The industry of toys is changing–and thriving.

By Rieva Lesonsky

One of my favorite childhood memories is of taking the subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx with my great-aunt Sarah to go to my great-aunt Anna’s toy store. I have no idea what toys I left with, but I do remember the sheer joy of being there and getting to pick out whatever I wanted.

The toy industry has undergone massive changes from those days in the 1950s. The rise of big box stores and former industry behemoth Toys R Us endangered independent toy stores, forcing many out of business.

But, says Kimberly Mosely, president  of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), independent toy stores are going grass roots and making a comeback.

The shifting toy industry: All about the joy

Mosely acknowledges the industry still faces a myriad of challenges. Despite the demise of Toys R Us, indie toy stores are competing with online retailers—including Amazon. Many toy store owners have not yet embraced technology in general, and e-commerce in particular. About 30% of ASTRA members have e-commerce sites and/or stores on Amazon’s marketplace.

But, she adds, the industry is changing—undergoing a “generational shift in ownership” where younger owners are adopting technology. They’re also benefiting from the “shop small” movement, where consumers are increasingly shopping local stores in their communities.

Mosely is happy to see the generational change taking place. She says, “We believe the healthiest thing for the industry is family members or long-time managers taking over. The younger generation has lots of great ideas and they’re creating stellar in-store experiences.”

Retailing in general is changing. Consumers had become very transaction focused, and Mosely says, “they had a lot of choices where to do that—mass market or local.” But, she adds, “Indie retailing is not just about transactions anymore. It’s about establishing yourself as part of your community and delivering great customer experiences and customer service.”

Getting to know you

This is what Mosely means when she says the industry is becoming more grass roots. The indie toy stores are becoming “more entrenched in their communities,” she says. “The local owned-and-operated businesses are now more integrated with their communities.” The business owners, she continues, “know local elected officials, know the faces at the table. They’re holding more events in-store, sponsoring Little League teams in town, raising money for community causes. [As a result], customers get to know store owners,” which helps create and cement customer loyalty.

Consumer attitudes have changed as well. They’re looking for great customer experiences that you can’t get from online shopping. Mosely says more people are “shopping with friends and want to have a great experience when they go to a brick-and-mortar store.” Their expectations vary, of course. In the independent toy business some customers want, she says, to “go to a store where someone can teach me.”

Local stores, Mosely says, are also “attracting consumers by being unique, by stocking shelves with what they know their customers want. It’s about offering a unique product mix,” Mosely continues, “not just offering the latest products.”

Mosely says shopping locally is “not the same as shopping in big box stores or online. Customers who shop in-store [are depending] on the expertise of the store’s owner and staff. Online, you can’t have a dialog. In-store customers [want to] have a dialog.”

Benefits of technology

Technology, Mosely says, “is changing the industry so quickly.” She continues, “We are excited and heartened by the fact more and more technology is available, and the prices are coming down, making the technology more attainable for business owners.” And, Mosely adds, the technology is not only less expensive to buy, “it’s easier to figure out how to use. We’re getting to the point where even tiny small business owners will be able to adopt new technologies.”

Being small has its advantages, says Mosely. “Small business owners can be more nimble; they can make their own decisions and have the flexibility to change the product mix. They can also more quickly adapt to new technologies than the big chains with multiple levels of approval. Technology can help make a small business look larger.”

Industry dynamics

Mosely says she’s seen some “interesting dynamics” in ASTRA members’ stores, ranging from the more traditional story times to holding a “mommy day” where the store is closed to the general public and specific customers are invited “to have wine, walk the store, meet the store owner and meet other parents in the community.”

Mosely cites New York City-based Camp as a store that’s disrupting the industry. Camp calls themselves a “Family Experience Store”ä. Camp offers rotating themed experiences inside the store. And Mosely adds, you have to walk through the store to get to the camp space, so consumers are exposed to all their products.

The importance of play

ASTRA was founded in 1992. The nonprofit organization says its members “build their businesses around specialty toys, which are designed “with a focus on what the child can do, rather than what the toy can do.” ASTRA’s vision is to “change the world through the power of play.”

Mosely says, “We’ve seen the importance of play. [We want to] help parents and caregivers understand the power of play. Toys and games allow the whole family to play together.” And now retailers and manufacturers are “recognizing there are more games adults can play and [playing is actually] important for adult brains.”

In fact, more toy stores are “targeting adults,” Mosely says, by offering products like coloring books for adults. “The manufacturers,” she says, “are changing the packaging a little. It’s not just  primary colors and fonts; they’re using colors and fonts geared toward older consumers.”

Another interesting development says Mosely is play zones in the toy stores. Some manufacturers, like Melissa and Doug, are “helping retailers set up areas of their stores that are all about a type of play. Some manufacturers are “sponsoring” areas of toy stores and/or offering templates for events.

Thinking of opening a toy store? Mosely says they “work everywhere, urban, rural and suburban.”

The future

The future is bright for indie toy stores. “Customers want choices,” Mosley says, and indie retailers offer that since they “can keep reinventing the wheel.”

Mosley says people have been “predicting the demise of brick-and-mortar stores since Montgomery Ward first put products in catalogs. But we’re still here and growing.”

Toys stock photo by Mikhail Rulkov/Shutterstock