Neighborhood toy stores thrive in a changing industry

At Learning Express Toys in Woodstock it isn’t unheard of for customers to walk in the door and be greeted by name. Staffers may already know there is a birthday party in the neighborhood and they might have the perfect gift in mind. Once a selection is made, they will wrap it free of charge and send you on your way.

In 14 years as toy seller, store owner Jeffrey Weiss has experienced all the highs and lows of the industry. As in many other retail sectors the rise of e-commerce has brought some challenges, but lately independent toy sellers seem to be riding the waves better than the big guys.

On Tuesday, court documents revealed Toys R' Us would close 182 stores nationwide including eight locations in metro Atlanta. The mega toy retailer declared bankruptcy in September after struggling with debt and online competition from retailers like Wal-mart and Amazon.

Toy sales in general have taken a hit over the past decade, but in recent years, the industry has shown signs of improvement.

Retail sales of toys grew by 3 percent in the first half of 2017, according to data from market research group NPD. That figure is based on about 80 percent of the total market and doesn’t include holiday sales.

Historical data from 2005 - 2016 shows toy retail sales revenue in the U.S.  hit the lowest point over that 12 year span in 2013 at 17.68 billion before increasing year over year to 20.36 billion in 2016. Estimates for the full market put that number closer to the 26 billion range.

In 1948, Toys R’ Us, was also an independent retailer selling baby carriages in the nation’s capital. It would grow into a popular destination for children’s toys and in recent years, it swallowed other toy retailers including FAO Schwarz and KB Toys.

Kempner: What will replace all those Toys R Us stores in metro Atlanta

But online competition is fierce and Toys R’ Us began losing ground to Amazon and Wal-Mart who could negotiate bigger discounts with toy makers and pass it on to consumers in the form of lower prices.

Independent toy sellers have also felt the pinch from e-commerce, but maybe not quite as hard.

“It has had some impact on us in that it is harder for us now to sell some of the higher ticket items because people can buy them online with free shipping,” said Weiss.

Price competition becomes more of an issue during holiday shopping season when he sees customers come in the store with smartphone in hand checking online as they shop to see if they can find a lower price.

“You have to have other reasons for people to want to shop in your store than just the product,” he said.

Weiss decided to open a franchise location of Learning Express Toys in 2004 after growing frustrated with big toy stores. “My kids were young at the time and we were shopping in the big box store, but it seemed we could never find those cool toys that had educational value to them,” he said.

In addition, the shopping experience often left much to be desired. “At a lot of these stores you can’t find anyone to help you and sometimes you end up talking to a few different people before you find someone who is knowledgeable,” Weiss said.He wanted to open a place that was different.

Owners of other local independent toy shops tell similar stories. Christina Bonaccorse opened Rhen's Nest in Glenwood Park in fall 2016. While traveling, she visited a small toy shop, a place where everyone was knowledgable and enthusiastic about the toys, and she wanted to bring that same type of place to her side of town. Rhen's Nest became that place and has since expanded to include a second location at Ponce City Market.

In 2010, Kristen Bach founded Treehouse Kid & Craft in Athens. Bach also described wanting to create a space where people would feel welcome and feel part of the community. She made that happen in Athens and opened a second location in Decatur in 2015.

Read more: Atlanta's independent toy stores offer hidden gems

For independent toy sellers part of the magic is hiring people who love toys, love kids and want to get to know the customers.

It also means connecting with the community through activities, in-store events and partnerships with schools. And it is about finding unique products, which in a global marketplace can be increasingly difficult.

“We work hard as a store and a franchise community to be on the lookout for the latest and greatest,” said Weiss who was the first local retailer to stock Kendama, the Japanese skill game manufactured by Marietta-based Kendama USA.

They were also among the first to sell popular Rainbow Looms before mass retailers jumped on the trend.

“A toy store gets very boring if a customer comes in and they always see the same thing every time. It is important that they see something new and that is part of the fun of working in a toy store,” Weiss said.

It is also important for customers to feel as if they are part of that fun. Last year, when Weiss hosted an in-store event with an appearance from Moana, the line was endless, but he and the staff provided activities and entertainment to keep the crowd engaged. Kids left with huge smiles and parents came up to say thank you.

“That is where everything comes together and it makes you feel good about what you are doing,” Weiss said. “They are giving you their patronage as a way of saying thank you.”