By Sara Karnish
Toys are among babies’ earliest educational tools. To meet this need, many baby boutique operators expand beyond apparel and include toys in their retail space. Alex Breaux, co-owner of Wonder World Toy Store & Baby Boutique with sister Jessica Breaux in Medford, N.J., said carrying both apparel and toys just makes good business sense. Wonder World is primarily a toy store, but 400 of their 1,400 square feet is dedicated to a baby boutique. Breaux said some of their most popular toys are “Baby Paper, which is just crinkly material. Babies love it because they can just grab it and it makes noise.
We also do really well with a brand called FatBrain and a product line called Dimpl. Everything in the Dimpl line sells really well—it’s kind of keeping with the trend of pop-its, but for babies. It started out as a baby toy, but now older kids love it. They start at 10-plus months, but they go up to 2 to 3 years old. We also do well with a brand called Cuddle Barn, which are animatronic stuffed animals. We have them for baptisms and they say little prayers. I would say they’re the top three contenders for us in the baby boutique.”
Rather than purchase a plastic plaything with little staying power, parents and relatives prefer investing in durable toys, especially if they also have some educational or sensory element. Maris Johansson, owner of Broomtail in Denver, Colo., said wooden toys are great sellers at her store because of their longevity. “Parents and grandparents want things that can be passed down. People are getting away from plastic toys. We do well with brands that have a focus on sustainability, made from wood and other sustainable materials. If not wood, silicon is another big trend manufacturers and consumers are following, especially if the toy has multiple ways to use them. Parents are making more thoughtful, intentional choices about the toys they buy. They’re more of an investment so the child can play with them a little longer,” she explained.
Emily Tobin, owner of Hopscotch Children’s Store in Grand Rapids, Mich., is seeing a shift toward customers looking for toys made from organic, sustainable materials. “Some of our best-sellers are Organic Farm Buddies by Apple Park. Another best-seller would be Green Toys, which are bath and water toys, and we sell a lot by FatBrain, especially the Dimpl line, which are sensory toys. We try to find organic when we can. Farm Buddies are a great baby gift, and Apple Park’s products are made from recycled materials, made in the United States, and have a good range [of product options] from baby to toddler,” she said. Her store measures 1,500 square feet.
Andrea Marin Hall, owner of Wee Bee Baby Boutique in Atlanta, Ga., is seeing many of the same trends as other retailers: “For babies one year or younger …all of my wooden toys are doing really well. Some of our parents subscribe to the Montessori teaching method [and that’s why they choose these toys] but many just want the sustainable, all-natural products. For instance, we sell wooden rattles. There’s a company called Banner Toys based in Iowa—their toys are just really clean, simple, and engaging. We’re also selling a lot of silicon-based toys. There’s an awesome brand called Three Hearts. They’re Texas-based. They have these great silicon stackers (avocado stackers), which are a combination silicon and wood teether bracelet. It’s not plastic, all food-grade silicon. They’re great for teething because they have a nice soft surface. They’re an easy gift for babies because sometimes newborns get hand-me-downs from older siblings or cousins, and the parent or gift-giver want the teethers to be new for the young babies. And the other thing is Baby Jack Co., based in Wisconsin. The company was founded by a mom. They make these crinkle squares. They’re made from soft fabric, but inside it has a crinkly material in it, so it touches on the sensory aspect.” Hall added that educational or gifts with a local theme or flair are strong sellers, as well.
Retailers said sibling gifts are a popular item. They’re great way to drive sales for older children as well as the new baby or christening gift, according to Johansson. “Sibling gifts are when the toys for the older kids come in. Toys that foster imaginative play do well for us. There’s a product line called Maileg Mice, and you can dress them up. They also come with other accessories. Each season, the company will come out with new mice and seasonal dress. They’re really popular because people are into collecting them. Kids will actually sit here and play with them,” she said.
Besides making thoughtful decisions about materials, parents are seeking out toys with strong educational properties for little ones, according to retailers. “Parents want to constantly teach their children—they always come in and want educational toys. And everything is educational for babies because everything is new, and everything to a baby is about learning,” Breaux said. Tobin has seen the same trend: “[Parents] want something that is going to help the little one develop a skill and learn something. They want things in that vein, and not just something you hold or shake,” she said. “That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in the last year.” Little ones are relying more on their creative skills. Hall is seeing a return to imaginative play, likely the result of the “screen fatigue” felt by children and adults after months of virtual schooling and remote work throughout the pandemic. “I don’t really carry anything with batteries or screens—I carry mostly wooden toys or things for pretend play. I think it has done really well for us. People are going back to more simple play—more imaginative. A lot of people are asking me about crafts and hands-on activities they can do with their kids. They’re looking for ways to engage them creatively beyond pretend play. People are willing to invest in higher quality, more durable toys at a higher price point. They want things that will last a long time and grow with the child.” Hall said there is a greater demand for gender-neutral toys and clothes among her customers. “People want gender neutral for two reasons. An increasing number of parents do not want to find out the gender, or do not want to ascribe to gender norms after the baby is born. There are not many brands who are catering to this. Mushie, a Danish brand, has a more gender-neutral color palette and product selection. For instance, they have a ‘coffee set’ rather than the traditional ‘tea set’. One design might have trucks on it or come in a gender-neutral color palette. The other reason parents want something more gender-neutral is because they want fewer things that will last longer, should they have more kids.” Again, Johansson stresses parents want quality over quantity when it comes to toys—fewer of them, with greater durability. Johansson said toy companies have been slow to respond to parents’ growing calls for gender-neutral products: “I’ve seen that A. It really confuses shoppers, or B. It turns them off because a lot of parents these days are trying to not be so rigid when it comes to gender assignments. As a buyer I look for things which are neutral to alleviate some of the stress/questions of ‘This is the girl version, this is the boy version’ [of a product]. As a buyer I’m looking for neutral items.”
Boutique owners use different methods to upsell toys while customers browse through the apparel. “I do this [upsell] naturally because I’m a toy store—people come in looking for toys,” Breaux said. “My best tip to upsell is simply ask the customer, ‘Do you need a toy to go with this outfit?’ Sometimes they will want a toy to match the outfit. Someone might ask, ‘Do you have a unicorn stuffed animal to go with this outfit with the unicorn on it?’ Yes, of course we do, and they’re right over here. Books are also great add-ons,” she pointed out.
Hall said getting to know the customer and asking the right question can often lead to a successful sale. “Most people, when they come in, are shopping for someone else. It’s a little bit easier to direct the customer to the toy room to look for a new baby or sibling gift. People like the idea of being able to give toys. Someone will come in and the person they’re buying for has three other children, and they’ll say, ‘Surely they have everything.’ So what can uniquely be the baby’s? Maybe something like a teether. And I have parents who come in, and they have toddlers, but new things have come out [so they might purchase something]. I have clothing and accessories but also ‘select gear’ for activities like feeding—I try to carry things that are multipurpose and meant to make parenting a little easier,” she explained. Johansson said when it comes to upselling, it is not her style to “be a big pusher of anything. Sibling gifts are really nice. I don’t think people who don’t have kids would think of bringing the older sibling something. Even something small like a coloring book and crayons make the sibling feel seen and appreciated. Or the buyer might want to put something small on the bow of the gift, which makes a nice presentation.”
Durability, sustainability, and longevity are trends when it comes to toys at baby boutiques in the coming year. As parents continue to make better informed, cost-conscious buying decisions, retailers continue to seek out vendors who can meet the needs of their customers.
Striving for Standout Sales
Display Tips from Baby Stores
Toys generally aren’t a tough sell for younger customers. When the buyers are primarily parents, grandparents, or loved ones looking for a gift, however, the selection can sometimes be overwhelming. In these instances, it is best for retailers to get creative with their merchandising.
“People like to be able to pick something up, touch and look at it. Whenever you can display things in a way where it’s easy to do that, it’s always good,” said Emily Tobin, owner of Hopscotch Children’s Store in Grand Rapids, Mich. “[Due to COVID] we have put away some of our samples. We had more things out of the box so people could pick them up and look at them. If someone wants to look at something, we’ll get it out of the box to show them, but kids can’t try out the displays or stand in the store playing with the items as they did before. We moved a lot over the last few years to hanging displays some of our things to hanging displays so the shelves aren’t quite so crowded.”
Alex Breaux, co-owner of Wonder World Toy Store & Baby Boutique in Medford, N.J., said merchandising is an ongoing learning process for her. “I’ve learned to use little mannequins and have them hold a toy or sit with a toy. I use ‘baby busts’ and put outfits on them, and they’ve helped upsell the baby clothes, especially more of the ruffly items—the ruffles are sometimes hard to see when the item is on a rack. The baby busts show off the ruffles nicely. I actually had a customer give me that tip. I typically arrange my displays based on type, rather than age. All kids love trucks, so I’ll put all the trucks together. Then all the Imagination Play together. I’ll group outdoor things together, then within those group I’ll sort by age. I keep all the baby stuff in the baby boutique, however.”
Merchandising is also a process of trial and error. Andrea Marin Hall, owner of Wee Bee Baby Boutique in Atlanta, Ga., said, “I’ve found it’s been a learning process for me, and it’s something I love to do! A couple things that have helped me a lot – merchandise and group things together that could work really well as a packaged gift. Typically for me that’s colors that look good together, or visually look good together—mix and match and create a nice gift that work well together from one table. Or from a visual appeal standpoint, the items look good together, or a practical standpoint—arrange by category (feeding, bathing) and brand. Second, play with heights and interesting ways to display things. Have a rack with clothing on the top and books or flat things on the bottom. Play with heights so your eye doesn’t have to do a lot of work—you can look around rather than scan a flat table.”
Grouping is a common display method because it’s very effective. “I display by theme—dinosaurs, puzzles, et cetera. If a person does a theming gift, it’s easy to grab like items from different categories. Some toys really need a display piece out of the box. Others are very clear in their display. When some items aren’t moving, take it out of the box and display it. It’s harder to sell the one that’s out of the box, but it does help to sell the item.” Maris Johansson, owner of Broomtail in Denver, Colo., said, adding, “Merchandising is definitely the most important sales tool we have. It’s fascinating to me. We’ll move things around. It’s really fun to try and figure out what will grab someone’s attention, or how to tell a story with an item.”