficult to measure in this industry. The “I” is high. Mannequins tend to be one of the pricier items on a retailers’ visual budget. Maintenance, employee time and refurbishing can also be expensive. And there’s no solid science to measure a mannequin’s “R.”
But for Johnson, who insists mannequin presentations influence traffic and sales in quick, positive ways, the silent sellers are a justifiable expense when carefully planned. So he intends to test a handful of newly purchased mannequins, mixed with existing forms, focusing the investment on key vignettes in high-profile store locations such as Las Vegas or Chicago.
Stephanie Picone, director of marketing and visual at IZOD Retail, a branch of Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. (New York), agrees that mannequins must remain a key component of her business – but that the business is changing. “Retailers aren’t using mannequins any less,” she says. “But in the last year, we’ve started looking for mannequins that are cost-effective and have more longevity or durability.”
Longevity is a relative term, of course. With proper care, a traditional fiberglass mannequin can maintain its luster for as long as 20 years. In fact, luxury retailer Barneys New York has preserved some of its in-house mannequin designs for more than two decades, according to Matt Reed, the company’s vp of display. But longevity also depends on maintenance.
“Retailers need to make an accurate and honest assessment of who’s going to be handling mannequins,” says Ignaz Gorischek, vp of store development and visual planning at Neiman Marcus (Dallas). “Fiberglass is clearly more fragile than some of the other materials out there so, unless they’re being handled by professional stylists, finishes and materials become very important when selecting a mannequin.”
And that’s another element of the problem. Retailers have been downsizing or eliminating their in-store visual staffs for years – and, in this economy, it will only get worse. But for those retailers that lack the in-house resources or know-how to treat fiberglass mannequins with kid gloves, alternative materials that have made leaps and bounds in recent years may afford greater durability.
Mannequin manufacturers are experimenting with these alternative materials. For example, Los Angeles-based Greneker has incorporated a soy-based line; Bernstein Display (Brooklyn, N.Y.) features mannequins in its break-resistant B-lastic material; and Fusion Specialties (Broomfield, Colo.) uses its durable, color-infused E-Flex material, which it says reduces breakage and paint chipping.
Italian manufacturer Almax creates its mannequins from a long-lasting, recyclable polystyrene material, some of which are featured in Hugo Boss stores. “Our mannequins are super heavy, but they don’t ever break,” says Lisa Chamberlin, Hugo Boss’ director of visual merchandising. “It’s not something we ever have to worry about. They’re sturdy and durable.”
How do these durable styles stack up when it comes to costs? “At many of the mannequin houses, the more-durable fabrication is also one-third of the price of a fiberglass mannequin,” says IZOD’s Picone. That price tag varies, of course, depending on the type of material used, the quantity ordered, where it’s produced (domestic- or European-made versus China) or even how it’s produced and sold. For example, Mondo Mannequins (Hicksville, N.Y.) says it makes a more cost-effective fiberglass mannequin at its China facility by increasing production speed and selling direct to its retail clients instead of through commissioned reps.
For some retailers, a mannequin produced from an unbreakable material at a fraction of the cost of classic fiberglass seems a no-brainer. But there are still plenty of advantages to using fiberglass. “The finish that can be achieved on fiberglass mannequins is typically nicer than other materials,” says Neiman Marcus’ Gorischek. “For example a foundry finish, which is sanded raw fiberglass straight from the mold, cannot be achieved any other way. And it also takes special finishes like gloss lacquer or metal paint better.”
Lower prices may be tempting, especially these days, but Gorischek cautions against cutting too many corners when it comes to mannequins. “We’ve found that if you try to value engineer too far, it haunts you,” he says. “The old adage is true: ‘You get what you pay for.’ ”
VMSD’s MANNEQUIN RESOURCE DIRECTORY
Alternatives Plus Manufacturing
372 Vermont Route 67
Shaftsbury, VT 05262