Can toy stores create Toys ‘R’ Us kids in an Amazon world?

Stefanie Dunlop has high hopes for her Fingerlings.

Cute robotic creatures that interact with their owners, these are this year’s white-hot Christmas toys, the Furbys and Hatchimals of 2017. On this weekday in Clearwater, Toys ‘R’ Us and Target had nothing in stock .

But at its Learning Express store in the Westfield Countryside mall, Dunlop had about 70 of them, $10 more than the suggested retail price of $14.99. A sign warned of a limit of two per customer, with a smiley face hunter: “We appreciate you buying local.”

“A lot of stores have struggled to get them, but we’ve placed our orders and they’re coming,” she said. “All the big box stores, everyone is struggling with their inventory.”

The key words there: Everyone fights.

Traditionally, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year in the toy industry. But toy stores are in big trouble in 2017 as more parents outsource Santa’s work to Amazon.

Toy sales in physical stores fell from 85% of the market in 2011 to about 55% in September, according to Klosters Trading Corp., which tracks the toy industry. Toys ‘R’ Us filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that month, with experts predicting post-holiday store closings. Sears – whose annual Wish Book was once every kid’s holiday bible – has closed more than 350 Sears and Kmart stores this year, with dozens more to close by January.

THE CRAYOLA IS ON THE WALL: Toy shopping has changed since you were a kid staring at snowy window displays, and maybe no amount of Christmas magic can turn it back.

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Kate Kyers has heard all of this before.

For nine “backwards” years, Kyers owned Silly Dilly’s, an independent toy store in South Tampa. His store, whose business is half made up of toys, is one of the few to have survived.

You have to sell a lot of toys to offset the cost of the store, she said. And that’s still not enough to compete with the Internet. Specialty toy lines used to prohibit selling products on Amazon, eBay and other sites, but that’s changing. In the past three weeks, Kyers said, three European manufacturers said they would no longer ship their products to US stores because online prices had gotten so low.

“They don’t want their brand and their product to be devalued,” she said. “A wooden toy company simply stopped manufacturing.”

In more than five years, Growing Up of St. Petersburg has actually increased its toy inventory, said manager Tara Gill. Her customers, she said, have turned away from electronics and into the imagination.

“We carry stuff that you can’t really go to Target and grab,” Gill said.

Growing Up has a play area where children can try out the toys they want to buy. The shop is active on social media, particularly Instagram, where Gill said almost all the toys she posts sell out the next day.

“Parents, especially millennial parents, are much more likely to buy an experience than to buy a product,” she said.

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The Learning Express has more than 100 franchises across the country, often in high traffic areas like shopping malls. It sells specialty products and consumer ranges like Lego. But its stores operate more independently than, say, Toys ‘R’ Us, giving local franchise owners more clout.

At the same time, big-box stores are taking inspiration from small ones.

The same month it filed for bankruptcy, Toys ‘R’ Us unveiled a new slogan, “Today We Play”, with initiatives designed to reinvent stores into interactive zones. This includes a new smartphone app offering in-store games and augmented reality experiences. A pilot program called “Play Labs” has expanded to 42 stores nationwide, including all eight in Tampa Bay.

In the stylish Citrus Park store – which also has an Instagram account, albeit with a quarter of Growing Up’s followers – the Play Lab has a rotating selection of cars, blocks and games for kids to try out. Among the toys released this week: Hasbro’s Roarin’ Tyler the Tiger, a robotic teddy bear considered one of the hottest toys this year, probably not found in a mom and pop.

“We have kids who are here all the time and come to see what we have this week,” store manager Jessica Martinez said. “It’s not just about saying ‘Oh, there are toys, I want to go.’ Now it’s about, ‘I want to go out there and play.’?”

After dropping its Wish Book in 2011, Sears relaunched a smaller version this season — mostly in digital form, and with a significantly reduced focus on toys — after realizing the nostalgic weight the brand still carried. The digital catalog, also available on the Sears app, allows customers to create a wish list similar to Amazon’s.

“It’s important to us to provide exactly what members want,” said Kelly Cook, Chief Marketing Officer of Sears and Kmart. “Please de-stress me. Please make it easy for me. Please have what my child wants.”

Going online has drawbacks for big-box retailers, said Lutz Miller, owner and CEO of Klosters. A huge percentage of toy sales in stores are impulse buys, where a child may be seduced by the packaging or placement, and the parent gives in. If busy parents shop online, once the kids go to bed, a lot of those sales go out the window.

He’s also skeptical of the Toys ‘R’ Us rebranding effort and Play Labs.

“It’s probably an idea from an elderly bachelor who hasn’t had 2-year-olds and probably has no idea what mothers of 2-year-olds are up to and don’t want. not to do.”

While Toys ‘R’ Us is in the midst of annual seasonal hiring – 2,500 workers in Florida, including more than 400 in Tampa Bay – once the holidays are over, Miller expects them to close between 5 and 15% of their stores.

But it is not completely bearish. Toys ‘R’ Us, he said, has actually grown its share of the toy market since 2011. It has the ability to work with sellers to deliver benefits that Walmart, Target and independent stores cannot. . He stopped by Toys ‘R’ Us the other day.

“Whatever the implications there were or are, because of Chapter 11, I don’t think consumers have heard of it,” he said, “because they really came and bought.”

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Even though his Fingerlings are gone this weekend, Dunlop isn’t too worried. She has another 3,000 arriving by plane next week.

“You always have these people who want to go out and shop, who want to find those deals,” said Dunlop, who also owns a Learning Express in Westfield Citrus Park. “It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t think it ever will.”

As Dunlop unpacked cases of Pikmi Pops behind the counter at his Citrus Park store, parents and children entered. Some walked in with Christmas lists and walked out with Peppa Pigs. Others roamed, stabbing Simons, throwing Doinkit darts and carving piles of Mad Mattr and Floof. Toy stores may be out of fashion, but there are few better places left for families to pass the time.

After photos with Santa Claus, Cindy Alexander came over with Andrew and Noah, 8 and 6, two brothers she was sitting down for a friend.

“I really want this!” said Andrew, pointing to a Strato-Slam Rocket.

“I want it so badly! Noah said as he fired at a Skyrocopter.

“I really want it! said Andrew as he caught a Socker Bopper Bubble Bopper ball.

Alexander lifted his smart phone and surreptitiously snapped some pictures.

“I have ideas,” she says.

His own children are grown; Long gone are the days when she did all her shopping at Toys ‘R’ Us. These days, she likes to browse in person, but prefers the convenience of shopping online.

As the boys attended to a Thomas and Friends train display, Alexander scrolled through the pictures. She planned to go online later and check the prices. They left the store empty-handed.

Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.