Maybe it’s her friendly squeak or natural rubber scent, but there’s something about Sophie the Giraffe that makes her a must-have teething toy for Canadian babies.
Sales of the eco-friendly little giraffe, manufactured by Vulli SA in France, where Sophie’s been an icon for decades, have boomed here and around the world. Celebrities like Orlando Bloom and Kate Hudson chose Sophie for their babies to chomp on and Prince Charles was handed a Sophie when he came out to announce the birth of his grandchild.
“In France, 100 per cent of the birthrate has a Sophie,” says Jane Wood, owner and CEO of Bug in a Rug Canada Inc., a private baby-products distribution company in Milton, Ont., and the exclusive Canadian importer of Sophie.
“In Canada, we’re at about 40 per cent of the birthrate, or about 165,000 Sophies last year. If a mother takes a Sophie to a baby group, every other baby is trying to get at that Sophie.”
The mother of four children, Ms. Wood, 47, founded the company in 2005, primarily to import Sophie. Six full-time staff sell Sophie to over 650 boutiques across Canada, plus top chains such as Toys “R” Us Inc., Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., Hudson’s Bay Co., Loblaw Cos. Ltd.and Indigo Books & Music Inc.(retailing up to $26). The company distributes other baby and toddler product lines, such as the upscale Diaper Dude bags, but Sophie, along with Sophie-related products, is still their number one seller. Their current annual revenue is around $3-million.
Ms. Wood attributes a Globe and Mail feature about Sophie, published in December 2006, for initially lighting the fire that “made everyone go nuts for it.”
But the company’s rapid growth, just under 114 per cent in the last three years, has also been the biggest headache for Ms. Wood, a qualified accountant and former trader. Slow shipping times from France along with late paying customers create cash flow problems that keep her up at night. However Ms. Wood is optimistic about getting these issues under control and hitting 100 per cent of the birth rate here.
“Sophie’s an expensive toy, but if it’s the best toy for a baby, there’s no reason we can’t hit 100 per cent of the birthrate here,” says Ms. Wood. “There’s room for growth.” [*The birthrate in 2012/2013 was 383,822 according to Statistics Canada]
What turned you on to Sophie?
I was always looking for unique products to make my life easier as a mum. I’m Canadian but was living in London then and originally distributed Sophie in the U.K. When I gave it to my youngest child – my most difficult baby – she instantly made it squeak and started grinning at it, so I ordered a thousand of them from France. They had never been in the U.K. before, which is weird because Sophie is over 50 years old and just across the channel. It was a no brainer to me that it would eventually catch on.
How did you get the line from Vulli SA?
When we moved here from England in 2006, I knew Sophie wasn’t in Canada, so I brought Sophie with me. I had a pretty informal relationship with Vulli because they didn’t offer exclusives then and were pretty new at exports. They didn’t even have an export department. Sophie was very much a French product and exported only on a small scale to a few countries. So I just contacted them and asked if I could import them into Canada. They said sure, but you have to arrange your own shipping. Once I was settled in Canada, I set up an online store because that’s what I had done in the U.K. I ordered 192 at a time at that stage and it grew from there.
Was it difficult to get them approved?