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Where mannequins go when retailers close up shop

Here's what happens to all the mannequins when retailers close up shop

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Where do all the mannequins end up when a store closes down? That's probably something you've never thought about before, but when a store closes its doors, it has to do something with all that leftover inventory, whether its selling it or tossing it out.

The retail industry is going through growing pains.

Consumers are buying online more than in person. Tech has made retailers question what to do with physical stores, and if they even need them. Americans are also spending less on stuff, instead using their money to buy experiences, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics research. And combined, these shifts have hurt sales and led to bankruptcies and vacant storefronts. In fact, nearly 7,000 stores closed in 2017 – a 20-year record, per Coresight Research.

Which brings us back to mannequins...

All the fixtures, cash registers, hangers, ladders – it all has to go *somewhere* when a retailer goes under.

"Because there's been so many retailers going out of business right now, we've just been booming with product," Mannequin Madness Owner Judi Henderson told Circa.

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Judi Henderson owns a mannequin dealership in Oakland, Calif. (Circa)

Henderson is a mannequin dealer. She's made a living out of the retail reckoning. Her company, Mannequin Madness, buys from shuttered retailers, then sells or rents out those very mannequins. With the amount of retailers going out of business, the Oakland, Calif.-based company has had to expand its warehouse and get creative with their marketing to get mannequins sold more quickly.

"We've been offering all kinds of specials, like free shipping, which we never did before. Just to get more product moved quickly because it's coming in faster sometimes than we have room to house it," Henderson said.

She's taken in truckloads of discarded mannequin parts that have come out of the brick-and-mortar rubble.

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"Mannequins are a broad term," she explained. "We have everything from mannequin legs, mannequin hands, arms, feet, so every body part, in addition to a full size mannequin."

Unlike retailers she buys from, Henderson's business – and that of her fellow mannequin dealers – has actually grown recently. In fact, Mannequin Madness is on track to becoming a million-dollar business as soon as this year.

How does the business work, actually?

There are two main sides to it: sales and rentals. Her company is something like a consignment store for second-hand mannequins. Whether its a small boutique or an Etsy maker, clients can get deep discounts on high-end mannequins.

When Circa visited the shop, for example, body painter Audette Sophia was practicing her technique on a rented mannequin. She says a lot of people express interest in standing as a body painting model, but making it happen takes a lot of effort in terms of scheduling. The other hiccup is that often her first attempt at a new design is when she's at the event she's booked for, but with mannequins, she can now practice in advance.

"I could just do this anytime in my studio or in my house," she told Circa. "Usually I just have to deal with a sketch on a piece of paper, but [with mannequins] I can do a proof of concept that's 3D and send it to the client. [...] That's a game changer for body painters."

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Body painter Audette Sophia practices her craft on a rented mannequin at Mannequin Madness. (Circa)

In 2016 alone, Mannequin Madness helped repurpose 50,000 pounds-worth of leftover mannequins.

"It’s feast or famine: sometimes we’ll get nothing in a month and all of the sudden all the trucks are backing up and my staff is saying, ‘Judi, we can’t take any more mannequins.’ But I never turn down a mannequin," Henderson said.

Dealers like Henderson get all of their inventory when stores remodel or go through a liquidation process, which simply means getting rid of all the inventory in the store.

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"By the time that sale term, that eight to 12 weeks is over," Bradley Snyder, executive managing director at Tiger Capital Group, told Circa. "Whatever it is that's not attached to the building, we need to have sold it, gotten it out of the building and delivered to the landlord a broom-clean store."

Tiger Capital, a liquidation company, has worked with retailers from Bebe and Payless to Linens-N-Things and Sports Authority. Stores often hire liquidation companies, who essentially take over management, to wind down operations. Snyder describes Tiger Capital's role as "event merchants" that "know how to drive traffic in a definite or defined period of time," getting "rid of all the inventory within the store and to maximize the value" in the process.

While some experts expect the number of bankruptcies to slow down in 2018, there are still a number of stores simply shutting off the lights in not-so-profitable retail locations to help trim excess costs. And no retailer is really immune to the turmoil.

"Mannequins actually have tremendous value. And they all get sold."
Bradley Snyder, Tiger Capital Group

In Snyder's perspective, retail is going through "a transformative state like we've never seen before." Between shoppers losing interest in malls, tech shaking things up and Amazon taking over the marketplace, Snyder says that for a store to succeed, they're "going to have to be able to do it all."

Evidently, Henderson's business stands to benefit from the closures.

"We worked with almost all the major retailers. So, there's those who are going out of business or closing stores, like American Apparel, JC Penney, Macy's," Henderson said. American Apparel, she added, sent a total of four 50-foot trucks in the last year alone. The trucks were "stacked with mannequins from head to toe, I mean from the floor to the ceiling," she said.

"Mannequins actually have tremendous value. And they all get sold," Synder said.

Serving an environmental purpose

According to Henderson, she says her business also benefits the environment by helping divert thousands of pounds of mannequin waste from ending up in landfills.

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The retail industry is in turmoil. This mannequin dealer takes in leftover 'bodies' when a store shuts off the lights. (Circa)

In the past, the business owner says these store props would get thrown out with the trash, which is a problem since they're made of non-biodegradable materials like fiberglass, plastic and Styrofoam.

"There's some retailers who are concerned from an environmental standpoint," Henderson said. "Nike was one of the early ones that adopted reaching out to us. Nike and Nordstrom. Others were there just because of the economics, they were like, 'Hey, how can we get rid of this cheaply? Oh, let's call that crazy mannequin lady and pick them up.'"

"I'm amazed at the number of people who have a reason to use a mannequin."
Judi Henderson, Owner, Mannequin Madness

Every deal is different, Henderson says – many times she gets her mannequin hauls for pennies on the dollar, other times for free. On the flip side, she's sold mannequins for hundreds of dollars before.

One thing is clear: As retailers sort things out, lonely mannequins won't have trouble finding work.

"I'm amazed at the number of people who have a reason to use a mannequin," she said.

See more related Circa stories:
Smart mirrors could change how you shop for beauty products
On-demand flower companies are thriving in the modern age, while local florists wilt
This Detroit watchmaker is showing that investing in people has long-term payoffs

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