Toy stores look to take advantage of opening

March 25, 2018

With a major retailer closing stores nationwide, local shops are hoping to adopt some displaced Toys R Us kids.

It’s a changing industry with online shopping taking on a growing share of the market and larger retailers like Target and Walmart increasingly serving as customers’ toy store of choice. But independent shops are hoping they can find an opening amid announcements that Toys R Us would be closing 800 locations.

As liquidation sales reportedly kicked off in stores nationwide on Friday, local business are looking toward what they hope will be a brighter future.

Local impact

Southwestern Connecticut had 35 toy and game stores employing just over 400 people as of 2015, the most recent year the U.S. Census Bureau has estimated the size of the industry locally.

Steve Pasierb, a Norwalk resident who is CEO of the New York City-based Toy Association trade group, says that the industry is at an inflection point. In the short term, Pasierb expects sales to weaken for both independent toy stores and mass retailers like Walmart and Target as Toys R Us stores slash prices to sell inventory in advance of closures.

But local retail stores could benefit in the longer run in one key area — spur-of-the-moment purchases at the holidays and birthdays, whether to pick something up at the last moment or as a “destination” trip with a child for a toy or gift, an experience that cannot be duplicated online. He says store owners should not miss the opportunity to remind shoppers of their presence and relevance to their communities.

“Are you as strong as you can be on social media? Are you advertising in the local paper? People are still going to buy birthday presents; people are still going to buy Christmas presents — that’s not going away,” Pasierb told Hearst Connecticut Media. “Local toy stores have a huge opportunity before them, but they need to be moving on it now.”

Driving customers

Marie McCarthy, who has owned Nordica toy store in downtown New Milford for 15 years, said Toys R Us represents a big share of the toy market and likened the pending closure to that of KB Toys about a decade ago. KB Toys, which is reportedly eyeing a comeback in the wake of the Toys R Us announcement, had a New Milford location and the closure drove some customers to her store. She is hoping the closing of the Toys R Us in Danbury store has a similar effect.

“I certainly hope it does. I hope it doesn’t turn more people to online shopping, or Walmart or Target,” she said. “I’d rather have them turn to my store. Of course, that’s always the goal.”

McCarthy said the overall market for toys remains strong despite the popularity of video gaming and other electronic devices. “It’s just a matter of where people are buying them,” she said.

Kimberly Ramsey, owner of The Toy Room in downtown Bethel, is hoping the closure of another big box store has people thinking about supporting local businesses.

“I’m hopeful that people will look more in their own communities and the mom-and-pop shops,” she said.

Ramsey, due to space considerations at her store, does not carry licensed products such as Legos. She feels customers looking for those products will turn to big boxes or the internet.

“Someone looking for unique games or gifts is the type of customer we’ll have coming our way,” Ramsey said. “There’s been a huge resurgence in board games and the STEM toys are popular.”

What they do best

If they can weather the initial storm created by the liquidation process, small retailers stand to reap the benefits of a customer base looking for brick-and-mortar stores, according to Kevin McGrath, president and CEO of Milford-based toy manufacturer and distributor the Original Toy Co.

While specialty retailers have struggled to match profits against Toys R Us and other big boxes in the past, McGrath said many of the business owner have benefited from offering unrivaled customer service.

“You’d never have gotten that over the years, and I think that’s one of the ways (it failed), take the money side away from why Toys R Us failed,” McGrath said. “It also failed because of one-on-one service, and I think we live in a day and age with the internet that people want to be educated when they are purchasing goods.”

Specialty toy stores have been doing this from the beginning, McGrath said, describing it as an asset that independent toy store owners should leverage in the wake of the Toys R Us bankruptcy.

While some towns like Greenwich don’t have any big box toy stores, there are several independently owned shops that are catering to the market, including Smart Kids Toys in the downtown area.

According to an unscientific Hearst Connecticut Media survey in 2017, many residents are looking for more to open.

“People are always looking for value, but I think the consumer today is a smarter consumer and they are also looking for suggestions for service, and that’s what the specialty toy store can bring to the equation,” McGrath said.

Alexander Soule, Chris Bosak and Macaela J. Bennett contributed to this story.