By Sara Hodon

Toy stores have the unique distinction of stocking merchandise that truly never goes out of style. Toys may have gotten more sophisticated, fitted with every bell, whistle, and feature imaginable, but retailers have found both parents and children have developed a newfound appreciation for the classic toys that require more imagination and creativity and fewer batteries. The timelessness of plush, playthings, and games endures, as a new generation of customers embrace both the newest trends and classic favorites.

“I love being here for our customers. I know when I come to work each day, I will need to continuously learn about our products and what makes them special,” said Mary Kost, manager of Once Upon a Time Toys in Rocky River, Ohio. “I am ready and prepared to offer any advice or information about our merchandise so our customers can buy with confidence. My best tip for selling games is to know how to play them. Explain simply with excitement and don’t be afraid to use body language. My best tip for selling playthings is to find out the child’s interest. What do they like to do? Some like to build, others are very active, and some like to play with small toys. The tip for selling plush is to know your age group. For small children, point out embroidered eyes for safety; for preschool-aged children, enhance their imaginations by having their own pet. Older children and even adults may still love their stuffed animals—it’s just finding what they appreciate…horses, dragons, or narwhals?” Kost added that their best-selling games are “Tenzi, Zingo Bingo with a Zing by Think Fun, and Bugs in the Kitchen by Ravensburger; best-selling playthings are Calico Critters, Turbo Twister RC cars and Funtime Tractors; best-selling plush are unicorns, dogs, cats and elephants.” Once Upon a Time Toys measures 3,500 square feet.

Shown, from left, Mary Arshem, Sheryl Nelson, Shelly Hunt, Alicia Peterson and Kendra Kuehn at the Kidtopia Dawley Farms location in Sioux Falls, S.D. Plush from Jellycat, Douglas, Ty, Steiff and Warm-eez sells well for the business.

Cooperative games, in which players work together toward a common goal rather than separately in order to have a designated winner, have grown in popularity over the past few years. Carolyn Miye, owner of Oodles 4 Kids in Portland, Ore., said these games are big sellers in her 2,375-square-foot store. “Some of our best-sellers are from Peaceable Kingdom. Feed the Woozle is a good standard seller for me. It requires a lot of physical action and silliness. The idea behind the game is that you have a disc with food on it and you try to feed the woozle.” Other best-sellers for Miye include “Ones by Think Fun, games that you can take in the car when you travel, and we do super well with a game called Yogi by Gigamic, which has a stack of cards and each player takes turns choosing cards and each card has a different place where you have to put the card on your body. You go around taking turns until you’re all basically positioned like yogis.” Think of it as the next level of Twister.  Rob Kearney, buyer and manager for King Arthur’s Court Toys in Cincinnati, Ohio, said board games are enjoying a comeback. “People working 9-5 in an office behind a computer want to have less screen time when they get home, and playing a board game with friends or family is a great way to unwind and be social,” he explained. “While the classic board games typically sell well, we’re finding success with “hobby” games with a tactile nature. Dr. Eureka from Blue Orange Games has been great for younger kids, moving “molecules” back and forth between a test-tube. These games also benefit from having low-rules overhead, which allows us to explain the entire game in less than a minute, catching the attention of the consumer.” King Arthur’s Court Toys measures
approximately 15,000 square feet.

An exterior view of Once Upon a Time Toys. Finding out what a particular child likes to do is key to matching up the customer with the right plaything, the store manager said.

Playthings that encourage imagination, creativity, and even career exploration are big sellers for many toy retailers. Miye said, “We sell a fair amount of activity kits for kids, like science kits. I really love the YellowScope kits for girls, which are geared towards girls in the graphics but not all pink and purple. They really take girls seriously as scientists. Studies have found girls lose interest in science by age 8; these kits are designed to encourage their interest. A lot of the most popular playthings right now are tactile-oriented. One of our biggest sellers are slow-rising squishies, which are made from squishy foam and come in fun colors and different shapes, like pandas, hedgehogs, unicorns…they’re satisfying to squish and they slowly return to their original shape. We can’t keep them in stock. In plush, Jellycat always rules. We also sell a lot of Douglas. Unicorns and sloths are the two biggest trends in plush right now.”   

A view of the sales floor at Once Upon a Time Toys. The best tip for selling more games is to know how to play them, according to the store manager.

“Our absolute top-selling game is Tenzi, which is all dice,” said Sheryl Nelson, owner of Kidtopia Toy Store, which has two location in Sioux Falls, S.D. “We also sell a lot of Peaceable Kingdom games. We’ve really been selling a lot more games over the past year—there’s been a real resurgence. Puzzles, also. I’ve increased the amount of games we sell in the store because of this. I think that overall the games have taken off because they’re a good way for families to spend time and have fun together. As for plush, we sell more plush in Sioux Falls than any other business. I think it does well because our customers know we have a good selection. We sell a lot of plush from Jellycat, Douglas, Ty, Steiff, and a brand called Warm-eez, which have lavender and flaxseed in them and you can warm them up in the microwave. They flew off the shelves last winter.” 

Anica Vujanic, owner of Tadpole in Boston, Mass., said her store is geared more toward younger children (infants and toddlers) and most of their best-selling items focus on helping with a child’s development. “In playthings, we carry music sets by a company called Hape (pronounced HAH-pay) which includes tambourines, xylophones, drum sets, ukuleles, and all kinds of musical instruments made from organic wood. Another popular brand for us is Green Toys, which makes their toys from recycled materials.” In plush, Vujanic said “Jellycat is definitely a staple brand for us. They have everything from bears to bunnies to crabs. Plush toys are a good gift that grows with the baby. The baby has a bear that sits on the shelf, then can hold it in the stroller, then carry it around, then role play—the child gets about five years of use out of it,” she explained.

Staff members from Once Upon a Time Toys in Rocky River, Ohio. Shown from left to right, are: Barb Sambrook and Sarah Yannie, store associates; Mary Kost, store manager; and Dayni Mahar  and Jan Novak store associates.  Shoppers can buy with confidence in the store, according to Kost.

When it comes to selling plush, playthings, and games, retailers use a variety of sales and merchandising methods. “One of the biggest things is where you put things in the ‘flow’ of the store,” Miye said. “Every owner knows where the hot spots are in their store; position items accordingly. One of the best ways to redirect people is to put things in the less hot spots—that pushes traffic toward dead areas. For instance, I know Legos will always sell well for us, so I decided to put them in a far corner of the store where no one ever went.” Some retailers also look to small plush, playthings, and even certain games as quick pick-up items and arrange them in a group of bins or near the register. Nelson said she arranges some plush accordingly to encourage last-minute add-on purchases. “Anything that is a good ‘pick up’ item for that single uncle with no kids is a good thing to have in stock,” Kearney said. “I always have my co-workers on the lookout for that 20- to 30-year-old guy who’s standing in front of a wall of infant toys with a confused look on his face. As an independent toy store we are able to make that personal connection and help create a satisfied customer by having a knowledgeable staff that knows what to recommend for what type of child at what age and for what specific occasion.”

Photographed at the Kidtopia Bridges location in Sioux Falls, S.D., were, from left, Krislyn Erickson, Jacy Hlebichuk, Bridges location store manager, and Claudia Strand. The owner tries to avoid stocking toys with batteries, instead focusing on playthings with which children can use their imaginations.

Retailers are selective when it comes to the brands and merchandise they sell. “I try to avoid toys with batteries. I really try to stick to the toy that is open-ended and doesn’t have instructions for how to play with it—you can play however your imagination sees fit. I’m a true believer in that,” Nelson said. Vujanic said it’s all about understanding both your store and your customers’ needs. “I want to be mindful as far as what our customers are looking for as far as having items that are useful and functional, but also cost-effective. We don’t want to be super high-end,” she explained. “When I’m looking at items, I’ll pull out a sample from a company and decide ‘Is this in our target customer age range?’, ‘Are there small pieces that are not very good for young children?’ We don’t want to have too many of the same thing—we like to have a mix. It’s really an interesting business to be in,” she added. “Retail comes and goes in cycles—try to switch out new items with the old, and offer items that not everyone else has.”

A section of games at the Dawley Farms store location for Kidtopia Toy Store in Sioux Falls, S.D. Tenzi is the top selling game for the store, which has two locations.