A love of animals inspired the owners of Sanrio Surprises, a boutique specialty store in Hawaii that’s synonymous with the iconic Hello Kitty brand, to become generous supporters of the Hawaiian Humane Society.
Since 2007, Benjamin and Sharon Chow, who own and operate three Sanrio Surprises stores on Oahu, have donated thousands of dollars to the Humane Society through sales of limited-edition T-shirts that their company creates for the organization.
With the help of Sanrio designers in Los Angeles and Japan, the Chows incorporate the Humane Society’s logo on the Hawaii-themed Hello Kitty T-shirts.
The T-shirts always sell out, Benjamin Chow said. Their popularity extends beyond the islands, with die-hard Hello Kitty fans as far away as New York calling to find out the arrival date of the T-shirts.
The first batch of about 720 shirts with the newest design is due to arrive in stores by the end of this month. A second batch of shirts will arrive in August.
The company will donate 25 percent of each batch of shirts to the Humane Society to sell at the organization’s store. The bulk of the T-shirts will be sold at the Sanrio Surprises stores at Kahala Mall, Ala Moana Center and Pearlridge Center. All proceeds from the shirt sales will go to the Humane Society.
The T-shirts, with a $22 retail value, are 100 percent cotton and come in children’s and women’s sizes. Colors vary from soft to bright, including hot pink, Cancun blue and lilac. Tote bags that carry the Humane Society designs cost $16.
After Sanrio designers in Tokyo give final approval of the design, the shirts are sent to Custom Co., a T-shirt printing business in Kalihi.
Supporting the Humane Society was a perfect fit for the Chows, who love dogs.
The family has three: Simba, a German shepherd-Labrador mix adopted from the Humane Society seven years ago, and Coco and Taffy, both Chihuahuas. They are loyal and dependable, always there to welcome you when you arrive home from work, Benjamin Chow said.
Catherine Chow considers the dogs her siblings. "We go walking together. We run errands together," she said. "We celebrate their birthdays."
Sharon Chow said, "They think they’re human. Whatever we eat, they eat."
At one time the Chows owned nine dogs, but "four is ideal," she said.
Lisa Fowler, the Humane Society’s director of development, said the organization appreciates the Chows’ creativity and generosity. "Some people recognize the marketing opportunity of co-branding with an organization. For him (Benjamin) it wasn’t about helping his business. It was finding a way to help our cause and our mission.
"It really came from the heart for him. He has a personal connection to our organization."
Fowler recalled the frenzy over the custom-made T-shirts in 2011. There was a waiting list due to high demand by loyal Hello Kitty fans who collect shirts in every new design. "Our donors love our Hello Kitty T-shirt. They’re huge. They’re super popular," she said. That year, Sanrio Surprises donated about 500 shirts and 175 tote bags.
Hello Kitty, created in 1974, is the most popular among the hundreds of characters created by the Japanese-based Sanrio company. Two years later Sanrio introduced the Hello Kitty character to the U.S. and later expanded to Europe. Today the brand has a huge following worldwide.
Hawaii yields high sales due to the state’s large Asian population coupled with its proximity to Asia. "People grew up with Hello Kitty," Benjamin Chow said.
The brand’s popularity perseveres through generations. Women whose parents bought them Sanrio pens, stickers and notepads when they were children are now mothers buying the items for their keiki, he said.
At their three stores, customers are met with wall-to-wall merchandise, including car and phone accessories, luggage and handbags. Other well-known Sanrio characters such as Pochacco and Bad Badtz-Maru are sprinkled on shelves. The pink hue of Hello Kitty products creates a cheerful atmosphere that reflects the company motto, "Small gift, big smile."
Helping the Hawaiian Humane Society aligns with the goal of both the company and the Chow family: to promote happiness in the community. Hello Kitty is "a nonreal character but it helps real animals. In essence it helps our community," Catherine Chow said.