Ann Kienzle, Owner of *play, Chicago, IL, 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.?
Ann Kienzle: Like so many businesses, we’ve had to pivot. Initially, we created custom Easter boxes for shipping so that we wouldn’t lose the sales bump we get from the holiday. Then, we set up an appointment calendar online for personal shopping. We also have been selling via FaceTime, social media, and email. We’ve also fast-tracked our pending web shop.

TB: With ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy canceled this year, how do you plan to connect with manufacturers?
AK: I’m still using my sales reps to discuss lines and strategies and am looking forward to ASTRA offering some fun new possibilites for connection through its ASTRA Summer Camp.

TB: What are your predictions for the state of toy retail in 2020?
AK: I see that parents and caregivers are rediscovering the importance of toys and play during this time at home. So while I see this year being a bumpy road because of the unknown, I believe that people will start to prioritize play and that will — long term — be a silver-lining outcome for the industry.

TB: What major toy trends are you seeing this year?
AK: Our trends are all based on the stay-at-home mandate and revolve around puzzles, arts and crafts, science projects, and free-play building. It’s been wonderful to watch families get back to the basics.

TB: How important is it for toy companies to make an effort to be more eco-friendly?
AK: I believe this will become more important to consumers and should be considered as much as possible by toy companies going forward. Climate change is a major concern of Generation Z, so as they age into parenting roles, I believe they’ll consider eco-friendly options into their decision making.

TB: Which products or categories do you expect to drive sales this year? How do your expectations compare to last year’s results?
AK: I believe the classics will continue to drive day-to-day sales. We’re moving into nice weather in Chicago, so we’re seeing the outdoor category pick up significantly. For the fourth quarter, I feel that people will want to make the holiday season very special after such a disruptive year for their children. Because of that, I can see spending being similar to last year, even with the current economic situation.

TB: Do you take advantage of ASTRA member programs? If so, what do you find most beneficial?
AK: I try to take advantage of member programs that are available. We’ve recently been shipping significantly more, so we’ve taken advantage of their group shipping rates. We also always try to take advantage of vendor offers to ASTRA members.

TB: What ways have you been getting the word out to consumers that your store is still open?
AK: We are active on social media and interact with our customers daily via those channels. We also have incorporated signage at all the shops to be clear when and how we can service their needs.

TB: What are the different ways in which you are still getting products to consumers in your community?
AK: We were allowed to begin curbside pick-ups again as of May 1. We also do local delivery and shipping throughout the U.S. While these are services we’ve offered for years, it’s obviously at an entirely new level now.

TB: How has your digital media strategy shifted now that more consumers are buying online or choosing curbside pickup options?
AK: I always try to keep the *play brand real, accessible, and fun to our customers. I speak from the heart, and now more than ever, I think people appreciate that. They enjoy knowing that they’re supporting a real family that makes a difference in the community. I’ve tried to use this time to amplify my voice as a small business owner, community member, and play expert.

TB: How do you plan on preparing for the holiday season?
AK: This is the million-dollar question. I think so much is still up in the air. My goal is to be prepared for anything, from a season in which people can shop in store and have a traditional experience with *play to a season that is disrupted on some level either by a second wave of COVID-19 or limitations put on our business.

TB: What suggestions would you give to manufacturers to make it as easy as possible for you to merchandise their products?
AK: My biggest worry is having the cash flow to pay for invoices because things are so unpredictable. So, I am taking advantage of low minimums and/or extended dating opportunities.

TB: What advice would you give to other specialty retailers that are still open during this time?
AK: Make sure you’re taking time to rest. It doesn’t matter if your business makes it through this in one piece if you don’t.

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