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Mom-and-pop toy shops make a play for Toys R Us shoppers

There are a whole lot of people who can't do their Christmas shopping at Toys R Us this year.

Bloomsbury Lane Toy Shoppe is ready for them.

It has piles of doughy, sandy Floof for them to sink their hands into; a drum set for them to pound away on and a Perfect Petzzz "adoption center" filled with plush puppies awaiting a new home.

The Lancaster toy store added more mainstream toy lines to its mix – licensed merchandise such as Marvel action figures, PJ Masks and Paw Patrol. It upgraded its point-of-sale system, did more advertising and got more resourceful with its financing to beef up its inventory.

It's just one independent toy store hoping to capture some of the $11 billion in sales Toys R Us left up for grabs when it went out of business over the summer. The mega toy retailer's departure was a gift for small toy sellers, but the holiday shopping season will indicate whether the mom-and-pop toy stores can convert big box customers to a different way of shopping or if the big boxes will simply gobble up another piece of the pie.

After all, the national chains, from Target to Walmart and even J.C. Penney, are beefing up their own toy sections – and those big retailers have much deeper pockets and their high sales volumes means they can negotiate lower prices from manufacturers.

Still, the little guys aren't leaving it up to chance. They're doing everything they can to remind shoppers they're out there, tucked right into their own neighborhoods, waiting to wow them with their personalized customer service, eclectic offerings, even free hot cocoa and gift wrapping.

"Folks are walking in the doors and saying, 'My goodness we didn't even know you were here!'" said Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, a non-profit trade group. "And our members are like, "Yeah, we've been here for 20 years."

To raise awareness, ASTRA contracted a public relations firm, letting customers know that, if there was any magic at Toys R Us, it is alive and well at their neighborhood toy store. It took other materials to its retailer members, showing them how to get the message out in their own communities, leveraging local media.

The group is projecting a whopping 20 percent sales increase for small toy stores next year as a result of Toys R Us's closure.

Store owners tend to live in the communities they serve, so they know what customers want, Mosley said. A store in a busy city is going to offer a different assortment than a resort town, for example. They have higher standards for quality, too.

"These owners are on the floor with the customers. They want to put good quality in their hands," she said. "They don't want them coming back through the door upset."

And while Toys R Us was trying to create exciting experiences in its stores with augment and virtual reality apps before it closed, that excitement occurs naturally at local toy stores, where hands-on displays, toy demos and in-store events are the norm. Independent toy stores also have a built-in nostalgia factor that grandparents love, and the shop-local factor that many millennials seek out, especially during the warm, fuzzy Christmas season.

Shoppers who don't normally buy for kids, who find themselves lost in the toy section, can go to locally owned toy stores and lean on their expertise for help picking out just the right gift, Mosley said.

"They're going to help you make a really good choice so that you'll be the superhero auntie when you show up to the party," she said.

But can big box shoppers be converted?

Mosley thinks so.

Consumers want choices, she said. They might shop online when they know exactly what they want and want to be done with it. Others might stop at Target when they need to grab toothpaste, towels and a toy. But they will also stop into a specialty toy store when they seek specialty service and a special experience, she said.

Still, small toy stores are going to have some stiff competition.

Target has remodeled the toy sections at 100 of its stores and added nearly a quarter-million square feet of new space for toys in others. Walmart is expanding its in-store toy offering by 30 percent at every location, and is increasing its online toy inventory by 40 percent, it said.

Arts and Crafts store Michaels is making a big push, as are Kohl's and J.C. Penney.

Even supermarkets, drug stores and gas stations are getting in on the action. And they're all battling Amazon, which released its first toy catalog this year and its largest toy list yet.

"Everyone is getting into the toy game right now. It's super-competitive," said Newman at Bloomsbury Lane. "We're just going to keep doing what we're doing; making it a place people want to come and shop."

That includes stocking unique toys, and carrying a good mix of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and creative products; sponsoring local events and charities and, of course, letting customers play to their hearts' content.

At Vidler's 5 & 10 in East Aurora, the old-timey shop is not changing the formula that has worked for it for nearly 90 years.

"We've never been a place for customers to get the big ticket electronic toys or games like they had at Toys R Us, but we do consider ourselves stocking stuffer central," said Don Vidler, an owner of Vidler's.

Aside from increasing the number of toys it carries, it won't stray from classics like Eden-made Kazoos, Slinky, yo-yos, gliders, classic board games and novelty items.

"There's always a large demand for coonskin caps and whoopee cushions," he said. "They never go out of style."


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