Gwen Ottenberg, Owner or Imagine That Toys, Wichita, KS, 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.?
Gwen Ottenberg: We have been able to remain “open” the entire time. For me, it was simply a shift in focus from my typical storefront to online and curbside options. We utilize many online channels, including Kibo, which fulfills for manufacturer’s direct websites. People were looking to websites like Ceaco/Gamewright that make both puzzles and games. We were able to leverage that and fulfill lots of orders for them!

I have also had to really work to get more items listed on my website than ever before. Previously, it was not on the top of the priority list.

We pared our staffing down to key employees with the most range of skills and knowledge. They have had to concierge shop for customers and create photo montages to send to customers at the drop of a hat. Since customers are not seeing and touching the products, my staff is having to describe features and benefits like never before.

I have had to be even more responsive and timely with customer needs and requests. Customers are messaging day and night, not realizing that an actual person has to respond at that moment because Facebook’s algorithm times you to see how long it takes to respond. We have been messaging with customers on Facebook, Google, Instagram, and through emails and text messages.

TB: What do you think the short- and long-term impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic on the toy industry will be?
GO: I think that there will be manufacturers and retailers that are not able to weather this prolonged time of zero to minimal sales. We work ridiculously hard during Q4, but there is always a finite end of December 25 for a majority of the business. We do not have an end in sight. We are working towards more exhaustion and stress every single day whether we are open or closed.

As a retailer, I am ordering more conservatively than I have in the past. I am really thinking about each and every item on a purchase order. Every product has to be able to justify its space on the sales floor. I am hyper focused on the best-sellers and ordering based on what I know is in stock and shippable. Almost every order that I write, I am asking for availability first to be able to plan what I order.

Every segment is learning to work with less employees to shoulder the work load. Every single thing that we do is taking longer than it ever has before. Customers used to come in and just buy what they saw. Now, we have so many additional steps to get to the same end result.

There have been so many disruptions in the supply chain that I think it will take months to get back into working order. We have had to switch out workforces for single people, and not as many things are being produced, and we have offset customer service and accounting functions while working from new locations. We are all rebuilding new businesses.

TB: With ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy canceled this year, how do you plan to connect with manufacturers?
GO: I trust that manufacturers will reach out. I hope that they utilize their sales reps and give them current and updated information as often as they can. I will depend on my sales reps more than ever this year to make sure that orders are submitted and fulfilled smoothly. I need their help to keep on top of all of the new, weird circumstances that occur from people not being in the warehouses.

I hope that manufacturers are utilizing every channel that they are given to get their products in front of buyers. I am excited that ASTRA is working to do a virtual show with videos and interactive elements to strengthen the passing of information. I have been receiving additional emails from manufacturers as well with specials and updates.

As a member of The Good Toy Group, we have asked our manufacturers to make specific videos of the features and benefits for the items that we will showcasing in our catalog. I am hoping that my staff will be the most informed that they have ever been because they will all have to watch the videos to learn. They don’t all get to go to the show so this might be a huge advantage this year!

I have done more Zoom calls, Skype meetings, and Teams meetings than I typically do this time of year. We are all trying to connect and share information. The need to not feel alone is omnipresent for our sanity!

TB: What are your predictions for the state of toy retail in 2020?
GO: I believe that customers will not skimp on items and experiences for their children. They want to be able to see the joy on their child’s face and be able to share it with the world on social media more than ever. This gives us an opportunity to help our customers to be rock stars and be a trusted source for them to share with others.

I see customers wanting the items that will last and actually be played with over and over again. They are understanding the value of a well-made and open-ended toy. This is a huge opportunity.

I am cautiously optimistic about Q4. I am doing what I can to prepare if another episode comes into play. I have signed up for Bob Phibbs Retail Sales Training SalesRX. My goal is to be able to put the best sales people with my customers. I plan to make the best sales I can and I will have them poised if we have to go back to curbside or shipping in the holiday season.

TB: What major toy trends are you seeing this year?
GO: I see customers buying what is recognizable to them. Things that remind them of their childhood or a simpler time have been popular. I am selling puzzles, games, and LEGO. People understand these traditional items and have the time to play right now.

I had a friend joke that she is selling whatever they can make into a QVC moment. We are now selling by video like QVC more than we ever have before. People are buying what they know. We are getting calls daily for expert-level LEGO sets. What I wouldn’t do for a LEGO Treehouse these days!

TB: How important is it for toy companies to make an effort to be more eco-friendly?
GO: Six months ago, I would have said that this is something that companies should strive toward and I still believe it. However, right now, I want companies to focus on what they need to do to survive this. We need companies to be able to weather this and be sustainable going forward. We lost the R&D dollars when Toys “R” Us left the market. We need to keep innovation on the forefront, especially in the age of even younger kids on computers for school.

TB: Do you take advantage of ASTRA member programs? If so, what do you find most beneficial?
GO: ASTRA has incredible resources and has helped me build relationships over the years that are helping save my sanity. I love the honesty in the discussion boards and the sharing of ideas. It is so valuable to learn from someone else who has experienced the pandemic issues before they made it to Kansas.

I sit on the Excellence Committee for ASTRA and it has been a wonderful year to be able to read the nominations. Colleagues taking the time to nominate them for hard work, innovation, and humanitarianism is humbling to read. This year has some outstanding winners that help to make our industry great!

I am most proud that I have received both the CMR (Certified Master Retailer) and CPE (Certified Play Expert) Certifications. This sets me apart in the industry and makes me a force to be reckoned with. This training also gives me credentials to be a local expert in my field!

TB: What ways have you been getting the word out to consumers that your store is still open?
GO: I have been doing everything short of shouting from the rooftops, but I would be willing to try that as well. We are utilizing emails, Facebook, Instagram, Google, our own website, Twitter, YouTube, and of course word of mouth.

TB: What are the different ways in which you are still getting products to consumers in your community?
GO: We are working with curbside, telephone orders, FaceTime shopping, Facebook appointments, shipping, and fulfilling our own website and the websites of manufacturers within the KIBO network.

TB: How has your digital media strategy shifted now that more consumers are buying online or choosing curbside pickup options?
GO: My digital footprint is more important than it has ever been. I feel it is always a work in progress and honestly it is never actually done! I have upped my game with the number of posts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. I am also utilizing Google to post pictures of the store and products.

TB: How do you plan on preparing for the holiday season?
GO: One day at a time is my strategy right now. The thought of holiday shoppers is overwhelming. Yes, there will be a Santa Claus, but I am currently helping the elves on aisle 4. I am trying not to stress out about what it will look like this year.

I am looking to work with sales reps and vendors who want to partner with me and my store where we can both win in the relationship. I want to feel confident in the products that I select that they are a good value and something I can be proud to sell and something that my customer will want to own.

Every item I am purchasing has to earn its place with my dollars and the spot on my sales floor. I am analyzing every single sku that I purchase. I am also making sure that it will look good in a photo on social media or in a picture sent to a customer. I don’t think I will have those random impulse pick-up items that I have had in the past.

TB: What suggestions would you give to manufacturers to make it as easy as possible for you to merchandise their products?
GO: Well since you asked, I want information! I want to make good decisions and knowledge is key! I have been asking my sales reps for current stock status before I am placing orders. I want to make sure that I am using my inventory dollars for merchandise that will ship in a timely manner.

I want to know tracking and I am watching orders move toward me. Apparently, shipping companies were saying stores were closed and sending product back. That is terrifying and a financial nightmare for everyone involved. We need to be smarter than that!

I need you to be honest on how long it is taking to place orders and get them shipped out. Many companies are still trying to play catch up from being shut down, and all I want to know is a timeframe for my expectations.

Please give your sales reps all of the information they need to be successful in their jobs. Sending priced digital catalogs would be a huge help if we are not able to have face-to-face appointments. Also, if your company is one that many stores are waiting on backorders (ahem, puzzles), please send the reps information so they can answer how much longer things will be on backorder. If needed, you could send the information to the sales rep principal’s office and they can be responsible for sending it to the reps for their customers.

We are in this together and need to be able to trust the person that you are working with!

TB: What advice would you give to other specialty retailers that are still open during this time?
GO: Hallelujah! I feel you! It is so beyond exhausting physically and emotionally. This is a time of more and more load-bearing pressure on your shoulders both personally and professionally. There is stress from every angle (employees, finances, products, customers, backorders, shipping issues, PPP, loan payments, more, and more, and more).

You deserve a high-five from all of your toy friends!

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