by KIMBERLY MOSLEY, president, American Specialty Toy Retailing Association

Helping American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) members get to know one another is a core strategy of the “Mighty Together” concept that drives ASTRA. Networking events are built into our annual Marketplace & Academy and each year during ASTRA-sponsored activities at Toy Fair New York.

These national conventions and trade shows are great ways to meet lots of independent retailers, manufacturers, sales representatives, and inventors from around the country in a short period of time. This is where you want to be if you are looking for energy, buzz, and the opportunity to transact business face to face, which is why they are not-to-be-missed annual events for so many of our members. The conversations started here continue on many platforms, including ASTRA Connect, the online community where members can engage, share, and learn from each other.

DEEPENING CONNECTIONS LOCALLY

But what about sharing information that is relevant to a particular geographic area? What about ways to deepen connections with your ASTRA colleagues in ways that are difficult to accomplish in the hyper-charged pace of a national buying-and-selling event? What about tackling longer-term, locally based challenges that affect independent toy professionals?

This is what the new ASTRA Regional Groups program is designed to address. It’s all about the local focus, local needs, and local business relationships of ASTRA members. It’s what “Mighty Together” looks like on the Main Street level.

“Our members have always been generous with their feedback about ASTRA programs and services,” says Sue Warfield, member relations director at ASTRA. “Through surveys, occasional focus groups, and an ear to the ground, members tell us that they welcome relaxed, in-person settings at a different pace from the large, national meetings. There is so much to do at those shows, which is why it’s a good business decision to attend them, but it’s hard to squeeze in the time to reflect on everything you are hearing and get to know new people that you meet.”

LAUNCHING REGIONAL GROUPS

The ASTRA Regional Groups program launched earlier this year with a pilot in the Minneapolis area. During the winter, members in that region were invited to an evening meeting to talk about a structure that would work for them. From that meeting, the North Central Regional Group was born. The concept is to have periodic get-togethers at a member’s business location, with attendees covering their own food and beverage tab. The group plans to include time at each meeting for open-ended conversation, plus an in-person or virtual education activity, followed by a discussion.

While the primary intent is to deepen connections among toy industry professionals, we expect to see other benefits for local participants and for members nationwide, including:

  • Potential solutions to specific challenges: Retailers, manufacturers, sales representatives, and inventors don’t often have opportunities to sit with all three groups at a table and simply listen to each other. Regionally focused conversations can increase communication and understanding — and possibly yield approaches that can be useful to other areas;
  • Increased access to ASTRA Academy education: It’s never simple to carve out time to participate in professional development, especially when it involves travel and time away from your store or business. Regional groups are a way to bring members easier access to education; and
  • More effective trend tracking: Not all trends take off in the same way or at the same pace across geographic areas. Regional groups may be one way to capture early market intelligence in the industry.

NORTH CENTRAL GROUP KICKS OFF

In May, the North Central Regional Group held its kick-off event at MindWare’s offices in St. Paul, Minnesota. The evening included a welcome reception, a virtual presentation on best practices for pitching local media coverage, a discussion of the changing retail landscape, and shared thoughts on working together for win-win success. The evening’s sponsors — MindWare Wholesale/Peaceable Kingdom, Beka, and Specialty Marketing Group — provided door prizes. North Central’s next meeting is scheduled for late September at kiddywampus, the independent toy store in Hopkins, Minnesota.

Watch for more as we gain experience with this new model. It’s all about channeling ASTRA’s unique culture of sharing and caring among its members into new ways to be mighty together. That’s all about growing ASTRA businesses and, ultimately, reaching toward our vision of changing the world through the power of play.


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of the Toy Book