Kids playing inside the Village Toy Castle. Source: Erin Samuell

In a world dominated by mass retail, the buy-it-now mentality, and same-day delivery, the shopping experience can feel pretty industrial — especially as these blind purchases are fulfilled by a faceless workforce. The in-person discovery and impulse buys that consumers can only experience in a hands-on environment get lost in a fast-paced, tech-reliant society, and perhaps no other category is more affected than the toy and game industry.

After years of digital retail growth, life during the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a new interest in returning to brick-and-mortar stores. As supply chain issues flipped the script and resulted in better product selection in-store versus online, many people rediscovered that they actually like shopping in person.

Across the U.S. and Canada, independent, specialty toy retailers — once expected to be decimated by pandemic-related closures — have found new ways to connect with local families. They are harnessing new technologies and planting the flag for toy stores to become destinations in their local communities. New stores are opening their doors while existing retailers are, in some cases, passing the torch to the next generation of owners, all of whom are keenly reactive to the needs and interests of their customers. One constant remains true: Independent, neighborhood toy stores deliver a human element that mass retailers can’t match.

Peeking over the counter at the Village Toy Castle | Source: Isaac Elliott-Fisher

Providing Experiences that the Major Retailers Can’t

About 90 minutes from the Port Huron border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, Village Toy Castle stands tall in a historic building in the tiny town of Brucefield, Ontario. The new store is run by a father with a background in creating toy-related cinema.

Isaac Elliott-Fisher is a Canadian cinematographer and a principal at Definitive Film, the company behind the toy-centric documentaries Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. After years of making films about toys, he’s now selling toys and celebrating their history. Soon, he will be making them as well.

“I bought this 130-year-old brick hotel building that’s right off the highway in tourist country,” Elliott-Fisher says. “There was nothing really out here for kids at all, and the idea was to make a true destination toy store by looking at what some of the world’s best toy stores have done. Can I be as big as Hamleys? No. But can I beat them on experience? Maybe. Perhaps it’s possible to create something as magical as Duncan’s Toy Chest in Home Alone 2.”

Village Toy Castle held its grand opening on Dec. 18 and has added fresh stock and new experiences ever since, including an indoor, castle-shaped play area for kids; a vintage toy museum; and a retro video arcade. Elliott-Fisher says that the product mix balances specialty staples from the likes of Playmobil and Schylling with action brands from Hasbro and Mattel.

As the business expands, Elliott-Fisher will begin producing miniature figures and wooden castle playsets in-house based on an original intellectual property, and consumers will be able to view the toy factory from within the toy store. He hopes to meet a need by zeroing in on the lack of fresh ideas in the action figures category for kids ages 5 and up.

“Everyone seems to be either aging down their products to hit the preschool audience and chase the success of PAW Patrol, or they’re aging way up to where they’re too complex and expensive,” he says. “A 7-year-old does not need 57 points of articulation on a G.I. Joe, which can be $42 in Canada. Parents aren’t going to buy eight of those for their kids.”

Village Toy Castle has found an early hit in that very category with Moose Toys’ Heroes of Goo Jit Zu, which Elliott-Fisher points out is a brand that kids can call their own as it’s not leaning into something that their parents played with decades before them.

Mud Puddle Toys continues under next-gen ownership. | Source: Generating Media

Expanding a Legacy

In the coastal New England town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Mud Puddle Toys has been a fixture of the community since 2003. Last year, when founders Sam and Kristen Pollard planned to close up shop, Cassie and Jay Watt stepped in to buy the toy store that they’d been shopping at with their three kids. In just over a year, the duo has not only continued the business, but they’ve also grown it.

“Starting out, I had no experience — not just in specialty toy stores, but in running any store or a business,” says Cassie Watt, who assumed the role of “Mud Puddle Lady” after coming from a library science and research background. “So many other toy store owners stepped forward and were incredibly welcoming and helped me in those first few weeks to figure out the day-to-day of running a store. But I also had to learn to trust my own voice and to go with my gut on decisions that would affect the core of my business.”

The front room at Mud Puddle Toys | Source: Generating Media

Related: The Cinematic Art of Advertising Toys

Since its grand reopening on May 1, 2021, Mud Puddle Toys has expanded its footprint into a neighboring space to include a dedicated book section and a wider selection of new toys and games, most of which won’t even register a blip on the radar for the big boxes or digital giants.

“Because I was dropped into the middle of the supply chain crisis and did not do my ordering in January and February like everyone else, I found myself having to get creative and find independently owned and local manufacturers who I may never have found otherwise,” Watt says, citing Douglas, Toysmith, Bunny Hopkins, and Starlux as local hits. “They ended up being part of our core offering because we could count on them delivering their really cool products quickly.”

A heavy dose of new products paired with timeless classics is where independent retailers can win big, and Mud Puddle is a prime example of the right mix.

“We, more than anyone else, supply kids and families with the happiness, whimsy, and joy that we all desperately need,” Watt says. “You cannot walk into a toy store with its rubber chickens, mermaid Barbies, and whoopie cushions and be unaffected.”

The register area at The Toy Box | Source: The Toy Box

Filling a Void

In the seaside community of San Clemente, California, Sean and Dolores Sargeant answered the call for a cool toy store with a local flavor. The experienced owners of three Jerky & Cali Gifts stores kept getting asked if there was a toy store nearby and wound up consulting with The Outlets of San Clemente to meet the demand. The couple opened The Toy Box last October as a pop culture-infused destination for families.

The couple spoke with families in the local community to develop a customer service-based business that focused on a great selection and presentation. They attended the Toy and Gift Market in Las Vegas to discover new products and began developing an inventory ranging from costumes by The Great Pretenders to plush by Squishables and GUND to military airplanes, Spin Master’s Tech Decks, and STEM activity kits.

“It’s been great since we opened and customers really love the store,” Dolores Sargeant says. “Tonies has been a big hit, particularly the Disney and Pixar characters from Cars and Toy Story.”

Actors from The Royal Entertainers welcome shoppers to The Toy Box. | Source: The Toy Box

According to Sean Sargeant, the product mix is also an evolving balance between toys for kids and collectibles for all ages, and that means staying on-trend and focusing on fandoms.

Funko has been doing really well for us,” he says. “Horror Pop! Vinyl figures sell like crazy here and anime pops are killing it alongside Spider-Man, Batman, and Harry Potter.” To offer something even more unique to their customers, the Sargeants visited WonderCon in Anaheim, California, and got some Pop! Vinyl figures autographed by actors to sell in the store.

Thanks to a front-facing location, The Toy Box is able to tap into a classic element of old-school retailing to capture the imagination and interest of passers-by: elaborate window displays. According to the Sargeants, the main window gets a full overhaul every month or two with a mix of seasonal products and big brands like Marvel.

Ready Set Play opened in April | Source: Ready Set Play

Bringing Home the Fun

Down in Hazard, Kentucky, a town of fewer than 6,000 residents, Joey and Nikki Jones opened the doors to Ready Set Play on April 15. The couple lived in Louisville for 10 years and enjoyed having access to local toy stores there, and began seeking out other independent toy stores to visit while traveling.

“After moving back to our hometown Hazard, we missed having access to those stores,” says Joey Jones. “We decided to bring a toy store to our small hometown so that the kids in our community can have the experience of shopping at a store dedicated to toys. The biggest challenge was not knowing anything about the toy industry. We had to learn about the process of purchasing our inventory, and which sales representative groups service our area so that we can start building relationships with them.”

In its first month, Ready Set Play secured local media coverage and began forging partnerships with other local businesses to build awareness and expand its product offering. In the weeks since the store has expanded its inventory and the Jones family has been using social media to build consumer excitement around new developments and product offerings in the store.

Community Support and Ongoing Challenges

While the success of specialty toy stores is largely tied to engaging with their local communities, the importance of the toy community itself — the network of other store owners and supportive vendors — cannot be overstated. As consumers turn to social media to discover new products, independent retailers are also using it to share knowledge and see what’s working in other stores.

“Instagram especially lets you see trends as they are developing, and lets you plug into those trends directly with social media marketing campaigns,” Watt says.

According to Jones, the proliferation of toy stores across social media helped to inspire and determine the initial product assortment for Ready Set Play. “We followed many toy stores on social media and saw what they were carrying in their stores so we could start reaching out to those companies to gain access to the products,” he says.

A fun assortment awaits at Ready Set Play. | Source: Ready Set Play

Still, there are a few big elephants in the room when it comes to product access and fair pricing that desperately need to be addressed: many of the major toymakers. It’s been no secret that minimum order quantities, fluctuating sales representative groups, higher costs, and mass retailer exclusivity have been a major barrier to entry for independent toy stores that are looking to carry some of the mainstream hits for which kids are asking. Those factors can unfairly skew consumer perception of specialty retailers as being pricey when compared to mass retailers.

“The wholesale prices are too high for indie sellers,” Dolores Sargeant says. “We sometimes see certain merchandise come in, and for the price we pay, we could go buy two of them at Target.”

Perception can stifle discovery, and that’s dangerous since independent retailers have become the incubators for new products and ideas, filling the gap of what Toys “R” Us once was. An indie hit can become the next big thing, and specialty retailers are forever on the hunt for newness while simultaneously keeping classic toys and play alive for the generations of the future.

“I look for toys that are timeless, that hit that sense of whimsy and fun that I know keeps people coming back,” Watt says. “I don’t want people to walk into my store and think, ‘Oh, they have everything I thought they would, everything I see on TV.’ I want them to go, ‘Wow, I never knew half of this stuff existed, and it is so cool and so different, I’m overjoyed.”

This article was originally published in the June 2022 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!

About the author

James Zahn

James Zahn

James Zahn, AKA The Rock Father, is Editor-in-Chief of The Toy Book, a Senior Editor at The Toy Insider and The Pop Insider, and Editor of The Toy Report, The Toy Book‘s weekly industry newsletter. As a pop culture and toy industry expert, Zahn has appeared as a panelist and guest at events including Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) Wizard World Chicago, and the ASTRA Marketplace & Academy. Zahn has more than 30 years of experience in the entertainment, retail, and publishing industries, and is frequently called upon to offer expert commentary for publications such as Forbes, Marketwatch, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, the Washington Post, and more. James has appeared on History Channel’s Modern Marvels, was interviewed by Larry King and Anderson Cooper, and has been seen on Yahoo! Finance, CNN, CNBC, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, CBS, WGN, The CW, and more. Zahn joined the Adventure Media & Events family in 2016, initially serving as a member of the Parent Advisory Board after penning articles for the Netflix Stream Team, Fandango Family, PBS KIDS, Sprout Parents (now Universal Kids), PopSugar, and Chicago Parent. He eventually joined the company full time as a Senior Editor and moved up the ranks to Deputy Editor and Editor-in-Chief.