“Not a day goes by that people don’t thank us for being here.” — Mary Sisson, Kazoodles
After Bob and Mary Sisson became grandparents, they discovered they were making a lot of interstate trips to buy toys for their grandchildren. The Vancouver, Wash., couple had to travel across the river to Portland, Ore., to find a specialty toy store. Finally, they realized that an opportunity lay before them.
“The idea that we could open a store just hit us one day, and then we couldn’t think about anything else,” Mary told TDmonthly Magazine.
It was December 2004 when the inspiration struck. Bob was a copy editor and Mary worked in journalism and in public information for schools. Neither had business experience.
“We took a three-week business class at our local community college,” Mary said. “It was designed to give you all the realities of opening your own business, so it would discourage anyone who wasn’t crazy to begin with, I guess.”
Next, they took courses from SCORE and got a counselor. Mary took a job at a neighborhood drug store for seven months to gain retail experience.
“The best part of our homework was visiting stores,” she said. “We visited more than 30 from the Northwest to California to New Hampshire to Vermont. Toy-store people are great.”
MISSION SPURS DECISION
The biggest internal challenge for the couple was deciding whether to take the plunge.
“We knew this isn’t something you just dabble in,” Mary told TDmonthly. “You jump in and it’s a whole-life commitment.
“We didn't actually make the decision for several months, until I came back from a mission trip to Zambia. I figured God would make it clear [whether to go ahead] as we visited kids in deep poverty, and he did. The message I brought home was that all kids need to learn and they need the right tools. In this culture, we could provide them via Kazoodles.”
LEARNING TO OVERCOME
The Sissons' overcame their lack of business experience by assessing their strengths and weaknesses, then finding people who could help. It didn’t hurt that they opened the store in a community where they had lived for about 30 years.
Funding the store wasn’t a problem. Each had recently lost an aunt and gained some inheritance, so they were determined to use their resources and not borrow money. They were successful until it came time to pay sales' taxes; they ended-up borrowing from their home equity line of credit.
One of their biggest mistakes was not getting a handle on ordering.
“We ended-up with not only our garage full, but our living room, dining room and family room,” said Mary.
CUSTOMERS COME FIRST
Looking back, Mary feels the community was ready for a specialty toy store.
“Not a day goes by that people don’t thank us for being here,” she said. “We get compliments all the time on our employees and their knowledge of toys, their commitment to the customers, and their willingness to really work with the customer and find just the right thing.”
The store offers story time, an after-school club and summer activities at least once a week. And every Tuesday is Grandparents’ Day, with a 10-percent discount offered in exchange for a peek at pictures of the grandchildren.
When customers request a product Kazoodles doesn’t have, staff “Google-it" to see if it might be a potential order.
“Our younger employees are especially adept at finding just about anything on the Internet,” Mary said.
GROWING WITH COMMUNITY
Mary’s main advice for those just starting out is to join ASTRA, the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.
“The Listserv of retailers is a daily ongoing dialogue about what’s going on in the toy industry and in our stores, and I’ve learned so much from that,” she said. “You can ask any question and nobody thinks it’s dumb.”