US toy retailers are using a grassroots approach to attract customers by Kimberly Mosley

By Kimberly Mosley, president of toy industry body ASTRA

When Toys R Us announced its closing, there was an instantaneous realisation in the toy industry that other big box stores lacked the capacity to fill the void left behind. They couldn’t fit an entire toy store inside their already packed stores. 

With limitations on toy space, these big box stores are forced to limit their selection to just those toys they believe will sell. This often means taking the safe route and focusing on toys/games/action figures related to the latest movie craze and the standard offerings of dolls, stuffed animals and pretend play, leaving our children with a humdrum selection of commonplace, often-seen toys.

Since they are not focused on the latest craze, local independent toy stores can offer more. They have innovative, uncommon and exciting choices while also offering parents a personalized and unique shopping experience.

Basically, they’re going ‘grassroots’ - and it’s working.

How local toy stores fill that gap

Local toy stores are the ultimate toy destination. They have always had a larger selection of products than the big box stores, and the selection has always been more unique, with inventory including never-seen-before options.  This, combined with personalised service and special events gives local toy stores a leg up.

The store owner is also careful to stock high-quality toys and games. And owners are stocking their shelves with the best products to fit their community. The toy store in urban America, for example, doesn’t carry the same selection as the toy store in small town USA or the toy store serving a resort community.

More events and experiences in-store

It’s no secret that through personalised customer service and thoughtfully-designed store events, local toy stores can deliver on the customer experience promise at a higher level than big box and online retailers.  Since the closure of Toys R Us, we are seeing stores around the nation take in-store experiences to the next level.

Store events with branded experiences are one way that the industry is filling the gap. Recently, toy brand Melissa & Doug partnered with North Carolina retailer Wonder Works to debut immersive play zones, and offer interactive, screen-free play that Melissa & Doug retailers now provide their customers. This is just one example of the unique in-store events, community connections and magic that local toy stores bring to kids and kids-at-heart. It’s also a great way to spend a rainy day with the kids.

Customer service is key

Local toy store owners understand that loyal customers return in part due to the above-and-beyond customer service that shopping local can provide.

This has always been a part of shopping at local toy stores and continues to take centre stage in how retailers are responding to changes in customer expectations. Shopping local offers a personalized shopping experience. You can, for example, call ahead for pick up, or ask for a gift to be wrapped, or work with the store owner to find the perfect toy to fit your child’s stage of development. Special orders, wishlists and other personalised services help to make the local toy store feel more like a destination for the entire family. These are just a handful of ways independent retailers set themselves apart. 

By offering these conveniences, the owner and the staff get to know the customers, and in turn parents can count on the expertise of the owner and staff to make the best choices for their child.

In addition to knowing their customers and community, they also know the business of play. Owners and staffers understand play is a vital activity in child development. They know about play and social development and can help parents and caregivers assess critical milestones. Through programs like ASTRA’s Certified Play Expert (CPE), participants gain in-depth knowledge on the science behind the play, toys as tools to enrich children’s lives, and child development stages and learning styles. Through programs like this, they are taught to recommend items based on the child’s needs and the parent’s goals. This is more informed shopping than impersonal clicks on an online store.

What does the future look like?

Experiences all around. More in-store, branded experiences will continue to be a trend along with dedicated play areas for kids to actively participate in while parents are shopping. Another trend we’ve noted is pop-up stores that feature experiences like “pop-up play days”.

We also will continue to see long term partnerships and charitable give-back components. By partnerships, think in terms of toy store sponsored community clean-up projects where kids, parents and store employees are working side-by-side to create a new play space.

Lastly, as new retail technologies like automated POS and near-field recognition become more attainable for small business owners, they will be able to meet customer high-tech expectations like the big stores.

If you haven’t been in awhile, stop by your local toy store to experience the grassroots movement for yourself. You will be pleasantly surprised!

The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) is an international not-for-profit trade body that serves more than 1,800 independent retailers, manufacturers and sales representatives in the specialty toy industry.