The American Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA), at their recent convention in Chicago, set out to make sure that the specialty toy industry is heading somewhere bigger and better. Among the show’s highlights was the opening panel which addressed the state of the industry and provided several strategies for smooth sailing despite an ocean full of mass market toy retailers.
The panel comprised members of the toy industry as well as of independent bookstores and restaurants - industries that are facing problems similar to those in the specialty toy industry. Kathleen McHugh, executive director of ASTRA, explains that they are working on a grassroots marketing program to develop materials for independent retailers to deliver a message to consumers – that money spent with local merchants is better for the community.
The statement is backed by research conducted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which explains that money spent with a local merchant yields more than three times the return of money back into the community than money spent with the big chain retailers. McHugh says that ASTRA has intentions to participate in future national events to spread the message that “America should be concerned about the loss of revenues of local business.”
Another step for growth in the specialty toy industry lies in targeted marketing. Rudy Valenta, president of Valtech (ToyDirectory), has experienced great success with Magna-Tiles, a remarkable building toy which made its debut in schools. It created such a buzz that many parents began going to toy stores looking for the product, which was not yet available in such stores.
Valenta emphasizes that “there is a whole underground of parents who talk to each other, and that’s what needs to be capitalized on. It’s up to the retailers to create this buzz.” As part of his own marketing campaign, Valenta has plans to design a form letter that retailers can mail to schools quarterly to make them familiar with various specialty toy products. “It’s up to us,” he says, “to give schools tools to keep their awareness up.”
Perhaps such “tools” came most notably through the panel led by Jane Healy, a leading child development expert and author of the book, “Your Child’s Growing Mind.” In the book, Jane warns of the adverse affects that television and video games can have on young children. She advocates toys that evoke creative play and has coined the phrase, “real toys build real brains.” She added that “today’s kids who substitute screen time with play time are at risk for developmental problems later in life, including attention deficit disorder (ADD).”
McHugh explains that Healy’s book is of much significance to the specialty toy industry. “Our retailers have always felt that their toys were good for children and development, but now with what Jane Healy has written in her book, their point is validated.”
McHugh went on to say that the ASTRA show was successful in many areas. In addition to those points mentioned above, she stated that the convention helped provide retailers with information to make them experts in their communities. Many of the shows attendees seem to agree.
Elaine Hackney from Boing! JP’s Toy Shop in Charlotte, NC said about the Astra convention:
“This is so unlike Toy Fair. There is a level of professional camaraderie that is invaluable. The sharing of information and ideas is just what everyone said it would be. I encourage all ASTRA members who haven’t attended to start making plans for next year in Orlando. It is not just worth your time and money, it is your time and money.”