Child’s Play
How Indie Toy Stores Are Building a Loyal Customer Base with Unique Add-Ons

Just a few blocks from Philadelphia’s most famous historic sites sits a colorful playland where kids of all ages can spark their imaginations. Momo’s Tree House is a friendly neighborhood toy store beloved by both the tourists who make Philly their vacation spot and locals who rely on the staff to answer important questions about purchases. 

To quote longtime child expert Mr. Rogers, “Play is often talked about as if it were relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” That’s why Momo’s is stocked with all sorts of items ranging from the silly to the educational and everything in between. The goal here to meet the needs of families who may be visiting for the day or weekend, as well as locals who are looking for new ways to inspire and engage with their own kids. 

The plush and toys are plentiful at Momo’s Tree House. The store is stocked with all sorts of items ranging from the silly to the educational.

“We provide personal service in a fun atmosphere, and we carry specialty merchandise that you don’t see everywhere,” explained Heather Mohorn, owner of Momo’s Tree House. She said by offering a selection of unique items and working with customers on a one-to-one basis, this independent shop has set itself apart from big chain stores in the region. 

“Our customers enjoy testing their options in our play area, craft corner, and game table,” she said. “Say a family visits to find a new game to play together. We’ll learn what types of game you like, pull a few age-appropriate options, teach you how to play, leave you alone to play together for a bit, and if you decide to take one as a gift, we’ll wrap it for you. You found what you wanted and had made memories with your family. Chain stores can’t compete with that experience.”

The shop, which employs a small, smart, and friendly staff, carries a carefully curated inventory ranging from sensory toys for babies to arts and crafts goods and science-inspired products. An innovative way that Mohorn helps to shape the overall appeal of the shop is by using social media to attract new and repeat customers.

A child photographed at Pun’s Toy Shop in Bryn Mawr, Pa.The store carries thousands of different toys from hundreds of vendors.

“We’re active on social media, especially Instagram,” said Mohorn. “I send a newsletter through MailChimp. We also have a customer loyalty program. Members sign up to receive a $10 coupon in the mail for kids’ birthdays. Every November, we issue each member a store credit for a percentage of her sales over the previous 12 months. It rewards our loyal customers and encourages them to visit during the holidays.” 

The shop also puts a lot of effort into cultivating interaction between staff and customers. Mohorn wants parents to be able to ask the staff any questions about the merchandise, like what’s best for what age groups and how to inspire kids to take a more proactive approach to play (like logging off the iPad). To help cultivate this relationship, Momo’s regularly hosts special events for the whole family. 

“We sometimes hold special events like play days, book signings or our annual Easter egg hunt,” explained Mohorn. “We have a drop-in music class every Tuesday and Friday, and a story time every Wednesday.”

The events, classes and workshops all help attract customers who may be looking for diversions for their kids. A lot of parents want to spend quality time with their children. As such, these events not only welcome them into the shop on a regular basis, but they introduce them to fun new merchandise that can be enjoyed together. The recipe for success seems to be working well as Momo’s sustains its business in one of the higher rent districts in the city – no easy task for an independent shop.

Plush is displayed in varying heights at Momo’s Tree House. The store holds special events and even hosts a drop-in music class two days a week.

Mohorn said getting to know her customers has been key to being able to meet their needs and to ultimately make their kids happy, smarter and more creatively engaged. 

“Some customers want help finding the perfect gift,” she says, “and others prefer to browse and discover with no pressure. As long as they enjoy their experience and feel happy with their purchase, they will return. A first-time customer recently told me, ‘That was fun and easy!’ That’s our goal.”

Inside a Full Service Experience 

A few minutes outside of Philadelphia is Pun’s Toy Shop in Bryn Mawr. Nestled on the city’s Main Line, the shop has been serving customers for more than 30 years. Working with about 1,100 square feet of space, Pun’s carries thousands of different toys from hundreds of vendors – both big names and artisans alike. 

One of the ways Owner Joe Berardoni competes with chain stores that are rapidly encroaching on this sleepy community is by offering what he called a “full service experience” that includes helping customers select merchandise, wrapping it for special occasions, helping transport it into a customer’s vehicle and even assembling it.

These days, some of the best-selling items, says Berardoni, is anything “Figety.” He said, “We are selling lots of Figety Blocks and more recently the Figety Spinners.”

Berardoni uses the shop’s Facebook page to advertise some of the newest, most popular items being carried. Having a social media presence means that he has the opportunity to customize his marketing message and to encourage customers to interact with him and each other. 

“We also have a great word-of-mouth network going for us,” said Berardoni. “We have events from time to time, be it free raffles or sidewalk sales, etc.”

Growing up in a family where his father was the original owner of the store means he has seen the business evolve over the years. Now as a father of three himself, he said it’s important for him to not only have the coolest, most fun toys, but he wants to make sure they are made well and are safe. 

Much of Berardoni’s time is spent looking for the next big thing, the most exciting new toys on the market that will appeal to his customers in this upscale suburb of the city. He said this is actually the best part of his job – he gets to play with the toys first.

Some of the hottest toys being touted on the shop’s website include Spikeball, mini micro scooters, PlasmaCar, Playable ART Balls and the Dreamland Fairy House. A few old-school toys are also making a comeback among a new generation, including the Rubik’s Cube that Berardoni fondly remembers from when he was younger.  

He said finding new ways to reach customers digitally is an important part of his marketing efforts. As such, he has information for about 1,200 customers in an email list to which he sends monthly specials and news. “The special always changes,” he said, “so it encourages [customers] to create a dialogue with us.”

It always reminds them about important holidays – and encourages them to come back.

Toys on display at Momo’s Tree House in Philadelphia, Pa., a neighborhood
toy store beloved by tourists and locals alike.

Perks for Repeat Customers

Pinwheel Toys in Wheaton, Ill., is a hub for all things colorful, educational and fun. Located near a busy Whole Foods Market, the independent family-owned toy store carries a wide selection of toys for kids of all ages. Owner Lora Wright said she and her staff are dedicated to creating a shopping experience that’s interactive and different from some of the chain stores nearby.

“We try to carry items that the chain stores don’t carry, especially toys that don’t promote television shows or movies,” said Wright. “Our emphasis is on toys that are wholesome, that spark independent play and that are ‘uncomplicated.’” This isn’t to say you won’t find at least some Star Wars merchandise on the shelves. You will. But you will also find a lot of other very unique items that appeal to families in a whole new way. 

Some of the current favorites at Pinwheel include 77 Ways to Play Tenzi, the Beamo flying disc, Chicken Egg Stackers and Magna clear tiles in multiple colors. 

“For the most part,” said Wright, “we don’t carry electronic toys, but focus on toys that have stood the test of time – such as dolls, crafts, building toys, science kits, puzzles, games, and truly any toy that we feel will encourage kids to use their imaginations.” 

An important building block of the business is the staff. Wright said that not only are they knowledgeable about the full selection of inventory, they can assist parents in selecting the most appropriate items based on needs, interests and age. 

Wright has built up confidence in the shop by offering a unique return policy. “We will take any item back with no questions asked,” she said. “We want to know when a toy is poor quality and we want our customers to always leave feeling they’ve been heard and respected. As the owner, I hand-pick every single toy, and take a lot of time making sure it is high quality.”

Wright’s also found a new way to reach customers with incentives. “We have a customer rewards program,” she explained. Customers who spend $200 receive $5 off the next purchase. And the rewards never expire.

The shop also has a birthday club for kids that sends them $3 in “fun money” in a real, handwritten birthday card the week of their birthday. “We also use emails, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” said Wright. “We don’t do a lot of coupons because we feel that people start to not want to shop unless they have a coupon. They feel like they are missing out on a deal if there are constantly coupons out there. We try to keep our prices reasonable and have faith that our customers can see the value in the customer service, free wrapping and nice shopping environment.” 

By keeping prices reasonable, parents are apt to come back again and again knowing that not only can they return items that their kids may not enjoy, but that they are ultimately rewarded for making purchases. Many families also feel good supporting an independent business in their own community. 

Wright admits that it’s not always easy competing with chain stores with large advertising budgets and square footage, but it’s possible to set yourself apart with customer service and a unique inventory.  

“As a small brick and mortar store,” she said, “it is difficult to make a living. We aren’t trying to get rich, but we just want to provide a nice store for the community.”

She said that customers tend to return to the shop for different reasons. “They like the experience of a calm, organized and beautiful store that has toys you can’t find other places,” Wright said. “A lot of our customers are grandparents and they appreciate the high quality of the toys that they remember from when their kids were small.”

The add-ons also make the experience appealing. “The free gift wrapping is a big reason people come back,” said Wright, “and our super friendly staff is a plus, too. We don’t do hard selling; we aren’t into that. But we will help customers as much or as little as they need. We also have a play kitchen area, dollhouse and train set that kids love to play at and our store is set up so parents can shop while kids play. It’s a really “feel good” store. We love our customers and we love toys so it shows in our store and customer service.” ϖ

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