Send in the clowns.

Better yet, hawk them, along with videos, toys, children's clothing and other circus-related goods. That's the plan of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which will unveil plans today to test three retail stores devoted to the circus theme this fall in the Washington area, Connecticut and New Jersey, along with a smaller store at its new Vienna headquarters.

The news might depress any parent who's come home from the circus lugging a load of stuff -- T-shirts, buttons, flashlights -- that would make even an elephant complain. And now there will be even more to buy.

"We have over a century of quality entertainment tradition behind us," said Kenneth Feld, president of Irvin Feld and Kenneth Feld Productions Inc., corporate parent of Ringling Bros. "And we think of these stores as a unique and creative direction in an area that has been lacking such products."

Feld's company, which also created and promotes Walt Disney World on Ice spectacles and produces Siegfried & Roy's Magic Show in Las Vegas, is one of the world's largest live entertainment empires, pulling in $260 million a year in revenue.

In its new retail venture, Ringling Bros. isn't jumping without a net. Instead, the 120-year-old circus is taking a cue from the highly successful merchandising effort by California's Walt Disney Co., which seems lately to be willing to sell any part of its popular image that it can mold into colorful plastic shapes. The Disney Stores, with four in the Washington area, have been enormously successful, according to retail analysts.

Feld said he hopes to have the same kind of success for his year-old idea to expand the "Greatest Show on Earth" by adding the "Greatest Shop on Earth." The stores, averaging about 4,000 square feet, will be stocked with goods not available elsewhere. About half of the inventory will be apparel and the rest will include merchandise such as circus party kits, clown makeup and stuffed animals.

"The stuff is not going to have our logo emblazoned over everything," said Feld. "But we will use our reputation to enhance our products."

The first full-scale Washington store will open at Fair Oaks Shopping Center in Fairfax in October, and the other two will open in November at the West Farms Mall in Farmington, Conn., and the Mall at Short Hills in Short Hills, N.J. The smaller Vienna store will open this week. More stores will follow if results are strong.

Feld said the stores will not take sales away from concessions at the circus because different products will be sold. Employees in the stores will be trained by clowns and offer help to customers -- from learning how to juggle to making balloon animals.

Will the new Ringling Bros. retail venture succeed where so many others have failed? "With such an identifiable name, they have a better chance," said retail analyst George Hechtman of McMillan Doolittle in Richmond. "But it's a lot different than selling some souvenirs at the circus."

If the Disney stores are any barometer, success means more than just peanuts. Started in 1987, there are 68 branches nationwide and Disney has plans to open 40 more by the end of next year. By selling the merchandise linked with popular Disney characters, the company has managed to sell goods, promote its theme parks and reach more parents and children. The stores earn $600 a square foot, double the rate of the industry average for specialty stores.