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Collectibles companies may all have Dalmatian plates, but the spots are different colors.

Marketing of collectibles is intense and vast. Consider the case of the Dalmatian: When the market salivated over the first spotted plate last year, the leading companies each soon had their own me-too's.

Collectibles generated $7.6 billion in sales last year, says industry consultant Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and publisher of newletter Collectibles Business. Growth, measured at 7%-10% over '93 levels, was traced to intense marketing from five companies that collect a quarter of the sales.

The industry, particularly for plates, is a pillar of Sunday magazine advertising (the medium receives about half the ad outlays). This form of marketing and the extensive mailings to house files (databases) generate more than a quarter of industry sales, says Ms. Danziger. Retail accounts for 67% of sales and TV shopping about 5%.

Figurines lead the industry in sales, accounting for 41% of the total, followed by dolls (23%), plates (8%) and cottages (6.5%). Ninety percent of sales of figurines come through retail channels.

The five leaders-Franklin Mint, Bradford Exchange, Danbury Mint, Hamilton Collections and Lenox Collections-spent $377.8 million in media during '94, up 14.8%, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Leader Franklin Mint claimed $147.2 million of that, up 21.7%.

Those dollars support a vast array of items. Franklin Mint alone will produce 1,000 new items this year. However, the market is reaching a saturation point that will hold down growth this year, believes consultant John Reed of Reed Direct Marketing.

The industry is brutally competitive, as is any industry offering products that "may" appreciate in value. Customers, typically older and female, buy a collectible because they like it ".....and it just might be worth something," says an industry marketing executive.

Endless focus groups and direct mailings attempt to find that next hot button, but such measures often fall prey to market dynamics. When your competitor offers a Dalmatian, you do too. This "me-too" approach to new-product offerings may be perpetuated by "dry" testing, a dubious marketing ploy used to test the market for a new collectible.

Because no company wants to be left behind in the next wave of collectible owls sweeping the country, they often will hurry ads into print announcing their own limited-edition owl plate even though the product isn't available. Fine print may warn the potential customer that production will occur if results warrant; letters of apology are sent if the "dry" test proves a bust.

Customer preference tends to foster the industry's copy-cat modus. Collectors amass similar products, be it owls, deer plates, trains or wolf themes. Companies fight nonetheless to pull away from the me-too by signing artists and negotiating exclusives.

Even so, sameness fights to surface when a theme becomes a craze. Bradford Exchange markets a Moon Shadows plate; ads say "gaze into the eyes of the wolf." Lenox Collections markets the Arctic Majesty Music Box Collection by artist Jon Van Zyle featuring eight fine porcelain music boxes portraying (in ads) "the powerful spirit of the frozen north, the mysterious gray wolf."

Licensing agreements include Franklin Mint with Walt Disney Co., Paramount Communications, Harley-Davidson and Coca-Cola Co. Danbury Mint is linked with Campbell Soup Co., and Bradford Exchange with the Norman Rockwell family.

Franklin Mint this year signed a multiyear contract with Royal Doulton to make its plates, feeding speculation that Franklin Mint's plate business is struggling. Industry watchers say its sales have been strong for the first issue but generally have leveled off in the series-anathema to continuity marketing where profit comes from repeat sales. Franklin laid off about 10% of its workforce this year and President Tom Durovsik resigned in June.

The industry, with its huge fulfillment operations in place, is beginning to experiment with nontraditional "collectibles" to maximize these operations. Jackets, coats, radar detectors and exercise equipment are marketed by Danbury Mint; T-shirts by Lenox.

Still paramount, though, is hope that the next product will sell like hotcakes in a market blissfully free of knockoffs. That happened at Bradford Exchange last year with its Virgin Mary "vision" plates-Our Lady of Lourdes, Guadalupe, Fatima and Medjugorje (Bosnia) among others. The company was blessed with its best-selling series of the year.

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