Mark Carson, President & Co-Founder, Fat Brain Toys, Omaha, NE, discusses the latest trends, industry happenings, and how business strategies are evolving in the specialty toy market.

The Toy Book: How have you done business differently since stay-at-home orders were put into place across most of the U.S.?
Mark Carson: Because we do business across a number of different sales channels, we’ve had to orchestrate numerous changes to ensure that we’re still staying relevant to our customers and maintaining a safe environment for our employees. Most of those changes involved shifting resources to other areas of the company while adhering to CDC guidelines. For example, while our retail stores were closed, we had store staff kitting subscription boxes. And with the slowdown in our wholesale business, our entire wholesale team stepped up to help with the surge in online orders at our distribution center. We feel fortunate that we’ve been able to continue to be a resource to our customers nationwide during these trying times.

TB: What do you think the short- and long-term impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic on the toy industry will be?
MC: While I generally take an optimistic view to most challenges, there’s no denying that there will be both short- and long-term disruptions to the toy industry. As the early indicators have already demonstrated, toys will continue to be purchased in spite of the current epidemic (or maybe even because of it!). “How and where toys will be sold?” is the $27 billion question. We’re already thinking through changes in how toys are packaged and merchandised. We’re also refining our offering to reflect the increased demand for specific categories, such as puzzles, games, and arts and crafts. But mostly we’re keeping our eyes wide open so that we can adapt to the inevitable changes approaching.

TB: With ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy canceled this year, how do you plan to connect with manufacturers?
MC: Face-to-face pitches are likely not in the cards for a while, but we’re still keeping a keen eye out for new product introductions as well as carefully analyzing changing consumer buying trends. As those trends surface, we’re evaluating new products through that lens and also being proactive in reaching out to manufacturers with specific needs.

TB: What are your predictions for the state of toy retail in 2020?
MC: I hate to be coy, but my prediction is that all predictions will be wrong in 2020. There are so many variables in play that it’s difficult to even come up with a lucid prediction for the remainder of the year. The one prediction I do feel confident in is online playing an even bigger role this year — and it won’t be just from Amazon. Toys will continue to be purchased of course, but as a non-essential category, the toy category could be radically impacted by increased focus on essential products — both by retailers and consumers.

TB: What major toy trends are you seeing this year?
MC: I see many “back to basics” trends emerging. From the resurgence of jigsaw puzzles to multigenerational games, I see consumers embracing tried-and-true product categories that address very specific needs for their family.

TB: How important is it for toy companies to make an effort to be more eco-friendly?
MC: It is very important. While we’ve been making strides in our own small way, it has been reassuring to see the big guys like Hasbro and Mattel setting bold initiatives around sustainability. With them throwing down the gauntlet, I think it gives smaller manufacturers a tangible goal to exceed.

TB: Which products or categories do you expect to drive sales this year? How do your expectations compare to last year’s results?
MC: Baby and toddler continues to be a very strong category for Fat Brain overall. But as mentioned, we see categories like games, puzzles, and arts and crafts far outperform this year.

TB: Do you take advantage of ASTRA member programs? If so, what do you find most beneficial?
MC: We certainly do! We’ve been the proud recipient of both Best Toys for Kids, ASTRA Excellence Awards, and yearly participants in the Neighborhood Toy Store Day. But regardless of whether we are personally recognized or not, all of these programs serve as great ambassadors for our industry, and the specialty toy market in particular.

TB: What ways have you been getting the word out to consumers that your store is still open?
MC: Our online store is a key asset, so we’ve been very active and consistent through our social media messaging and email campaigns. Our main mission has been to reassure our customers that: We’re still here to serve you. Toys is not a category for us, it’s all we do! And even if other online retailers have to turn their focus to other categories, we’ll still be here to help you with your birthday gift, your baby shower, or your family game night.

TB: What are the different ways in which you are still getting products to consumers in your community?
MC: We are offering curbside pick-up, but our local customers have really embraced our website and choose the one thing better than curbside pick-up: doorstep delivery.

TB: How has your digital media strategy shifted now that more consumers are buying online or choosing curbside pickup options?
MC: As an online-first company, we were uniquely positioned for the sudden surge in online buying, but the broader goal of turning those eyeballs into lifelong customers takes another level of effort. We’ve been actively “expanding the tent” of online buyers, but doing so at a scale that we can still maintain our exceptionally high service standards.

TB: What, if any, special activations or promotions are you offering to consumers?
MC: One of our more meaningful activations didn’t involve selling at all. Realizing early on that parents may find it challenging to keep their kids engaged and entertained, we began producing two short video clips each week to #keepthebrainfat. From paper airplanes to cooking to backyard birding, these free activities gave kids a great outlet for their creative energy and also allowed us to connect with our customers in a new, meaningful way.

TB: How do you plan on preparing for the holiday season?
MC: Preparing for the holidays is always a challenge, but this could be the most challenging of all simply because of the current uncertainty. In addition to basics like inventory planning, we’re now having to make physical changes to our distribution center, exploring ways to operate additional shifts to allow for proper social distance, and identifying alternative means of distribution for worst-case scenarios. But as mentioned previously, we’re planning for the unexpected.

TB: What suggestions would you give to manufacturers to make it as easy as possible for you to merchandise their products?
MC: The ability to maintain a customer’s confidence during uncertain times is critical to building brand trust. For that reason, inventory availability is one of the first suggestions that comes to my mind. Supply chains across all industries are being disrupted, so the ability to provide steady inventory could be the key attribute that sets you a part.

TB: What advice would you give to other specialty retailers that are still open during this time?
MC: You may have to employ a good deal of triage during this time as you simply can’t be all things to everyone like you’ve been accustomed to. You may have to temporarily suspend certain offerings so you can better focus on the highest profit-generating activities first. There are times when you can tweak your way out of a situation, but this is not one of those times. Be bold in your decisions and trust your gut instincts.

This Chatting with the Industry Q&A response originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of the Toy Book. Click here to read more!