Toys that stimulate the senses and engage children’s curiosity and creativity are the biggest sellers at Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy, Inc., in St. Clair Shores, Mich. “I think the sensory toy phenomenon started with slime,” said Julie Everitt, co-owner of Whistle Stop. “From basic slime, they started adding different materials to it. Kids would squish it and say, ‘It’s just so satisfying!’ I think evolving popularity with toys will continue within the sensory realm. Toy stores will come out with new and different ideas. The educational toys [sell well]—they are sensory and ‘satisfying’—they’re good for you. They help stimulate the brain and become stronger in other areas. Parents like sensory toys—they’re fun, with a purpose.”

Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy, Inc., in St. Clair, Mich.’s Owners Wendy Bacon, Rick Claggett, and Julie Everitt. Toys that stimulate the senses are popular currently, Everitt said.

Pop Fidgets—best described as “silicon bubble wrap” whose “bubbles” can be pushed through the material from one side to the other and come in a wide variety of shapes and colors—are undoubtedly the most popular toy right now, according to retailers. “They’ve been holding on since last year. They’re evolving and coming out with new styles. We had fidget spinners, now we have Pop Fidgets,” Everitt said. “That’s the hardest part about owning a toy store—it’s hard to predict the big toy of the year. You’ll get the big toy of the year, and it will go away just as quickly.” She pointed out children remain their focus group and are pretty clear when a toy is hot and when it’s not.
Besides sensory items, toys the whole family can enjoy—games, puzzles, craft kits, and building sets—have seen a huge surge in popularity over the past year and a half. “Our customers like a wide variety of products depending on the season. In a typical sale there may be some jewelry, a baby toy, craft kit, puzzle or game, and of course, fidgets,” said Christopher Springer, manager of Allison Wonderland in Lake Geneva, Wis., with a second location in Burlington, Wis. Speaking of trends, Springer said, “The fidget trend has cemented an interesting category that seems to satiate the desires of kids who are looking for stimulation—specifically, outside of content that uses just a screen. We view trends as a ‘cherry on top’ and focus on the long-term. As some trends come and go, we want to make sure we stay relevant.”

At Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy, Inc. Samantha Kitchen and Natalie Everitt were photographed with a Pop Fidgety’s display, a highly popular toy right now for retailers.

Timeless and engaging toys will always have their place. Jan Chadwick, manager of The Growing Tree Toy Shop in Kennett Square, Pa., named BathBlocks as one of their current best-sellers. “They’re basically toys to play with in the bathtub that come in different shapes—airplanes and helicopters, also princess castles. We get a lot of grandparents who come in and say, ‘My grandkids have everything.’ We’ll say, ‘They probably don’t have something like this.’ And the grandparents will leave, confident they’ve gotten a good gift. CuddlPals are another big seller. They’re a ‘snuggle in bed’ kind of toy. They come in unicorns, aliens, some glow in the dark.” Chadwick said their focus is on carrying toys that will appeal to generations of children. “One of the benefits of our type of store…we have a lot of toys made of wood. They’re sturdy and last a long time. We don’t have a lot of things that take batteries. We carry a lot of classic toys which are passed down,” she said. Linda Laramy, owner of Crackerjacks Toys and Children’s Books in Easton, Md., said the classic, “family”-centered items like puzzles and games have been tremendous sellers. She strives to carry a selection of both trendy and timeless (with more emphasis on the ‘timeless’) items, adding, “For choosing what think will sell…we work with several different companies. Our sales rep will come in with a catalog, or I’ll get one and I’ll choose what I think will sell. I have a gut feeling about a lot of things. Of course, we always have the classics—dump trucks, baby dolls, et cetera. We carry more specialty toys—things you can’t find at the big box stores.” Springer said the Allison Wonderland team shares the same philosophy: “Know who your customers are, and also the identity of your store. There’s a fine line between buying what you like and what your customers like. We’ve never brought something in because everyone else has it. Quality and value are cornerstones of our decision-making process.”

Paige Honkanen photographed with plush at Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy, Inc. Aside from a train setup, the store is still holding off on its interactive displays because of the pandemic.

Price point is always a consideration for parents and grandparents when it comes to buying toys. Both Chadwick and Laramy said Bruder, a German-based company, are among their best-sellers in the higher price point. (Laramy sells a Bruder-branded dump truck that retails for $125). “They’re the kind of toys that last forever. The customers who come in looking for those toys. …They know what they’re looking for,” Chadwick said. Laramy has a scooter in stock that retails for approximately $100. Springer said their higher price point falls in the $20-$30 range. “This past year’s strong sellers that fall into this price range would be Shashibo’s, Magnatabs, and Marky Sparky Dart Boards,” he said. Everitt sells quite a bit of plush at the higher price point. “They’re probably our second biggest seller after sensory toys,” she said. “There is a brand called Plushmallows that is extremely popular, and we have not been able to get them in. We carry a brand called Squishables, and Pusheen by Gund, so I would say they are our top sellers in the $40-$50 range. Also, people struggle to get pre-teens a present. Shashibo sells a magnetic puzzle box with earth magnets inside of it. It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube. When you open the box, there’s a piece of paper you twist and turn your Shashibo into. It’s been super popular with older kids.” On the other side, Everitt is selling quite a bit of Crazy Aaron’s Putty. “It’s fantastic,” she said. “It’s Made in the USA. The company hires special needs kids and kids with autism. They come up with the coolest products for their company. People love Crazy Aaron’s Putty because you can get a small kit for $2.99 or a larger tin for $50. Everyone in the age group from 7-87 love it. All their putty can be rolled into a ball and bounce like a super ball. It can be molded into a volcano; after about an hour it will melt into its original form. Each type of putty has a sensory element—there’s ‘Hypercolor’, which is my favorite. You hold it and it will change color from the heat of your hand. That’s fun to play with.” Springer sells a lot of toys in the $5-$10 range, adding “Nee-Doh’s have dominated this category.” Laramy noted “We have adorable stuffed animals from the Squishables brand. There are tiny little ones that sell for $10. They’ve been selling well.”

Gavin Ford and Isaac Russell photographed with Crazy Aaron Putty merchandise at Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy, Inc. Sensory toys offer “fun with a purpose” according to one of the store’s owners.

Merchandising toys is essential for drawing the attention of full- and pint-sized customers alike. Chadwick said at Growing Tree, they rely on grouping. “Especially for the baby items, we’ll group by age. We’ll also group like merchandise—the arts and crafts, stamping. Or, if we get a nice order by a particular brand, we’ll put them out together. We also have a really nice bookshelf—we get all our books through Usborne, and they’re usually all grouped by age.” Laramy also utilizes grouping: “We have the baby items up front, the small pick-up little items in the middle, the stuffed animals and Legos are in the back. We have all the construction toys in one spot, games in another. We’ve also found if we move something from the bottom shelf to the middle where it’s more at eye level, it will sell faster.”

An exterior view of Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy, Inc., with Co-owners Wendy Bacon, Rick Claggett, and Julie Everitt. Children are the store’s focus group, and are clear on when a toy is hot and when it is not, Everitt said.

Shopping for toys is normally an interactive experience for customers. COVID has changed that. Many retailers have come up with alternative ways to display and demo products. “Before the pandemic we used to have a lot of demos and interactive displays that encouraged hands-on interaction,” Springer said. “We’ve had to scale that back dramatically and have implemented more displays that show the product without inviting physical interaction. How your product is merchandised is paramount when it comes to helping your customer make an informed purchase that they will feel good about.” Everitt said her staff has made adjustments, as well. “We have displays out so kids can pretend-play. We put away a lot of the smaller, germ-grabbing stuff. Unfortunately, we’re still kind of holding off on the interactive displays. We do have a huge train display on the ceiling that runs throughout our store, and that’s still interactive. Kids can still come and push the buttons and turn on the lights.” As toy retailers gear up for the holiday season, they are keeping a close eye on back ordered products and item shortages. Everitt advised anyone seeking that one special item for a child from Santa to request it early. Laramy noted that despite the challenges all retailers faced over the past year, in some ways it’s been one of her best years in business. “The thing that’s been most amazing to us—there has been a tremendous amount of local support. Customers are coming to us instead of going to the big box stores. Our business has been up over the past year. I’d say if there was any trend right now, it’s supporting local businesses.”