Local toy stores outlast Toys R Us closing
By BERA DUNAU
May. 14, 2018
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) — Earlier this year, Toys R Us announced that it would close or sell all of its stores in the United States, seemingly another victim of the "retail apocalypse."
Yet, in the Pioneer Valley, independent local toy stores are still standing, and they plan on continuing to be a part of the community for the long term.
"The magic still exists," said Kimberley Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, before referencing Toys R Us mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe. "Geoffrey has found a home with us."
"Us" locally means shops like A2Z Science & Learning Store and A Child's Garden in Northampton and The Toy Box in Amherst. Though each of these stores take a different approach when it comes to selling toys, the owners all stress a common thread that they believe sets them apart from a retail giant like Toys R Us — the heavy value they place on customer service and knowing their products.
Here's how they describe their philosophies:
"They're information machines," said owner André Boulay, of A2Z's staff.
"We know what goes into all the products that we sell," said Kate Glynn, owner of A Child's Garden.
"The customer service is impeccable," said Toy Box owner Liz Rosenberg, who also touted her staff's knowledge.
A2Z was founded in 1987, and has been serving children in the Pioneer Valley for more than 30 years. One of those kids who grew up going to A2Z was Boulay, 33, who grew up in Blandford.
"Little did he know he would some day own it," said his wife Devon Boulay, 33.
The Boulays bought the store in 2015 from its founders, Priscilla and Jack Finn. André Boulay had worked at A2Z since 2001 and Devon Boulay had worked there since 2005.
"It was a pretty seamless transition," Devon Boulay said.
The Boulays, who have two children of their own, said that a number of people who used to shop at the toy store as children now bring their own kids.
Rosenberg, 52, founded The Toy Box in 2003, after working at a toy store aimed at very young children for two years that occupied part of what is now The Toy Box's space.
Rosenberg said knowing the product and dealing with customers in a personable manner is key when staffing a toy store.
"Adults want guidance when shopping for kids," said manager Kira Mattheson, 24.
Rosenberg also said that the connection that The Toy Box has with the community has a direct impact on the products it sells.
"We buy specifically for this community," said Rosenberg.
Glynn, 36, purchased A Child's Garden 12 years ago, after having worked there for its original ownership for a year.
Glynn said her store carries many wooden toys and that the only plastic it sells comes from recycled milk bottles. "It's a natural toy store," she said.
A Child's Garden also carries children's books, and Glynn said that her store is very popular with grandparents.
"Grandparents love us," she said.
Additionally, A Child's Garden sells baby carriers and cloth diapers, and its products are geared toward new parents and young children.
None of the local toy store owners expressed happiness at the demise of Toys R Us, although it doesn't appear to have had a major local impact.
"Their closing doesn't really affect my business," said Glynn, noting that her products are not sold at Babies R Us.
Rosenberg said that her business would have been impacted if there was a Toys R Us nearby. However, she did say that the chain's demise might have an impact on some of the businesses that have been supplying her, something that was also expressed by A2Z's team.
André Boulay said that Toys R Us' model had not aged well, and said that it had become more of a warehouse for toys and less of an experience.
Nevertheless, he expressed sadness at its demise and said that it was "still a force of good in the world," noting that the stores were still places dedicated to children.
Rosenberg also gave kudos to Toys R Us for offering better quality than Wal-Mart and Target.
The demise of the national chain may have a notable positive impact on other toy retailers, however. ASTRA, the national toy retailer association, estimates that as much as half of Toys R Us' business could find a home at local neighborhood toy stores.
ASTRA's membership consists of retailers, manufacturers, affiliates and sales representatives, and Mosley said its membership has been growing by 5 percent to 6 percent a year. The Toy Box and A2Z are both members.
A2Z, A Child's Garden and The Toy Box have distinctly different footprints from international chain Toys R Us, despite also having to deal with a changing retail landscape.
A2Z has 13 to 16 employees, The Toy Box has five and A Child's Garden has two. None of the businesses own their own spaces.
A prominent part of A2Z's business involves giving children in-store experiences, and the store tries to run an event every Saturday where kids are exposed to some of the products the store sells.
A2Z also offers a three-day-a-week Yo-Yo School, which began in the late 1990s. Some of the best yo-yo players in the world have come out of A2Z. Indeed, the store has 2008 U.S. National Yo-Yo Contest 1A champion Eric Koloski on staff as a weekend manager.
"He's an awesome person," said André Boulay.
Events are not a big part of The Toy Box's business model, although Rosenberg said that there was a possibility of bringing back the store's sign language story time. She also said that the store is interested in hosting a grown-up evenings, as there are many non-children who also appreciate the products that The Toy Box sells.
"There's lots of things for grown-ups in here," said Rosenberg.
Both The Toy Box and A2Z noted the presence of play tables that are available for children to enjoy on their own.
"Children need to play," said Rosenberg.
Glynn also noted that there are plays areas at A Child's Garden, and that kids love the play kitchen there.
Lori McCallurmore, who works as a buyer for A2Z, first came into the store when her son attended yo-yo school. She's one of the people who test out the toys for A2Z.
"I do like to play with Toys," said McCallumore.
Indeed, the Boulays noted the key role that testing plays in the store's curation process.
"We get to get our hands dirty," said André Boulay.
A2Z stocks a variety of products and Boulay shared a key rule about how they select what to sell.
"It just has to be something that we feel is good to play with" he said.
Rosenberg and Mattheson also noted regularly testing out products that The Toy Box sells.
He also said that although A2Z does not sell online, they do plan to expand into this area.
That's not the case for A Child's Garden, which plans on staying firmly in the brick and mortar arena.
"That's not what we do best," said Glynn. "We hand sell products really well."
She also said that all the products that she sells can be found online, and said that she was grateful to live in a community that supports local business.
"We have relationships with our customers," she said.
Still, she said that she sometimes shops online as well, and said that it's important not to shame people for not shopping local all the time, particularly younger families.
All proprietors acknowledged this support as one of the key things that has help their businesses compete with internet vendors.
The three businesses seem to be friendly with each other, with A Child's Garden and A2Z being particularly close.
"You have to look at and be friends with your other quote on quote competitors," said Glynn, who noted that the Boulays registered with her when they had their first baby.
She also said that the two businesses send people back and forth.
"We have a really good relationship with Child's Garden," said Devon Boulay, with André describing it as a "A good yin to our yang."
"I appreciate the angle that they have," said Rosenberg, of A2Z, saying that she see them at all of the trade shows.
She also said that she will send customers there as well.
In terms of business health, none of the three stores appear to be in trouble.
"The business is stable," said André Boulay, although he also noted how important the holiday season is for A2Z.
Indeed, he said that about 50 percent of their sales every year come from Thanksgiving through December.
Rosenberg said that the business is doing well, and said that the fidget spinner craze was a nice boost last year. She also said that holiday season sales were about 25 percent of her business.
By contrast, Glynn said that she is less dependent on the fourth quarter holidays because of her store's focus on babies and younger children.
"People have babies all year round," she said.
It's not hard to say why these toy store owners want to keep their businesses going.
"The only crying you hear in here is when the child is told they have to leave," said Rosenberg.
Information from: Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.), http://www.gazettenet.com