4 minute read

Letter from America

What the pandemic has shown me: there’s a need for physical toy stores!

After 20 years working at A.C. Nielsen/D&B Research Company, Rick opened the first Learning Express Toys franchise in the Chicago area in 1996, and then became a sub-franchiser, opening nine more stores. Although leaving the corporate environment behind, he has combined his expertise in data and numbers with a passion for the toy retail space. This month, Rick looks at the role of physical toy stores and how he believes their future is guaranteed.

Over the last decade or so, we all have questioned at one time or another whether physical brick and mortar toy stores can survive the growth of online services and, most of all, the rise of Amazon. It was only natural to question this existence as so many physical toy stores have disappeared, including the mother of all physical locations, Toys R Us, here in the States.

Then came the pandemic. It was a shock to everyone across retail, both large and small organizations, who all had to address the burning question: “will we be able to survive?” Nobody was certain what a new retail world would look like, even if we made it to the other side. Well, we now have some perspective, and it is good news. In fact, I’m now wondering why we were even worried.

Here are my five takeaways from the pandemic:

1. Humans need social interaction, especially when it comes to children’s products, and I believe we will always need that component in our lives. We saw the hunger for people (kids especially) to return to stores, see products in person, even touch and feel some new items rather than guessing what they were ‘really’ like from a description on a screen. It also showed that many adults (especially grandparents) rely on personal assistance and advice when shopping for toys, as trends and the latest popular items change so rapidly and by age. Most importantly, kids wanted to come back. They have tired of tagging along with Mom and Dad to the big box stores and grocery marts. We are their store – they know this and wanted to see items and products for themselves.

2. We also saw how important physical stores are to test out new products, provide feedback to manufacturers and to see how customers actually interact with products in person. Focus groups are fine and online surveys have their place, but there is nothing like real world testing in a store with live potential customers. For us this was demonstrated clearly by the laww unch of CatsvsPickles by Cepia, which launched in store with us in July 2020 and is now our No.1 selling item, with over $17,000 in sales up to August 25th. Quite a success story.

3. Toy stores are proving to be the fabric of communities. We help to celebrate family events like birthdays and parties, as well as births and graduations. On top of this, we are there for those little pick-me-up gifts for a good day at school or a night out with Dad after doing some errands. With so few toy stores left in the States, many communities are valuing them more than ever as a treasure that needs to be supported.

4. We also saw that, with the help of social media and TikTok in particular, any store, anywhere can go viral and drive business to their location. Learning Express Toys is now one of the leaders on TikTok of driving trends to stores. One of our locations has over 2m followers and in excess of 21m likes. TikTok has driven traffic like no other media that I have used; the impacts are instantaneous, resulting in exposure and sales in the stores - literally minutes from the time a post is made. The main drivers this year have been fidget content, candy videos and Squishmallows collectors and fans. Frankly, the “squidget” trend has been unprecedented and unbelievable.

5. Finally, despite Amazon being so strong, I now understand and know with confidence that physical toy stores can survive and will survive if we continue to fulfill our role in our local communities. We can do this by being a part of that community, providing services people want and need, products that kids want and by being a presence online to wow both kids and adults on the sites that they watch and view daily. Does all this sound like hard work? You bet, but it can and will be done.

Here’s hoping this trend is also being felt in the UK and around the world. As indie toy store owners, we have an important role to play in the lives of our customers, in the lives of children and as a vital part of a thriving community. I wish the very best to all out there.

Richard can be reached on LinkedIn or by email at LE45@sbcglobal.net.