East Meets West Via Catalogs

Talk about your niche markets: Catalogers ChinaSprout and Asia for Kids both sell toys, books, and other products specifically for Asian children living in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census, as of 2000 there were approximately 7.25 million Asian-born people living in the United States, including 462,000 children under the age of 16. And they most likely won’t find dolls with Asian features or books about the Chinese New Year in their local toy store.

Xiaoning Wang started Brooklyn, NY-based ChinaSprout as a Web-only business in June 1999. “In our neighborhood, lots of families had adopted Chinese children, and they were anxious to learn about China and Chinese culture,” Wang says. “I was in business school at the time, and I came up with the idea to try my business out on the Internet, since I could reach people even in the Midwest or elsewhere in the country.”

ChinaSprout targets parents and grandparents of adopted Chinese children, although the firm is branching out to attract Chinese-Americans and others are interested in Chinese culture. “I have lots of customers who have nothing to do with Chinese adoptions and are not Chinese-Americans. Many are Westerners interested in the culture or who see the products as unique,” Wang says.

Wang began by offering books and music, later adding arts-and-crafts items. She now also sells her own line of clothing and last year began selling more than 100 types of dolls, as well as toys such as a Chinese cooking set with a wok, bowls, and chopsticks.

The company introduced its print catalog in time for the 2001 holiday season. Only about 10% of ChinaSprout’s product line was featured in the first 28 page-catalog. “We thought we could print and distribute a small catalog as a test,” Wang says. “We didn’t know whether we should do one at all, since people were already ordering our products online.”

But the catalog proved successful beyond Wang’s expectations. She printed 12,000 catalogs for the initial run, and after two months, she needed to print another 10,000. Approximately 7,500 catalogs were mailed to online customers, with more sent to requesters. Wang also distributed catalogs at trade shows and mailed some to her wholesale customers. She contemplated renting names, but the expense dissuaded her — as did her skepticism regarding whether rented lists would be able to zero in on her narrow niche.

ChinaSprout’s next catalog is slated to mail in September. Wang won’t release sales figures, but she says that the company has seen a 150% growth from holiday 2000 to holiday 2001, due to the print catalog as well as the product line expansion.

Beyond China

Even before Wang launched the ChinaSprout Website, Master Communications was producing a print catalog selling products specifically for Asian children. Titled, appropriately enough, Asia for Kids, the Cincinnati-based catalog was founded in 1994 by Selina Yoon.

Like ChinaSprout, Asia for Kids sells dolls, games, and books. It also offers educational software, CD-ROMs, videos, and audiocassettes for teachers. But unlike ChinaSprout, Asia for Kids doesn’t stop at selling items for Chinese youngsters; it also offers products tailored to children from more than a dozen other Asian countries, including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and India.

Yoon felt it was important to teach her children about their Korean and Chinese heritage, but when she began looking for appropriate materials, she couldn’t find any. “My issue was, How do you teach children a language that you don’t speak yourself?” Yoon says. “And I was finding that other parents were going through what I was going through.”

Yoon used her background as a marketing executive with Proctor & Gamble to conduct consumer research. After determining that an audience for Asian books and learning materials existed, she hunted down the few items available and decided to sell them herself.

The first catalog was rudimentary: Yoon ran off 100 black-and-white copies of her 16-page catalog at Kinko’s. She mailed the catalogs to parenting publications rather than to prospects. The resulting media references led to hundreds of requests, which Yoon met by running off more copies at Kinko’s.

“The catalogs were so bad-looking,” Yoon recalls, “but parents reacted so positively because many had been looking for these products.”

Today Asia for Kids mails at least two 64-page, four-color catalogs a year to about 500,000 people. Master Communications also publishes instructional books and audiocassettes that are sold by other catalogers and retailers as well as by Asia for Kids.

Word of mouth accounts for much of the company’s growth, Yoon says. The firm also sends bulk mailings to organizations such as book clubs and adoption agencies, which pass them on to prospective parents of children from Asia.

“Parents of adopted Asian children have tremendous needs,” Yoon says. “All of a sudden you have children and you think you’d better know something about their heritage and culture.”

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