How Independent Toy Stores Can Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast Their Big-Box Rivals
By Joe Bona
More than 600 independent toy stores threw a party on November 9 to celebrate Neighborhood Toy Store Day. This publicity event triggered some heartwarming media coverage and was surely lots of fun for all involved. However, when you survey the retail landscape with which today’s independent toy retailers are forced to contend, you might wonder whether or not celebration is in order.
Even mass retailers such as Target, Walmart, and Toys “R” Us are nervous about the dawning of an era in which Mom and Dad can get all their Christmas shopping done in an hour or two simply by visiting amazon.com. In this $22 billion industry, how could an independent toy store hope to compete? The answer might just lie in the massive proportions of the toy business itself.
American consumers are rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the confusing array of choices in the marketplace. They live hectic, over scheduled lives, which makes the gridlocked drive to a cavernous big box store an unsavory option for many parents. The glut of homogenized, commoditized retail products has triggered a bit of backlash among some consumers. More people are now demanding authenticity and uniqueness from the shopping environments they visit and the products they buy. This is the potential sweet spot for independent toy stores—the market position in which small, local operators can enjoy a distinct advantage.
The trick is to actually narrow your focus rather than broaden it— to become the source in your community for a particular category of merchandise, and to build a brand for your store based on top-notch customer service, sincere community involvement, and impressive knowledge of the category itself. Selling the same products as Walmart and Target is not an option anymore; instead, you should specialize in one or two specific product categories.
Imagine a store focused exclusively on nifty, harder-to-find toys related to science, mathematics, DIY construction, and IQ-building puzzles and games. With a demeanor akin to that of Bill Nye the Science Guy, the owner holds special events in the store and at local schools. If Target has three telescopes, the Science Guy has 12. Need a space poster for you nephew but can’t find one at Walmart? You know where to go.
The store is loaded with cool and unique stuff, so much so that kids enjoy hanging out there. Pleased by the uplifting atmosphere, parents also like that the store is local. This might sound antiquated, but it is right in line with retail trends.
Not so long ago, you could walk into a cellphone store and all the products were tightly sealed in the kind of packaging that requires a sharp knife to get open. These days, more retailers are talking about “high touch,” the notion that people should be able to play with the products. Our science store could have all kinds of toys and games out for the kids. Would Target and Walmart do the same? Not likely. The typical employee at a big-box store also lacks the motivation to build personal relationships with regulars, and they know little about individual product categories, such as science toys.
When you are passionate about your products and your community, it is obvious to customers who walk in the door. With Amazon chatting up the media about delivery via intense-looking drones, such human qualities might be far more valuable than any of us know.
The Toy Book, February 2014