Judi Townsend is a lively, vibrant and gregarious presence, unusual since her business and passion involves working with “stiffs and dummies” all day.
Townsend is the owner of Oakland, Calif.-based Mannequin Madness, a niche business that buys, sells, rents, recycles and repairs mannequins.
Yes, those mannequins. The blank-eyed, slightly creepy, anorexic-looking fiberglass molds used to display clothing, shoes, gloves, jewelry and sports apparel. At any given time Townsend stocks a warehouse crammed with sitting, reclining and standing mannequins, along with hundreds of arms, legs, hands and heads.
“Historically, old or used mannequins were thrown in the trash when the owners, mostly retail stores, were finished with them,” explained Townsend. “Sometimes they still are. When retail stores are remodeling they toss them into dumpsters, which end up in landfills. And it’s expensive to do that: a big dumpster full of mannequins can cost $800 to dispose of. Now it’s cheaper to sell or donate mannequins to me. I’ll go and rescue them.”
Townsend’s “Aha!” moment occurred when she answered a Craigslist ad for a mannequin she wanted to install in her garden.
There she met a former window dresser who collected mannequins as a hobby and later formed a business renting them. He was preparing to leave town and sell his company. Though she had no experience in the mannequin or retail world, she impulsively decided to buy him out. Mannequin Madness now sells mannequins throughout the U.S. and Canada from her warehouse.
Townsend said there are trends in mannequins, just as in fashion.
“A while ago they were very realistic, with detailed faces, hair and eyelashes,” she said. “It’s more expensive to maintain those kinds of mannequins, so now they’re trying to be more generic. There’s not much ethnicity and many don’t have detailed faces. But I think they’re slowly moving back towards more realism, so the pendulum is swinging. People are looking for mannequins with more personality. I’m starting to see mannequins in yoga poses.”
She said mannequins, most of which are produced in China, are produced with fiberglass and other non-biodegradable materials that don’t break down easily.
“There’s a trend to produce mannequins that are more eco-friendly from reusable materials.”
She convinced store executives to give or sell their mannequins instead of trashing them. Now regional and national retail chains like Sears, Nordstrom, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Kohl’s do business with Mannequin Madness. Those efforts have been recognized. The Environmental Protection Agency awarded her firm a special achievement award for recycling over 100,000 pounds of mannequins in one year.
She found that many retail stores, which do not usually rent out their mannequins, receive requests to rent them for parties and events. So she began renting as well as selling the blank-eyed occupants of her warehouse. Some of her mannequins go to theatrical productions, Halloween parties or the festival, “Burning Man.”
“They’re like life-size Barbie dolls. I’m still playing with Barbies in my fifties.”
Townsend said social media is critical to her company’s success.
“I would not have a business without an Internet presence that allows people around the country to reach me,” she said, noting that 80% of her business comes from outside the Bay Area. “I use Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Mannequins are visual and photos give people ideas and inspiration about what they can do with mannequins.”
Priced like cars
She said pricing mannequins is like pricing cars.
“Both Toyotas and Mercedes can drive, but differ in quality, durability and cost. Most used mannequins cost $175, but the more lifelike and durable ones can go for $1,000. Sometimes a really good used one can cost more than a brand new one. Parts—arms, legs and torsos—are usually $25 to $50, depending on their condition. Nothing goes to waste.”
Peter Eckart, construction and facilities manager for the privately held sporting goods and apparel chain, Sports Basement, called Townsend a force of nature.
“We believe in recycling, reusing rather than buying new building fixtures,” Eckart said. “Judi offered great used mannequins. She would have clients clearing out a storeful of mannequins and tell us to show up at a particular time with trucks to haul them away.”
He said each of the 50,000 square foot Sports Basement stores use as many as 50 mannequins and Townsend keeps them well-supplied.
“Judi is a very open and creative business person who is very flexible, extremely energetic and very responsive. She will send me six different pictures of things if I ask her for one idea. Judi is a hustler in the best sense of the word, a go getter who is unstoppable. She has the energy of a 25- year-old and the passion of someone who is “all in” in her business. Once you do business with her, you come back. She creates a lifetime customer.”
Karen George, owner of the Skirack outdoor specialty store in Burlington, Vt., ordered mannequins from Townsend for the first time several years ago.
“I had some concern that I was on the East Coast and she was on the West Coast and was wary about trusting someone for the first time,” George said. “She understood completely and we had very honest communications and I ordered some mannequins and they were excellent and I was very satisfied to have a resource like her who was selling excellent mannequins at a good price, because new they are very expensive.”
She said Townsend is direct and honest and is very accommodating to customers.
“And she remembers what I’m looking for and tries to find it.”