FEATURE: Underground Toys - Plush with Cash

2011 was Underground Toys' best year yet. Driven by plush, the London-based firm doubled its turnover to $15 million. Lewis Tyler found out how this small UK company is doing big business in plush?
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Underground’s talking Star Wars plush line has been a huge success at retail and was chosen as Best Licensed Toys or Games Range at the Licensing Awards last year.

“The award has done wonders,” says Andy Oddie, managing director of Underground Toys. “A lot more people have come on board since then and not just in this country, all around the world.”

Since then the company has seen its next talking plush range, Doctor Who, come to fruition and sell out at retail, and has added Sonic the Hedgehog, ThunderCats, LaLaloopsy and Almost Naked Animals licences for 2012.

With the new licences in the bag, Oddie believes sales will increase to $25 million this year.

Underground Toys was founded in 1997, when Oddie and his partners discovered Little Apple Dolls – an eerie, gothic doll brand. They took it on and initially sold around 3,000 units through Forbidden Planet, before alternative US retail chain, Hot Topic, spotted it.

The different characters were all made from the same mould but dressed in different outfits, so it was easy to extend the brand and meet demand at little extra cost.

“Within the space of a couple of years, Hot Topic had bought about 150,000 to 200,000 dolls,” explains Oddie.
During that time, Oddie met Steve Winn, designer of a Mr T themed noisemaker called In Your Pocket.

Oddie recognised that, like Real Apple Dolls, the product could be easily expanded upon. “Steve had the idea to do a Mr T one, but what he didn’t have was the capability to roll it out and do other versions.”

Meanwhile, in what turned out to be a marketing masterstroke, the Mr T version was sent to DJ Chris Moyles who loved it, and ended up using it regularly during his radio show. Thanks to this free advertising, In Your Pocket was selling 10,000 units a week in HMV at its peak.

Since launch, In Your Pocket has had over 35 different licences applied to it. “It got us in the door with licensors. By the end there was no one who we hadn’t dealt with in some capacity,” says Oddie.

The first venture into plush was with the Family Guy licence. The line was selling in HMV and Debenhams when Underground received interest from a Woolworths buyer, who was a fan of the show, but the purchase was vetoed higher up the chain. 

“When that happened I started to learn that I couldn’t do these edgier products any more. While that is how the business started, I was never going to get into Tesco with Family Guy and In Your Pocket,” says Oddie. “We had to look at ways of using our expertise in licensing and the distribution we’d picked up. How are we going to make items that work for Tesco, Walmart and Asda. That’s when we worked up enough front to go and get Star Wars.”

The Star Wars talking plush emerged after a long year of development and four months of manufacturing. Although it was an arduous process, Oddie admits the experience took the standards to a higher level. And, with its low overheads as a small firm, Underground could offer the product at a lower price than its rivals.

Oddie explains: “When you’ve got that, licensors want to work with you because they see how good it is and retailers want to work with you because they like the price. People ask me, how can you make a plush that looks that good for £12.99? Well, it’s because we probably don’t have as many staff as you.

“The model is: if we can try to keep it simple, we can keep our overheads really low, keep the model of what we’re buying and selling as simple as possible then we can pay more for a better quality product.”

While Oddie has no designs on becoming one of the top toy companies in the world, he believes becoming one of the world’s biggest players in plush is an achievable goal.

“All the pieces of the jigsaw are there, it’s now about delivering more volume,” he concludes.


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