Direct Marketing, Mail Order, and E-commerce News from the National Mail Order Association

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Mail-order Bears
by Ray Jutkins

Using direct response radio to prospect and a newsletter to get repeat orders, Vermont Teddy Bear Company is reaching bear lovers everywhere.

John Sortina designed his first teddy bear in 1981. By 1985, he was selling 25,000 bears a year. Last year, he sold nearly 100,000.

How did this happen?

Sortina, president of Vermont Teddy Bear Company (VTBC) in Shelburne, Vermont, always believed a good product could be made with good workers. So, he left his job as a UPS truck driver and is now one of UPS's biggest customers.

John's inspiration came from memories of his youth - his love of things like cars and teddy bears - as well as from his love of Vermont as a place to live and work.

He started by designing a teddy bear, and, with employees who worked from home, established a company that handcrafts every bear. His first sales were made from a pushcart at the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont.

By the mid-1980s, wholesale distribution had been set up across the country. A franchise retail operation was started. And locally (only in the Burlington area at first), a mail order program called "Bear-Grams" was begun.

Well-crafted creative

At that point, Sortina began using direct marketing to greatly expand his business. Here's how DM works at VTBC, per the company newsletter:

Once you pick the appropriate bear category, consider the best size and color options. Then call us (we pay for the call), send us your order (you pay for the stamp), or fax us your order (the fax is a confusing machine, so we're not sure who pays for what).

We'll get your bear and prepare it for your friend. Next, we carefully wrap it in tissue and place it in a gift bag, along with a card with your special message handwritten by our calligraphers, Marie and Trecia.

All this is placed in our nifty shipping carton - complete with air hole so that Your bear can breathe. The last part is making the appropriate travel arrangements to get your bear to its destination on time!

With this kind of attention to detail, it's no wonder the company is successful. Did you notice the words chosen to describe how VTBC will take care of your very special order?

Teddy bears get rough use, so what about a guarantee? Here's another quote from company literature:

1. If you are not happy with the bear for any reason, we will refund your money or exchange the bear with no questions asked.

2. If your bear gets hurt in any way, we will fix it free of charge. That means if your bear gets run over by a truck, or ... while sharing a bottle of Beaujolais with your bear, he happens to spill some on his chest ... we will fix him free of charge for the lifetime of the bear.

Since we expect the bear to live a long time (like as long as you live), this is a pretty good guarantee.

Can you top that?

Building the business

Over the next several years, Sortina's business continued to grow. It soon required larger quarters. Investment money was obtained and, by late 1988, the company was going full bore into the mail-order industry. Bears were still marketed through the US Navy PX shops nationwide. But, for the most part, the retail stores were closed.

Today, there are about 120 employees at the factory, plus another 100 home workers throughout Vermont. Sales have passed the $5 million mark. In some years, VTBC has seen sales double or even triple the previous year's sales.

How many kinds of bears would you guess VTBC offers? Again, in the company's own words: Teddy Bears A to Z ... actually it's A to V (we're still working on W, X, Y and Z).

And what follows is a list of bears from A to V - 75 different makes and models. Among them: artist bear, beach-girl bear, cowboy bear, fishing bear, hockey bear, jogger bear, sailor bear, teacher bear and, of course, a Vermont bear.

Okay, they've got the creative down pat. How do they market? Direct response radio with a toll-free number has been extremely effective. It was originally tested in tough, but geographically close, New York City. It worked.

Next, the company rolled out to Chicago, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and other major markets. In each market, VTBC used radio to introduce its teddy bears by mail.

What else does VTBC do? Six times a year, it sends a four- to eight-page newsletter called The Vermont Teddy Bear Company Gazette to 124,000 past customers. Each issue is timed to remind you that just maybe you have a special somebody in your life who needs a teddy bear-like the Valentine's edition, which arrives in your mailbox early in January.

The Gazette is done in simple black and white. It features lots of drawings of teddy bears. (No photography - after all, this is fantasyland.) Some issues are done on newsprint; others feature a small step up in paper quality.

The message is in the articles and letters. Yes, letters. VTBC receives thousands of letters every year.

VTBC is also into public relations in a big way. I first heard of them as the result of a mini-article in Inc. Since several birthdays of family and friends were on the horizon, I called the toll-free number and placed an order. It worked, so I did it again - three times within four months.

What problems did I have? Only one. Like many mail order companies, VTBC is used to receiving last-minute rush orders. My order was for about three weeks down the line. VTBC sent it immediately, so it arrived a little early. Of course, this is better than late.

It is obvious that the people who work at VTBC like what they do and do it well. They are proud to be part of a solid organization, producing a fine product and presenting both the product and themselves in a fun-filled way.

Speaking of fun, several years ago, Sortino decided he wanted to make the world's largest teddy bear. So VTBC created the 26-foot Vermont Giant, which has since sat outside Jacob Javits Center in New York and guarded ski slopes at Mt. Snow, Vermont.

VTBC has even captured the attention of the US Congress. The story of its growth over the last decade was read into the Congressional Record.

This past year, about 150,000 people toured the VTBC plant, which is open seven days a week to visitors.

Next time you're in the area, I recommend a visit. And next time you need a gift - or a lift - call 1-800-829-BEAR.

Today, they're on the Web. You can send a free "BearGram" at http://www.virtualbeargram.com/ or order a bear in their on-line catalog at http://www.vtbear.com/.

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About Ray Jutkins, October 3rd, 1936 — January 6th, 2005. Ray was one of the NMOA’s most generous contributors. Over the years Ray supplied the NMOA with hundreds of tips and articles for members. This is just one of many. Ray worked with B-2-B and Consumer clients throughout the world ... including USA, Canada, Mexico, Asia, the South Pacific, Europe, the Middle-East, Central & South America, Africa. Keep an eye out for more of Ray’s marketing tips and how-to articles in the pages of Direct Marketing Digest and the article archive on the NMOA website.

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