Vulli launched the children’s teething toy Sophie La Girafe in 1961 in France. And the toy has steadily grown in popularity across the globe; nearly 60 years since its launch, the product is still made manually in France using rubber and food-based paint, and millions are sold every year in 85 countries, says Stephen Montgomery, owner for Calisson Inc., which is the U.S. distributor for Vulli and Sophie La Girafe.

Sophie La GirafeWhile the product is the same, how and where it is distributed and sold has changed dramatically thanks to the rapid changes within the retail industry.

“Culturally, things have changed, but babies are still babies—and babies love the product,” Montgomery says.

For years, U.S. consumers could only buy the Sophie La Girafe teether and other related products in about 9,000 boutique stores, which the wholesaler secured by attending gift and trade shows. And thanks to interest from celebrities such as Kate Hudson and Sandra Bullock, who appeared in magazine photos with their babies and a Sophie La Girafe, the product garnered free media attention, popularity and sales.

Sophie La Girafe’s distribution shifts to mass merchants

Starting in 2010, Sophie’s distribution has slowly shifted from 100% boutiques to now 60% boutiques and 40% big box stores. While the manufacturer spent years “trying to hold off” selling to mass merchants to avoid upset to its boutique stores that differentiate themselves with a curated assortment, it had to adjust its strategy within the last few years.

That’s because the trade shows Montgomery used to attend dwindled in size and it was no longer receiving large orders when it attended. That forced the retailer to analyze the value of those orders against the cost of attending the trade shows, which could range $15,000-50,000. Often, it hardly broke even, which is why it now rarely attends these shows.

While selling through mass merchants including Target Corp. and Inc., as well as larger department stores such as Nordstrom Inc., has helped sustain Sophie La Girafe’s sales growth, the wholesaler still prefers to work with smaller stores as it’s “more fun” and “they don’t push us around as much,” Montgomery says.

For example, its wholesale relationships with Amazon has changed from when it first stared working with them 12 years ago, Montgomery says.

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