"I start preparations on Dec. 26 [for next year]." — Dave Campbell, Amazing Toys
Since the Christmas holiday season is the busiest of the year for toy-store owners, how you handle it can make or break your year. Planning starts months in advance, as does training of staff and new hires.
"I start preparations on Dec. 26 [for next year]," insisted Dave Campbell, owner of Amazing Toys in Great Falls, Mont. "All year, at least in the back of our minds, we're taking notes for when the holiday season comes."
While it's sometimes tempting to cut back on staffing, since you can't predict what the season's outcome will be, many stores lose sales because they are understaffed during peak holiday times. (see How to Staff Up for the Holidays)
Before holiday hiring even begins, create a few mock schedules to determine your minimum and optimum staff levels.
Make your hiring decisions before the busyness begins. Summertime works for some store owners. It will give you time to see who's capable and willing to work.
Consider differentiating your store from other retail outlets that are also looking for holiday staff by offering extremely generous employee discounts, a retention bonus for staying through early January and other perks or gifts.
TRAINING FOR SUCCESS
Use Current Staff
Work with your regular personnel to create a training program that your permanent staff can then pass on to the holiday hires. Familiarize them with your computer system, including POS [point of sale] software, inventory and policies. You can work right alongside them for a few days so that the training is on the job.
Focus on Easy Tasks
To take the best advantage of new hires, use them for stocking and other tasks that require minimal training. Temporary employees who work with customers, however, need to be trained well.
Prepare for Stress
Though most retailers agree that holiday training does not differ significantly from regular training, they do try to make their staff aware ahead of time that the extra hours and crush of customers will increase stress levels.
"I teach them to be calm and not rush," said Keith Mayton, owner of Kid'n Around in Marco Island, Fla. He begins hiring and training in late September.
Mary Evers, owner of Dancing Bear Toys in Asheville, N.C., concurred: "We just tell them to take their time and don't make mistakes because the mistakes will slow you down even more."
Find Free Labor
Local school groups can come in to wrap gifts during the holiday season. It's free labor for your store, plus the groups earn money from customer donations. This also allows your trained staff to be on the floor, helping customers.
Play With Schedules
Despite the holiday crush, some storeowners rely more on adjusting schedules than they do on hiring new staff or finding volunteers. Danny Givens, owner of Little Dickens in Lynchburg, Va., said, "I have half a dozen part-timers go up in hours and then hire a couple for stocking or wrapping."
Set an Example
To make the holiday season successful, be prepared to roll up your own sleeves, too.
"Everyone works hard and long hours," Terri Bracken said of her Zionsville, Ind., Earth Explorer Toys' staff. "I also work seven days a week."
The best-trained staff in the world won't make your holidays a success unless you've stocked your store with the right products. Know what your customers want before crunch time ... and before manufacturers run low on stock.
"I do some of my ordering now [March] for fourth quarter," said Susan Castor, owner of Pentwater Toy Box in Pentwater, Mich. That puts her ahead of the game: most other toy-store owners told TDmonthly they order from August to October.
"I can order way ahead of time because I've got the space for it," noted Dan Willis, owner of Communique Toys in Seattle. "So, I bring it in as early as I can and have it sit. With others, I may not order until October. It also depends on the priority of getting a particular item. For many items there's a substitute, too. So that can help as a strategy."
"I order until the 18th of December, but not from big companies!" stressed Sue Cooke, owner of Mother Goose in Litchfield, Conn. "There are enough small companies I can do that with. I start about September."
Even during the recession, when it's harder to predict how much customers will buy, many retailers focus on having enough stock, for fear of otherwise losing sales. “We try to stay out of the mindset of buying less,” said Mike McCollum, owner of Learning Express in Hoover, Ala. “We do our best to keep our shelves stocked and continue to bring in new merchandise.”
Even if you know when to order, how do you know what product customers will want months later?
“I talk to my customers about what they’re going to buy for their kids or grandkids, whoever, all summer long.” — Mike Castor, Pentwater Toy Box
"I talk to my customers about what they're going to buy for their kids or grandkids, whoever, all summer long. I ask them what they like and study prices: what they're spending, what's a good price point," shared Mike Castor, co-owner of Pentwater Toy Box. "You just need to know your clientele."
"I have a great staff that is good at showing customers how things work," said Carolyn Meyer, owner of Blue Turtle Toys of Dayton, Ohio. "They deal with the customers every day, so they know what they are asking for and what's selling."
"I do a catalog that goes out in October, and those early orders are an indicator for me about what's going to be hot," Bracken of Earth Explorer Toys told TDmonthly. "I order early to make sure I have everything in stock."
“Contact local artists to personalize items.” — Daniel Butler, National Retail Federation
"Starting in late July, but really in earnest in the middle of August, I sit down and go through all of the catalogs," commented Campbell of Amazing Toys. "I at least touch every catalog that I have. ... Then I put the orders together and pretty much have it ready once the reps come through in late August, early September."
TDmonthly also runs holiday preview articles beginning in May that can help alert you to the newest toys and games for the specialty market.
Classic toys, such as baby dolls, dollhouses and train sets, tend to do well during the holidays, retailers agree. (see Holiday Favorites in Specialty Stores)
"Some items are a little flat throughout the year, but do well in the fourth quarter, like playsets. I keep them year-round, but I make sure I have them for the fourth quarter," advised Harriet Story, owner of Leaping Lizards! in Mineral Point, Wis.
"Intentionally carry something different, creative and unique from other stores," advised Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising for the National Retail Federation. "Contact local artists to personalize items."
Even toys that have been around awhile, such as Uglydolls by Pretty Ugly LLC, might be a unique find to customers in your area. Search through TDmonthly to find new and innovative companies with products your clients have never seen before.
Have "back-ups" ready in case you run out of a popular toy, retailers suggest. You can also offer substitutes for customers seeking a toy that's only found in mass-market. Train your staff, too, to think of alternatives to popular toys. (see Specialty Alternatives to Popular Toys)
“We do a town-wide open-house evening, the Christmas Walk/Holiday Walk.” — Nancy Barringer, Jamie Two Coats Toys and Treasures
Whatever and whenever you order, never put all of your holiday toys out at the beginning of the shopping season, retailers advise.
"I like to bring new things out a little at a time; that way, there's always something different and it gives people more ideas," Susan Castor of Pentwater Toy Box said.
BUILD UP EXCITEMENT
To increase their town's excitement about the upcoming holidays, many toy stores work with other local shops to create memorable events.
"We do a town-wide open-house evening, the Christmas Walk/Holiday Walk," said Nancy Barringer, owner of Jamie Two Coats Toys and Treasures in Shelburne, Vt. "We do either a candle-making or decorating participatory craft in the store."
"The town has tree-lighting ceremonies and events and we get involved in that," offered Mayton of Kid'n Around.
Stay Open at Night
Some toy stores even offer late-night hours with wine and other refreshments for working shoppers, who can then transform their Christmas chores into a little timeout.
"I usually do a sale in November, right before Thanksgiving — an evening sale and a social thing with refreshments," said Patti Leo, owner of Toys Galore & More in Kent, Conn. "I offer 15- to 20-percent off on this event." Leo said she also picks a day each week to donate 10 percent of sales to local organizations.
Hold Private Sales
"We have a customer appreciation day," explained Cheryl Pyles, manager of Toyland in Milford, N.H. "We close the store and our good customers come in. We hold it at the beginning of December."
"I have one event — Evening with the Elves — that regular customers know about, and they come in and the whole store is 20 percent off," shared Susan Castor, co-owner of Pentwater Toy Box. "It's after hours and you have to know about it. I don't advertise."
We have our customer appreciation night in October," said Campbell of Amazing Toys. "I'll do specials for items I either brought to promote, or starter items like a Thomas train set or a doll house, like a Melissa & Doug Doll House. It goes for $149, but I'll sell it for $99.95 to get them started. Then they have to buy all the furniture at the regular price. If you don't sell the house, you're not going to sell the furniture."
Or Avoid Sales Altogether
"I give people a flyer whenever they come in the store. I give coupons for 10-percent off in the following month in the newsletter. But I don't do that in November for the month of December," said Campbell. "That's when we have to make our money."
Fred Rosenburg, owner of On the Park in Kingswood, TX, whose store has been open since 1996, initiated a novel idea in 2008 to woo customers: He didn't charge for sales tax.
"People were coming in and thanking me for 8.25 percent off, whereas if I'd put 20 percent off, they wouldn't have thanked me," he shared with TDmonthly.
"People are desensitized to discounts," he added, since they assume that "40 percent off" means that the store was overcharging on the item by 40 percent in the first place.
Though Fred had come up with the idea of knocking off the sales tax, it was his staff's interpretation that really sold the customers. They told shoppers, "The owner is paying your sales tax for you." In a shaky economy, such a gesture made an emotional impact and generated a lot of good publicity. It also led to bigger ticket sales, Fred believes. He sold approximately 150 Plasmacars that December and couldn't keep Corolle's Interactive Lia in stock, either.
Susan Miller, operations manager for Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska, said her store's prime season is during the summer months, which produce 80 percent of their sales. During that time, "displays are decorated with an Alaskan or North Pole theme to appeal to our visitors from out of state," she said. "In the actual holiday season, displays are used to make Christmas shopping a magical experience and significantly different from your standard variety store."
Make Events Extra Special
Even back in 1915, toy stores were being advised by the experts to throw a good Christmas party!
While a banquet of cakes and chocolate served on a little plate and cup by "dolls" might be beyond your budget or capabilities, much of W.R. Hotchkin's advice in "The Manual of Successful Storekeeping" holds true.
Parents still need safe, inexpensive places where they can entertain their children for the holidays, and kids still like being taken into fantasyland. You might even be able to move some sluggish merchandise by pre-wrapping toys and selling them as "mystery gifts," as Hotchkins recommended nearly 100 years ago. (see Holding Happenin' Holiday Events)
Other storeowners pick more traditional routes to promote the holiday season.
"We buy advertising space in the Missoulian, which is the local paper," said Sallie Scott, owner of The Learning Tree in Missoula, Mont. "We do different coupons."
Other advertising options include bus benches and shelters, TV and radio ads, and advertising at the local cinema.
PARTNER UP AND NETWORK
Share Expenses. For 35 years, Mud Puddle Toys of Marblehead, Mass., has been participating in a town-wide Christmas Walk the first week in December that allows the store to reach customers without breaking the bank. “Radio ads are bought with other stores,” said Co-owner Samuel Pollards. A certain number of spots is purchased, and radio stations rotate the different store’s ads. Organized by retailers, the event includes music, a barbershop quartet, hayrides, street performers, decorations, treats and special offers.
Remember the Needy. “We do a lot of fundraisers for schools, a lot with the local elementary schools and PTO," Chuck Harper, owner of Explorations Inc., in Granger, Ind., told TDmonthly. "We give donations as a percentage of sales the schools get from people they bring in the door. We also always donate gift cards, so people have to come in our door.”
Be Creative. For Kazoo & Co. of Denver, that means working with a local business association for new ways to sell its toys. Located in a high-end neighborhood, the store has partnered with the Museum of Outdoor Art. They installed an 8' bronze puppet theatre in front of the store, with a video camera that opens and closes curtains, as a video attraction for children. The store also gave the local school system 300 kazoos with Kazoo & Co.'s logo and website to hand out during a weekend tennis program.
Hit the Road. “I do a big flea market on the weekends, ‘The World's Biggest Flea Market,’ where over 10,000 people come past our booth,” Susan Corselli, owner of Not Just Dolls in Dallas, told TDmonthly. “So, we attract people who don't usually look at dolls.”
Use the Internet. “We're turning more to the Internet and Google local,” added Harper of Explorations Inc. “We're popping up when people are looking online, and then they come in the store to see the toy.”
STOCK UP ON SEASONAL ITEMS
Most specialty toy stores are known and appreciated for the extra attention they give customers, including free gift wrap. At Christmas, these services can become even more valuable to harried shoppers. Twenty-nine of 52 retailers said they change their traditional wrapping paper to something more festive for the holidays, such as adding a red stripe or ribbon, switching entirely to red and green wrapping papers, or simply adding a winter theme that encompasses all cultures.
Open the Doors
After you've decorated the store, ordered plenty of seasonal gift wrap, stocked your shelves with toys you hope will be the year's hits, hired and trained new staff, formed partnerships with neighboring stores, treated your best customers to your best deals and advertised with coupons, radio, TV and movie-screen promos, what else can you do to guarantee you'll be successful during the holidays?
"I pray," summed up Amy Barrett, owner of Lasso the Moon Wonderful Toys in Helena, Mont., who referred to the season as the make-or-break time of year. "You always feel like you've planned a great big party and you forgot to put RSVP on the back, and you don't know if anyone is coming or not. But you're ready. And they do show up. They always show up."
Other contributors to this article may have included: Julie Adrian • Michaele Birney Arneson • Leigh Au • Christina Chan • Julia Ann Charpentier • Elizabeth Chretien • Virginia Davis • Laurel DiGangi • Zan Dubin Scott • Lisa Durante • Cicely Enright • Margaret H. Evans • Doug Fleener • Diane Franklin • Janie Franz • Dennis Foley • Dennis Furlan • Rosette Gonzalez • Elizabeth Greenspan • Mort Haaz • Sharri Hefner • Terri Hughes-Lazzell • Kyle Hall • Pennie Hoover • Sheri Jobe • Julie L. Jones • Candyce Kornblum • Christine Lebednik • Susan Ledford • Chris Lundy • Susan Maddela • Hans C. Masing • J.D. Meisner • Adeena Mignogna • Catherine Jo Morgan • Claudia Newcorn • Willow Polson • Marie Raven • Kara Revel • Andrew Robinton • Greg Rock • Brenda Ruggiero • Tamara Schuit • Brent Turner • Vanessa VanderZanden • Jodi M. Webb • Stacy Wiebe• Mark Zaslove • Alex Zelikovsky