NEW YORK â When a young customer returned to Mary Arnold Toys a few days after an Easter egg decorating event, store owner Judy Ishayik asked the child, âHow is your egg?â
The little girl responded with a big smile, and her mother thanked Ishayik, telling her, âThatâs so special.â
Mary Arnold, a nearly 90-year-old store in Manhattan, is thriving along with many other small and independent toy stores â even as Toys âRâ Us is going out of business and more consumers shop online. These store owners know what theyâre up against and focus on toys that customers canât find at such chains as Target and Walmart, and provide families with events, service, expertise and emotional experiences that internet retailers canât match.
At Mary Arnold, some customers come in every week. It doesnât take long to tell which toys a child will like.
âI know your kid, so if you need a birthday present, I can help you find something in a particular theme or something new,â Ishayik says.
Many indie toy retailers carry international and niche brands â items a shopper isnât likely to find on the shelf of a big discount chain, or at the Toys âRâ Us stores now closing. Small stores are less likely to carry such big brands as Barbie and Hot Wheels, or movie-related action figures. At Mary Arnold, the offerings include German brands Bruder, a line of trucks, and Haba, preschool toys, and Tegu blocks, made in Honduras.
The independents may pick up some sales from former Toys âRâ Us shoppers, but theyâre not likely to see a windfallâ partly because the small stores donât tend to carry the big brands.
âI donât necessarily think that people who are shopping for toys at big box stores are looking to shop at stores like ours,â says Scott Friedland, owner of Timeless Toys in Chicago.
Some of the brands the indies showcase are sold online, but store owners say they arenât fazed by the competition even though nearly 14 per cent of toy sales were made online in 2016. Thatâs more than twice the sales of five years ago, according to the research company GlobalData Retail. Indie owners say those sales arenât usually items that overlap with what they sell.
The number of very small toy stores in the U.S., those with under 20 employees, dropped four per cent to about 4,300 from 2012 to 2015, according to the most recent Census Bureau figures. Meanwhile, the number of department stores also fell almost four per cent to 7,885. As part of its liquidation, Toys âRâ Us plans to close more than 700 stores.
Whitney and Joe Novak opened Kazoo in Atlanta five years ago, knowing that Amazon and other online retailers would be among their biggest rivals. They recognized the need for unique merchandise, because as they were starting their family they couldnât find the kind of toys they wanted, Whitney Novak says.
âWe were wondering, where are the local toy stores? Where are we going to find something for our new baby to play with?â she says.
In a great retail store, thereâs the excitement of stumbling on something. If you have a fascinating selection of merchandise that changes frequently, Iâm going to go thereRichard Gottlieb, Global Toy Experts
The variety of lesser-known brands at indie stores is part of their appeal, says Richard Gottlieb, owner of Global Toy Experts, a consulting group. Parents, grandparents and other shoppers spy a doll, game or construction set theyâve never seen before, and buy it.
âIn a great retail store, thereâs the excitement of stumbling on something,â Gottlieb says. âIf you have a really fascinating selection of merchandise that changes frequently, Iâm going to go there.â
Thereâs also the wow factor; stores are jammed with toys and games, many of which are in smaller displays than in a typical Toys âRâ Us or discount store. Many owners allow children to take them out of the boxes and try them out.
âWhen kids walk into a toy store it should be a magical place,â says Jim Silver, CEO of TTPM, a toy industry review website.
Indies can also thrive because staffers do more than point parents to a section of the store. Silver says parents with questions â how does a toy work, is it right for a particular childâs age and interest â may be more likely to get answers in a smaller store.
âIn a big box store, I had to chase salespeople down and sometimes they donât know the difference between one toy and another,â says Heath Fradkoff, who shops for his son at two indie stores in Brooklyn. âIn a smaller store, sales people show you the different features in a toy and explain why some people buy it over others.â
Saturday morning from 10 to 12:30 is the busiest time of the week. Online isn’t going to help when it’s the morning of the party and you didn’t get anything yetWhitney Novak, Kazoo toy store owner
Employees at some independent stores have taught preschool or elementary school. They understand childhood development, how children play and the types of toys that are appropriate for different ages and interests, Friedland says.
âItâs important for us to have those conversations with parents. Itâs not what the most popular toy is, itâs the toy thatâs right for the child youâre shopping for,â he says.
When small store owners hire, they are looking for people who love children and can be patient with them and their parents. Being able to answer parentsâ questions is âa full-time job for all of us,â says Carol Staley, owner of Tomfoolery Toys in Houston.
Sometimes parents are looking for a Barbie or a Star Wars toy. Mary Arnold carries some national brands including Barbie because customers want them, but many indies donât. Staley says if a customer wants a name brand she doesnât offer, she recommends a nearby Target and doesnât worry about losing a sale.
âIf I donât have it, Iâm doing a service by helping them find it,â she says.
Toy stores have a critical advantage in another area â the last-minute rush. Gifts for birthday parties are a big part of the business, with parents often coming in on their way to a party, needing to find a present quickly and have it wrapped.
âSaturday morning from 10 to 12:30 is the busiest time of the week,â Novak says. âOnline isnât going to help when itâs the morning of the party and you didnât get anything yet.â
First published at http://business.financialpost.com/entrepreneur/small-business/magic-expertise-and-service-help-independent-toy-retailers