When entering a pharmacy, patrons’ first priority might be prescription refills and over-the-counter products. However, attractive gift offerings can easily catch their eye. For this article, two pharmacies in Oklahoma and two in Iowa shared the plush and toy trends they are currently witnessing. They also discussed the challenges of running a business during a pandemic and shared their best advice.

Baby merchandise on display at Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts. The gift shop is 600 square feet.

   At Hobbs Pharmacy and Gifts in Sulphur, Okla., Ty Flippables really took off heading into 2020. “Any kind of Flippables – we got it and they sold,” said Gift Shop Manager Mandi Kyles of the popular sequined plush creatures. “But they were just a limited edition. We got what we could, and they just flew out the door.” Just a handful of these plush items remain on the shelves of the gift shop area which occupies 1,000-square-feet within the greater pharmacy layout. It’s the first space patrons encounter upon entering the business. The few Flippables that remain are likely because Hobbs Pharmacy and Gifts was closed to customers at the time of this writing.
   “We’ve shut down to drive-thru only, during the coronavirus crisis,” explained Kyles. “All the girls wear gloves and they stay in their area. And if they leave their area, they change gloves. We’ve been washing between each transaction and using Lysol and Clorox-wiping the counters and keyboards and phones.” Not that business has slowed for Hobbs gift department. To the contrary. “We’ve been swamped with sales. I think it’s because people are stuck at home. They’re bored and they want to shop.” Chalk up the sales to Hobbs Pharmacy and Gifts’ social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and their own website. “People have been watching us on social media. If they want something, we’ll have it ready for them and hand it to them through our drive-thru window. We ship daily too.” Easter basket stuffers were on everyone’s mind in late March and early April.

Craig Clark, owner and pharmacist, with son Ryan Clark, pharmacist, of Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts. The store is keeping its drive-up pharmacy operation as hands-free and non-touch as possible.

   With a name like Donlon Pharmacy & Toy Jungle, it’s a good bet shoppers head into this Decorah, Iowa, business looking to fulfill much more than their typical pharmacy needs. Even if shoppers didn’t plan it, the toy division’s collection of unusual plush creatures soon turns their heads. “We carry odd animals like turkey vultures and anteaters from Wild Republic,” said Manager Nicole Darrington. The store also carries Melissa & Doug plush items including the line’s large Grizzly bear, jumbo stuffed giraffe, and lifelike-sized calf, llama and goat. “There’s such a variety of people in this community. That’s Decorah. Differing trends apply.” Darrington also identified Warmies – microwavable French lavender scented plush creatures – as another hot seller for the establishment.
   At press time, Donlon Pharmacy & Toy Jungle was letting customers into the store during the COVID-19 crisis. “We’re encouraging curbside service and delivery, but we are letting people come in,” explained Darrington. “However, to do their shopping, customers walk around with us. We wear gloves. We touch the things and they just tell us what they want.” The business has roped everything off and customers must request entry. “We just let them look at items with their eyes. Nobody gets to touch anything. We’re trying our best – until word comes that we must close our doors too.” Meanwhile, Donlon Pharmacy & Toy Jungle has been working on putting its catalogue on its website. The business has been fielding a lot of calls for puzzles and games to be picked up curbside. “People are shopping like crazy. They’re stuck at home and they need something to do. Stuffed animals are popular too – people still have birthdays plus they’re shopping for Easter,” she concluded.

A seating area at Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts. With permission, employees are signing the receipts of drive-up customers in an effort to keep workers safe during the pandemic.

   Kidd Drug and Gift Store in Fairview, Okla., has seen a rise in requests for plush in recent months. “But just like everything, you see it start to increase and then you see it start to decrease,” said Owner Susie Kidd Martens, who has been in business for 40 years. Riding the current trend are creatures like monkeys and giraffes. “More of the wild animals as opposed to just the bear and the rabbits like you used to see. The sloth is really big.” Martens also said the Warmies plush brand has simply flown out the door. Toys and games are in very high demand right now as parents try to decrease kids’ screen time. A huge shipment of Melissa & Doug products came and went quickly, and Kidd was in the process of re-ordering. The 5,000-square-foot store is allowing only a limited number of people to enter at one time during the COVID-19 crisis. Kidd Drug and Gift Store is well-armed with hand sanitizer, Clorox and Lysol spray not to mention an extra shipment of 99 percent alcohol they received prior to the virus outbreak. Staff is using the appropriate products liberally to sanitize the store, customers and themselves.
   “One thing that we have really tried to encourage is that people respect spaces because I feel like hygiene is not pushed quite as hard as it used to be when I was growing up,” said Kidd. She remembers being taught to recite the alphabet while she was washing her hands – that is how long the process should take, if done correctly. She is taking the time to educate customers. For instance, her business includes an old-fashioned soda fountain and she encourages customers to refrain from sharing drinks with their children. “It’s a hard habit to break but please, put it in a different container!” The sundaes the fountain used to serve in a sundae glass are now dispatched as take-out items only in Styrofoam cups capped with a cover. Kidd recommends that retailers take advantage of this time. She has six employees and she really wants to keep them all employed. “I’ve got them re-painting the gift room, cleaning and sanitizing the store, starting in one corner and working all the way through. This is a really good time for businesses, in my opinion, to take the time and pay attention to doing these kinds of things.”

Pam Clark, owner and gift shop buyer, with Craig Clark, pharmacist and owner, of Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Gift shop sales are at a standstill for the store currently.

   Activity in the gift section of Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pretty much stopped once it closed its doors to walk-in customers in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. “I think everything we have out for Easter this year is going to show up for Easter next year because nobody is buying anything!” said Owner Craig Clark. Currently, the pharmacy’s business is only drive-up window and curbside service. “We’re keeping our employees safe – handwashing after handling credit cards and wiping down the registers. We’re not allowing anyone to sign receipts. We’re signing for customers with permission. We haven’t had any pullback from that at all. It’s as much non-touch and hands-free as possible.”

Plush and toys in the gift section of Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts. Before the pandemic, the gift buyer noticed that unisex colors in plush were popular.

   It is actually Pam Clark, Craig’s wife, who mainly oversees the gift department at Clark’s Pharmacy and Gifts. She said the 600-square-foot gift section at the front of the greater 3,600-square-foot store doesn’t sell much in the way of toys. However, she does buy some groupings of plush. “I’ll buy a few musical stuffed animals, although I pretty much keep it to the infant stage. I’ve noticed mermaids and dinosaurs are still big. Color-wise, I’ve noticed unisex colors are favored – bright sun colors, for instance – over traditional gender shades.” She recently featured a monkey group because she thought it would be popular for either boys or girls. “It was bright colored – polka dots but reds, yellows, greens, the brown. And there was a different assortment – a big monkey, a little monkey, the paci-holder with the monkey.” Customers could pick out several different items mixing and matching from the same grouping.