GUEST COMMENTARY: Game Stores versus Toy Stores: There’s More than Enough Fun to Go Around

by Sara Erickson, owner, Rook’s Comics and Games

Rook's InteriorSitting in my game store on a warm Saturday afternoon, I watch as customers stream in with tote bags full of games they plan on playing during the next three or four hours. I know most of them by name and would consider many of them my friends. They’ve been shopping and playing at my store for the past nine years, and I’ve seen them grow from awkward teenagers into professional adults. Many have even outgrown my store and are now shopping at the local toy store across the street for their own kids. Eventually, the cycle will repeat and I’ll be selling the newest hot game to the next generation.

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Q&A, Erin Black, Founder of Lyla Tov Monsters

Lyla Tov Monsters is a line of plush dolls created by the mother-daughter team of Erin Black, and her daughter, Lyla Black. Recently, The Toy Book had a chance to sit down with Erin and talk to her about doll-making, launching a Kickstarter campaign, the future of the specialty doll space, and more.

The Toy Book (TTB): Starting from the moment that you first saw Lyla’s design for the dolls, can you take us through the development process?

ErinwMonsterErin Black (EB): When Lyla was three years old, she drew a picture of a “good” monster and asked me to help her, “make it real,” as a gift for her daddy. We raided my bins of fabric scraps, and she picked out the perfect fur for the monster body, a well as appropriate fabric for all his limbs and accessories.

My husband loved the monster and suggested we make more to sell. I had a booth reserved at a local craft fair to sell some other products I had made, so Lyla and I decided to make a batch of 20 monsters for her to sell there as well. The monsters flew off the table and into the hands of eager customers, and Lyla Tov Monsters was born.

We first sold a few Monsters on Etsy, and then quickly moved to having a web site of our own, from which people could order their one-of-a-kind Lyla Tov Monster. Soon we had some local retail shops interested in carrying Lyla Tov Monsters, and the demand for our product outgrew what Lyla and I could produce off the dining room table.

We ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund our first run of factory-produced Monsters. Once we had sold enough of these initial two Monsters, we reinvested the money to create two more styles. We now have four limited edition Lyla Tov Monsters in our line.

TTB: The doll space is a very competitive one. How do Lyla Tov Monsters stand out amidst a crowded field?

ForrestEB: I think Lyla Tov Monsters are appealing for several reasons. Their bright colors and interesting patterns and textures make them stand out on a store shelf. Also, they are somewhere between doll and plush toy, so children can hug and snuggle them like they might a teddy bear, but also give them the same life and personality that they might with a doll. Because Lyla Tov Monsters were designed by a child, they resonate well with a young audience that connects to their simple shape and cheerful faces.

TTB: According to the Lyla Tov Monsters home page, you oversaw patterning and fabrication for the doll line. For readers who may not know much about those aspects, can you talk about what that entails, and how it’s important for making a good doll?

EB: Before diving into the world of toy production, I was a costume designer for the Jim Henson Company. Part of my job there was to make patterns, choose fabrics, and stitch garments.  These skills all came into play when I started to fabricate the initial Lyla Tov Monsters prototype from Lyla’s sketch.

I’m used to interpreting a two-dimensional drawing and turning it into a three-dimensional object, so I was able to stay true to the spirit of Lyla’s vision while making sure to create a toy that was interesting and well-constructed. This was especially useful when we started to use a factory for production, as I could send them a finished prototype as well as my flat pattern pieces to work from. This saved us a lot of back and forth in the early stages of our relationship with our factory.

TTB: Kickstarter seems to have become a viable new way for launching a toy. From your experience, what would you say were the greatest advantages and disadvantages of using it as a fundraising tool?

Lyla Black, with monsters

Lyla Black, with monsters

EB: We were thrilled when we met our Kickstarter funding goal within the first eight days! It was a fantastic way to not only get the seed money we needed to produce our first factory-run Monsters, but also to test the waters and make sure there was an audience for our product.

It felt like less of a risk to take the plunge into mass production knowing that people out in cyberspace believed in what we were doing and were willing to back our idea. The only real downside was that it took a lot of work to create the video, and to set up and promote our Kickstarter campaign. It was well worth it because we reached our goal, but it would have been frustrating to have invested that time and energy and come up short.

TTB: What is the current retail situation for Lyla Tov Monsters? Besides Amazon and at craft fairs, where else can they be found?

EB: We do a lot of our Lyla Tov Monsters sales direct to consumers from our website at www.lylatov.com! We are also in several boutique toy and gift shops across the country.

TTB: You recently attended the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA) Marketplace and Academy. What was the experience like? Did you encounter many specialty retailers who hadn’t encountered Lyla Tov Monsters before, and how were their reactions?

CharlotteEB: We had a fantastic time at the ASTRA show. We had the chance to meet and network with shop owners as well as other toy manufacturers. We were thrilled by the number of people who had heard of Lyla Tov Monsters and knew our story prior to the show, and excited about all the new orders we wrote at the show.

Some people came to our booth because they had read about Lyla Tov Monsters prior to the show and knew they wanted to carry them in their shop. Others stopped as they were walking by because they were drawn in by our display. The response we got was very positive and we thoroughly enjoyed everyone we met!

TTB: Given the success of the first wave of dolls, what does the future hold for the line? 

EB: We hope to expand our line in the next few months so that it will include six varieties of Lyla Tov Monsters. We have found that customers really love to have a choice and spend a lot of time deciding which is the perfect Monster to buy as a gift, and that retailers are eager to display an assortment of Lyla Tov Monsters. Lyla is already working on the designs for the next two Monsters we will make!

TTB: What do you think the future holds for the specialty doll space? What is it about this type of dolls that’s so appealing to consumers?

EB: There is a bright future ahead for specialty dolls and toys. I think these days people are really drawn to small manufacturers, supporting family businesses, and having the chance to give a gift or buy a product that isn’t available on every corner. Boutique stores like to sell toys that have a story to go with them, and customers feel more invested in their purchases if they feel part of that story.

COMMENTARY: ASTRA Marketplace & Academy: It’s All Fun and Games

Mollie Thonneson, the creator of Tag the Art Game, at ASTRA Marketplace & Academy with Alan Walker, aka The Art Cowboy

Mollie Thonneson, the creator of Tag the Art Game, at ASTRA Marketplace & Academy with Alan Walker, aka The Art Cowboy

So I recently attended the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) Marketplace & Academy, which took place in Charlotte earlier this month. While it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as its northeastern counterpart, February’s North American International Toy Fair, it was still a great place to spot new developments in toys and games, especially the latter.

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Kathleen McHugh to Resign as President of ASTRA

KathleenMcHughEffective October 6, Kathleen McHugh will resign her position as president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA).

“It is bittersweet to be moving on at a time when ASTRA is stronger, more financially stable, and more of a force in the toy industry than it has ever been,” says McHugh. “It will be difficult to leave an organization with such an important mission and so full of many valued friends, colleagues, and mentors.

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ASTRA’s Record-Breaking Marketplace to Feature 89 First-Time Exhibitors

ASTRAlogoAccording to the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), 89 toy manufacturers will be participating for the first time in its exhibit hall at ASTRA’s upcoming Marketplace & Academy. The exhibit hall, which will represent ASTRA’s largest ever, includes a total of 15 percent more exhibitors than last year.

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ASTRA Convention to Host Special Session on Succession

ASTRAlogoThe American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) is featuring a special session at its annual ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy that will focus on helping specialty toy retailers build succession plans for their businesses. The key takeaways will include: critical factors in determining the value of an independent toy store; how to get stores ready for a sale or transfer of ownership; and establishing a timeline for an independent retailer to make a smooth exit.

Lynn Switanowski of the Creative Business Consulting Group will lead this session. ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy will be held on June 8 to 11 in Phoenix, Ariz.  Following the convention, the succession topic will be continued in member-only discussion groups on ASTRA’s website.

ASTRA Welcomes 80 New Manufacturers to Its Marketplace & Academy

astra_logo_homeAs reported by the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), more than 80 new toy manufacturers will be showing new products in the exhibit hall at the ASTRA Marketplace & Academy. Most of these products are not yet available online, which gives specialty retailers the opportunity to offer them in their communities before anyone else.

“Specialty toy retailers need innovative products with high play value that consumers cannot find elsewhere, and ASTRA is the place to discover them,” said Kathleen McHugh, President of ASTRA. “These products help retailers position themselves as a hands-on shopping experience that is more creative and more fun and more interesting than the competition.”

ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy will be held June 8 to 11 in Phoenix, Ariz. Admission to the ASTRA Marketplace exhibit hall is free to specialty toy retailers, with registration through ASTRA’s website.

ASTRA Announces 2014 Marketplace & Academy Theme and Dates

ASTRA logoThe American Specialty Toy Retailing Association‘s (ASTRA) theme of its 2014 Marketplace & Academy is “Where play means business.” The event will take place in Phoenix from June 8 to 11.

“Our theme underscores that the specialty toy industry is serious about our business and serious about working together to maximize our success,” said Kathleen McHugh, president of ASTRA. “We are planning a fun and productive event that will help specialty toy and children’s products retailers have an extraordinary fourth quarter in 2014.”

With more than 1,400 members, ASTRA is the largest association for companies in the toy and children’s products arenas.

ASTRA Breaks Attendance Record for Marketplace & Academy

astra_logo_homeASTRA’s 2013 Marketplace & Academy, held June 16 to 19 in Nashville, Tenn., broke all previous attendance records, according to the organization. This is the sixth year in a row that ASTRA has broken its own record for attendance.

The number of retail stores represented increased nearly 10 percent over 2012 to 450 stores. A total of 1,987 members of the specialty toy industry participated in the Nashville event, which represented an increase of nearly 15 percent.

Next year’s ASTRA Marketplace & Academy will be held June 8 to 11 in Phoenix. ASTRA will start selling exhibit space for this event in September.

Skullduggery Introduces Tracer Racers

Skullduggery introduced Tracer Racers at the ASTRA Marketplace & Academy in Nashville, Tenn. Toy retailers were able to see the debut of Tracer Racers Light Trail Technology as they raced down Skullduggery’s patented glow-in-the-dark track. Each Tracer Racer beams down purple light rays from its undercarriage onto track that is specially engineered to emit glow remnants after the racer has passed.

A 10-foot single lane set, including one racer; an 8-foot double lane set, including two racers; a 12-foot double lane loop set with light up finish gate, including two racers; and individual racers will be available in stores in late August.

Check out the Tracer Racers in action: