Bay Area toy stores hold firm amid retail shifts

Ask the owner of Mr. Mopps’ toy store, Devin McDonald, what draws people to his store, and among the list of attributes is this: a sense of magic and what he calls “a kind folklore”.

People have stories about the Berkeley store, said McDonald, who took over the store with his wife, Jenny Stevenson, seven years ago. From the mother who told her her daughter dresses as “Mr. Mopps” (with the apron and hat that McDonald’s usually wears, since there’s no real person named Mr. Mopps in the store), to older customers who say they went to the store in its early days after it opened in 1962, people have personal experiences with the store to share.

That’s not the kind of answer the executives of Toys R Us, say, might give, but it’s part of why independent toy stores like Mr. Mopps are holding their own in the face of fierce competition from retail giants. electronics like Amazon and big-box stores like Target, McDonald said.

“It’s about building a relationship with customers,” he said.

Owning an independent toy store — or any small retail business — in the Bay Area is fraught with business pitfalls and competitive hurdles, toy store owners say, but, especially with another season of With the holiday shopping fast approaching, industry veterans are finding ways to connect with customers and keep them coming back.

Stephanie Sala, owner of Five Little Monkeys Toys and Gifts, said independent toy stores like hers are able to offer a different experience than most big-box or online retailers.

“Independents are able to provide customers with a better shopping experience that is very convenient and fun,” Sala said. His company has four locations in the Bay Area, including Novato, Walnut Creek, Albany and Burlingame. “We offer a unique and carefully curated selection where we have already sifted through the pages of bric-a-brac for our customers, which is both a science and an art.”

In a way, independent toy stores are blazing their trail as toy experts and tastemakers, said Kimberly Mosely, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.

“Independent retailers offer more than just a product – it’s the additional things the store can do for you and their expertise,” Mosely said.

Things like getting recommendations from the staff or being able to stop on the way to a birthday party to buy a present and have it wrapped are “not something you can do online or through the marketplace. mass,” she added.

Toys R Us, which filed for bankruptcy last month, may have done well to heed some of the best practices from independent stores. Where it once posed a major threat to toy retailers, competitors have overtaken it with better customer service, pricing or selection, toy store owners say.

Karen Murphy, of Berkeley, prefers to shop locally rather than at the big box stores, she said at Mr Mopp’s on a recent afternoon. Murphy had brought his granddaughter, Eryn, to browse the store.

“I like the variety — there are lots of educational toys — and it’s such a nice atmosphere,” Murphy said.

Eryn, who said she often shops at the store with her parents to buy presents for her peers’ birthday parties, likes the craft section.

Part of what’s so important to toy stores in creating experiences is that children have different shopping desires than their parents.

“Kids don’t care to buy online,” McDonald said. Kids, toy retailers agree, want to browse, play and choose items. Buying toys is almost as much of an experience as playing with them at home.

Keith Schumacker, who runs Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo with fellow general manager Daniel Janoska, said the store has different departments — areas for crafts, books or dolls, for example — with play areas in each. department. Kids can play with a model train, for example, while parents talk to store associates, Schumacker said.

“It’s about creating an experience,” he said. “Anyone can put up four walls and fill them with stuff.”

Talbot’s Toyland is about 35,000 square feet, so it does indeed have a lot going on, but even at that size, Schumacker said, it’s hard to compete with the sheer volume of selection from giants like Amazon.

So Talbot’s Toyland – like Mr. Mopps and Five Little Monkeys – isn’t really trying to compete with Amazon and the like. As toy store owners and managers acknowledge that Amazon and big box stores have likely reduced sales and continue to present competition, particularly for shoppers looking for the lowest prices, they are turning rather towards what they can offer: toy expertise. , good customer service and, as McDonald’s said, “friendliness”.

At Mr. Mopps, you won’t find toys licensed for the latest movies, for example, McDonald said — he wants to offer toys that hold up even when cultural trends come and go. Sala, from Five Little Monkeys, and Schumacker, from Talbot’s Toyland, said they choose toys that are educational, high quality, and often environmentally friendly. A kit for children to make their own gummies and a DIY solar car are among the items being sold in stores.

They take care to educate staff about toys. Mosely of the Association of Specialty Toy Retailers said the organization has seen an increase in the number of toy store owners and employees certified under its “expert play” program.

But relying heavily on staff expertise can be difficult in the Bay Area, where the high cost of living and low unemployment rate make it difficult to hire traditionally low-paying retail jobs.

“Retail has never been a high-paying career…and when a house here costs $1 million, you have to make $100,000 to survive,” Schumacker said. “What happens to a lot of these specialty stores is that the margins go down and you can’t get the labor (which you need), and the experience goes down.”

And while the Bay Area is dotted with toy store stalwarts, they’re not immune to the closures that have recently plagued the industry. Earlier this year, a longtime toy store, Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World, closed after nine decades in business.

Toy sales do not appear to be declining given, for example, the growth of personal electronics. US toy sales rose 5% in 2016, reaching $20.4 billion, according to data firm NPD Group. The strongest growth came from games and puzzles, dolls, outdoor sports and toys.

Independent retailers are cautiously optimistic.

“Those who are willing to adapt and change, to truly listen to what their customers want, and to continue to innovate and create unique and personal customer experiences should be able to not only survive, but thrive,” Sala said.