May Jaramilla, store manager for 2b bebe in the Westfield Culver City mall, loves the new mannequins that arrived in February.

Just about everything is better: The translucent, pale pink forms are lighter, adjustable at every magnetic joint, and possess ears and toes that can be accessorized with jewelry, sunglasses and sandals. They also make Jaramilla's job easier.

"They're cute," she said. "A lot of people don't know how to put an outfit together, and men shopping for their girlfriends will point to a mannequin and say, 'Get me this exact outfit.'"

The maker of 2b's upgraded mannequins is Buena Park-based CNL (short for Creative New Leader), a global manufacturer of mannequins. Virtually all work is custom -- hence a minimum order requirement of 50 units -- but the price of CNL's fiberglass mannequins is a steal at $400, on par with the average retail price for the mass-produced variety.

CNL regularly rolls out mannequin armies numbering in the tens of thousands, and boasts a client portfolio that includes big-name retailers like Uniqlo, Hermes, Quiksilver, Reebok and JCPenney. While the company won't say how much money it makes, it does say annual revenue growth has exceeded 20 percent in the past three years.

If you're wondering why the fuss, it's because mannequins, known as the retail industry's "silent salesmen," are playing a bigger role than ever in attracting brick-and-mortar customers.

The NPD Group, for instance, reported that 42 percent of customers said mannequins impacted their purchasing decision, ranking just behind friends and family in terms of influence.

"Online shopping has gotten so popular, stores have to find new ways to create a more interesting ambiance and user experience to get people to come in. Mannequins are visually enticing, and retailers are stylizing mannequins as extensions of their brand," said Judi Henderson Townsend, owner of Oakland-based Mannequin Madness, one of the country's largest recyclers and resellers of mannequins, which are sold at up to 80 percent off original prices.

Townsend works with individuals as well as brands like Gap and Nike to recycle more than 100,000 pounds a year of mannequins. (When you factor in stands, the average mannequin weighs about 30 pounds.)

"Mannequins never really go out of style, but there are times they're bigger. They're critical to sales now," she said.

To change it up, some retailers have gone plus-sized and curvier, and others feature more athletic and toned mannequins. Others are trying different facial features, eco-friendly materials and even digital components.

These days, CNL releases at least two new collections every year. The 2014 catalog is a hefty 200-plus pages of mannequins in all sorts of active poses, finished in cement, marbleized fabric, papier-mache, riveted metal and wood -- plus an entrancing array of hand and feet forms.

On one page, a black metallic female form is clad in a slinky sequined dress with an arm perpetually outstretched, walking a still dog. On another, bikini- and swim-trunk clad featureless "eggheads" of all different colors lounge by a fake hot tub.

CNL's headquarters and warehouse are tucked away in an industrial area of town with railroad tracks crisscrossing nearby roads. During a quick tour, founder and CEO James Chiao explained how, in his previous life as a computer programmer, he became aware that downtown Los Angeles -- a hub for the fashion industry -- was also considered the place to buy mannequins and display forms.

"Every time I exited the freeway at work, I would face one of the many mannequin stores downtown. When I saw business in China was booming, I thought I should start a business of my own selling products in the United States," Chiao said.

In 1988, Chiao began selling mannequins wholesale to those same stores in downtown L.A. But at retail-fixture trade shows like EuroShop and GlobalShop, he saw more opportunity in selling to large-chain stores directly. Soon, he was going after big accounts and focusing on design, quality and expanding capacity.

"We are not a manufacturer. We are a design house. We try to see what's next in the retail climate and try to interpret it into mannequins," said Tasha Kusama, CNL's creative director and a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Hired in 2010 to enhance the company's design-focused approach, Kusama collaborates closely with visual merchandisers to produce exactly what they want.

Dockers, for example, wanted a papier-mache finish, and couldn't find anyone to execute the vision. Kusama spent three days putting the paper on the mannequin, figuring out how to make it work, piece by piece.

"It was a painstaking effort, and there's a steep learning curve," she said.

Mannequins are receiving a new emphasis in "Avenue"-type lifestyle centers that feature expansive window displays. Target, too, is putting in mannequins for the first time, emphasizing being more fashion forward than competitors such as Wal-Mart.

There's also more interest in the secondary market from DIY crafters, who upcycle mannequins for their own purposes.

Sara Jane Martini, who was in charge of rebranding 2b bebe's in-store look, said mannequins are the second most expensive investment in visual merchandising, after store fixtures. They have a shelf life of a handful of years before they become outdated.

"Say a mannequin is $500, and a store needs an average of 12 mannequins per store and has a 200-store fleet," Martini said. "That's a lot of money, but it's worth it."

8 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT MANNEQUINS:
1. In the late 1800s, full-bodied mannequins (costing $15 apiece) came into regular use in the U.S., after the Industrial Revolution brought about manufacturing of large, plate-glass windows and the wide-scale use of electricity.
2. The oldest mannequin dates back to 1350 B.C. In 1923, a dress form modeled after the pharaoh's measurements was found in King Tut's tomb.
3. U.K.-based Rootstein is known for making the industry's most expensive mannequins. One could set you back $12,000.
4. Experimentation is in the air. American Apparel debuted mannequins with pubic hair; David's Bridal has championed use of more realistically shaped forms with thicker waists, saggier breasts and yes, back fat.
5. The average life span of a mannequin is seven years, either through wear and tear or going out of style.
6. Mannequin use is sensitive to market swings. When the economy is good, retailers splurge on wigs and makeup for realistic mannequins and the labor for maintaining them. When it's bad, expect more headless and featureless mannequins.
7. Styling a mannequin takes serious skill, which is why a lot of visual merchandising jobs are outsourced. According to GlobalShop founder Doug Hope, there are about 50,000 independent visual merchandisers, and retailers will hire large firms to execute holiday trend and special collection displays. A suit on a male form can require 150 pins (plus paperboard) to make it flow naturally.
8. Amazon.com has caused a surge in the sales of clear mannequin forms, since the e-commerce giant doesn't allow images featuring mannequins that distract from the product.