One Day at a Time: Specialty Store Success
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October 2003 | Vol. II - No. 10

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One Day at a Time: Specialty Store Success

Selling toys is a tough business. Gone are the days of the corner toy store, and here to stay, it seems, are the mega stores — sprawling across acres of blacktop and offering every toy imaginable.

Mom-and-pop toy stores that survive are forced to adapt to an ever-dwindling market. Suppliers often require minimum orders, an easy request to fill if you have the buying power of 1,800 stores, decidedly more difficult if you're a one-store operation with six employees. Nevertheless, there are many thriving stores that bank on the chance to offer personal service, hard-to-find toys and an alternative product mix.

Jane Christopherson owns Once Upon a Time Toys in Stowe, Vt., and says she's been through plenty of ups and downs in her 26 years of business. Her store prides itself in carrying a lot of hard to find games and toys. That, coupled with her location, has helped keep her business from flat-lining.

"One thing we're lucky for, we're probably an hour's drive from any large store," says Christopherson.

Her reordering schedule includes two big reorders every year. Christopherson says she also puts in special orders from time to time to keep up with demand. "The biggest challenge is keeping up with what's new and making sure we have it.”

A mix of both classic and trendy toys also helps, though Christopherson says she is noticing a shift towards more family-oriented games and toys.

"We're reordering board games most often,” she says. "People are spending more family time. They're tired of the electronic handheld games.”

That same family-oriented philosophy drives business at Stop, Look and Learn in Greenacres, Florida, near West Palm Beach. Manger Nick Aksomitas is a second-generation toy man. A decade ago Aksomitas’ parents opened the store he manages. The store is chock-full of educational games and puzzles, teacher and student learning aids and the like.

"We don't carry toys that don't serve some sort of educational purpose,” he says. “It's mainly activity books. It's a hands-on learning store."

Word-of-mouth advertising is the only type of marketing Stop, Look and Learn does. Being a favorite store for Palm Beach County teachers is a benefit, and teachers talk to teachers.

"We get catalogs almost daily from companies, and we have anywhere from 50 to 100 companies we order from,” Aksomitas says. “It's not necessarily easy to find the right products. It's taken 10 years.”
"It's almost 50-50 teachers and parents (as customers),” Aksomitas explains, "but the amount of money teachers and schools spend is much more than the parents.”

Aksomitas says Stop, Look and Learn’s goal is to have minimal back-stock because the store’s product popularity changes season to season and finding just the right combination of suppliers is a task unto itself.

"We get catalogs almost daily from companies, and we have anywhere from 50 to 100 companies we order from,” Aksomitas says. “It's not necessarily easy to find the right products. It's taken 10 years.”

Rachel Sheffer, manager of Tiny Treasures Toys in Glen Arbor, Michigan, has seen her store reinvented three times since the early 1990s.

"Our store started as a gift store in 1986,” she says. “In 1994, we added a small toy section within our store. In 1998, we expanded the toy store with a separate entrance. That didn't work, so we downsized a bit.”

As it stands now, the store includes gifts, cards and specialty toys that are interesting and fun. Their orders include many award-winning toys and toys that aren't your average plaything.

"We try to carry unique things and stay away from the fads," Sheffer explains. Part of stocking the store with quality products involves a lot of research, including attending toy shows and reading up on products before they're ordered, she says.

"We ask our reps, 'Have you played with this toy?’ We do hit shows. We get to handpick what we like. That's how we do most of our buying.”

Sheffer says her suppliers cater to smaller stores, so minimum order requirements aren't a hang-up. Her season runs relatively short, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so only two major orders are usually needed.

Though two of the stores profiled have websites, store managers say Web traffic only accounts for a fraction of sales, and most of their business comes from walk-ins and word-of-mouth. Though they may not have lines out the door or major seasonal sales, these small business owners say that their brand of toy selling gives an advantage to the consumer, and it is that attention to individual detail that accounts for their success.

Rachel Sheffer put it into perspective: "Customers [are] awed by the quality and quantity. The customer service is just better.”


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