It’s safe to say that COVID-19 has dominated our lives this past year. As the pandemic continues to rage on, small business owners are facing the biggest challenges of their lives. What does one do when confronted with mandatory shutdowns, startling changes in shopping patterns, and the halt of human interaction? “Thinking outside the box” is always a useful skill to have, but retailers have really had to twist their brains and get creative to pivot their business strategies in ways they’ve never thought of before.
The one constant in life is change, and toy stores are doing just that to find new ways to reach customers from afar. The Toy Book spoke with several specialty toy shops across the U.S. and a retail profit coach to share some of their best practices and biggest struggles, and to see how they are adapting in unexpected ways to weather the storm.
CONTENT BOOKSTORE AND KIDS’CONTENT IN NORTHFIELD, Minnesota
Jessica Peterson White opened a local bookstore in Northfield, Minnesota in 2014 and expanded with an attached toy store in 2019. Content Bookstore and Kids’Content had to close its doors in mid-March due to the governor’s orders, but was granted an exemption to reopen as a critical business since the shop provides books and supplies to local public schools.
“We were completely swamped with orders during the lockdown and afterward,” Peterson White says, citing that her store processed a total of 321 online orders in all of 2019, which dramatically increased to 5,130 online orders last year. “We had to convert the store into a shipping warehouse overnight, which was really challenging.”
Online orders became the new normal, and luckily, Peterson White already had e-commerce and a fulfillment system in place for the bookstore portion of her business. The employees already knew how to print postage and had packaging on hand. All they had to do was get the toys and other non-book items up on the website. “That was the bigger shift for us, but it’s something that will serve us well moving forward,” Peterson White says.
Her biggest sellers were jigsaw puzzles, arts and crafts toys, tabletop games, and anti-racism books. Inventory planning served the store well, helping Peterson White project sales and keep track of what consumers want. “If I didn’t have an inventory planner, I wouldn’t have had all those jigsaw puzzles and I would’ve missed out on thousands of dollars,” Peterson White says. “It’s going to be even more important for the coming year so that I can feel confident to adapt my inventory while trends are shifting.”
One of her biggest concerns is the loss of precious one-on-one time with customers as shoppers shift to a virtual world. “We have to make sure the customers get the same hands-on, high-service, individual attention when they place an order remotely as they do when they come in the store because we’re going to have a lot of customers who will continue shopping online for a while,” Peterson White says. She also found that the store’s customer base grew significantly because people were shopping online from all over the country.
Retailers can stand out from the crowd by personalizing the virtual shopping experience just like they would for an in-store experience. Peterson White does this for Content Bookstore and Kids’Content by creating curated product lists and gift ideas for the website that she constantly changes the same way she would for an in-store display. “We feature the heart and soul and personality of the store on the website, putting attention on the things we personally are excited about,” she says. “People come to us because they trust what we have chosen.”
She also utilized social media tactics, such as hosting Facebook Live videos for the first time to highlight particular products and to give consumers a closer look at the shop when they couldn’t be there in person. “I was blown away by how much impact those videos had and how much people liked them,” Peterson White says. “Especially for customers who are hardly going out and are very hunkered down. It feels good for them to be able to see inside the store and see my face. It’s a human connection and those were really powerful.”
Retaining communication with customers is also extremely important. The employees at Content Bookstore and Kids’Content will pick up the phone to clarify anything that looks wonky instead of leaving it to chance, like if an order appears to be a gift, but the customer didn’t specify the gift wrap option. “It communicates that we’re looking out for them,” Peterson White says. The shop also invests in seasonal packaging and stickers to include with orders, as well as writing personal notes on bookmarks and sticking them in each package. “Those little things make such a difference in people’s experiences when they compare it to something that comes from Amazon in a box that’s four sizes too big, stuffed with bubble wrap and no personal touch,” she says. One of her challenges going into the new year is to follow up and stay in touch with her newer customers by reaching out to her holiday shoppers and writing hand-written thank you notes to the customers who supported the store from afar.
PLAYNOW IN WESTFIELD AND LUDLOW, Massachusetts
Raymond Vigneault and his wife Noreen had arrangements to open their first toy store last April, but the pandemic had other plans. They were delayed a few months, but they still managed to open up shop in Westfield, Massachusetts in June — and the store did so well that they even opened a second location in Ludlow, Massachusetts in November. What was the key to their success? Focusing on the local community and making the shopping experience convenient for the customer.
While a lot of stores were limiting their hours to mid-day, Playnow was able to stay open later until 7 p.m., which customers appreciated when they couldn’t find anywhere else to go during that time. Playnow also lucked out with pandemic real estate gold with not one, but two prime locations next to grocery stores, giving them built-in traffic for both shops.
To get the word out, Playnow put a big focus on its advertising efforts, including digital ads, banner ads, social media, TV commercials, and yard signs. “We hung signs at the end of the highway and people were coming in immediately,” Vigneault says. “They cost about $12 apiece — the cheapest possible advertising that we’ve done — and people were coming in, saying that they didn’t know we were here until they saw the signs. Sometimes, you just have to let people know that you’re there and you’ll get an immediate response.”
Playnow created a presence on Facebook, Instagram, and community forums to interact with consumers. “We’ve been very aggressive with responding to messages immediately. The worst thing you can do is wait,” Vigneault says.
Although Playnow seemed to have a lot of luck, not everything went according to plan. “I spent about two years planning this store out and what it was going to look like,” Vigneault says. He had visions of hands-on activity tables and places where kids could play in the store, but people are now hesitant about the types of experiential shopping that were so popular in recent years. Vigneault redesigned the layouts to use the extra space for more product storage.
Since opening, Playnow has tripled its science kits and arts and crafts inventory, and increased its stock of educational items to help with distance learning. Board games have become the store’s No. 1 category. “We didn’t anticipate board games to be this big, but we pivoted,” Vigneault says. “We’re always asking our customers what they’d like us to carry.”
Playnow has a website with 3,000 items ready to go, but Vigneault decided to hold off on launching the shipping feature to avoid all the pandemic-related mail delays. Instead, he put the focus on in-store and curbside pick-up and beat his holiday sales projections by 10%. There are plans to launch shipping options before spring. “We thought it was more important to introduce it at a time when things can ship timely so that we can do it right,” Vigneault says. The store also offers a popular loyalty program, and Vigneault is anticipating opening another toy store before the end of the year.
GIVENS BOOKS-LITTLE DICKENS IN LYNCHBURG, Virginia
Givens Books got its start in 1976 as Boonshire Books, changing its name to Givens Books in 1980 and expanding to become Givens Books-Little Dickens in 1999, offering new and used books, toys, gifts, and school supplies. Even after 45 years, the store is keeping up with the times and surviving the pandemic with the help of the local community.
“I feel one of the most noticeable results of COVID-19 in smaller communities, or at least ours, has been solidarity behind small businesses and a more mindful awareness of shopping locally,” says owner Danny Givens. “Some customers very specifically reduced their online shopping from large internet companies and did curbside with us, shopped online, or came in briefly to grab their items. They wanted us to survive and we felt their support.”
Givens Books-Little Dickens emphasized shopping locally in its advertising as well, pushing the message: “Support your local stores so our communities remain vibrant and thriving during and after COVID.” Givens used signage, banners, the store’s website, and local news stations to get the message out and to let people know the store was still there and ready for action.
“I think people want to see good small businesses thrive in their hometowns and don’t want their communities devoid of character, flavor, and personality, which is the hallmark of communities where there are lots of well-run, family-owned, unique businesses,” Givens says.
The store was active on social media pre-pandemic, but Givens took the opportunity to put even more of a fierce focus on Facebook and Instagram, hiring a part-time employee to help out and put more energy into it. They used social media to remind customers of the store’s presence, as well as to highlight safety measures, different ways to shop, and specific products they carry to help curb the boredom blues. Givens also made sure to highlight products that met the needs of homebound families and saw a surge in puzzles, games, outdoor toys, workbooks, and various activities. “This was very important since kids were home with nothing to do as the nation went into lockdown,” Givens says.
It can be difficult to read the room during such dark times, but Givens Books-Little Dickens got creative with light-hearted posts and videos. “We found that humor often got the best responses — uninhibited, silly humor — and human interest stories also worked well,” Givens says. He explains that they got customers involved by getting photos of families shopping and asking them questions about how the pandemic was bringing them together and what they were learning, as well as sharing inspirational stories of people helping others. “These small stories got very large hits,” he says. “Customers love seeing their neighbors, friends, and community members featured on a post with a positive, upbeat story.”
Givens Books-Little Dickens also prepared for an increase in online shoppers by amping up the amount of product on its website and making it more user-friendly. That paid off because the website had a tenfold increase in traffic. The employees also used FaceTime and phone calls as selling tools.
Givens emphasizes organization, making sure the store was ready for business with a clean website, up-to-date contact lists, a template for taking calls and web orders, and designated shelves for orders so that employees could find customers’ bags quickly for curbside pick-up. “We wanted to make the shopping experience easy, quick, convenient, and safe,” Givens says. Holiday sales ended up being even stronger than the previous year.
WORDS OF A WISDOM FROM A RETAIL PROFIT COACH
Jennifer Abraham Rust is the founder and CEO of Creative Profit Planning, helping retailers make their stores profitable through business analysis and financial planning. During a year when so many businesses were falling apart, she helped her clients rework their plans and reassess their strategies to succeed.
“What I saw with my clients was that the ability to quickly pivot was the most important thing that they did,” Rust says, stressing that retailers need to have omnichannel ways of selling to meet customers’ needs and to cater to how they want to shop.
Businesses did this by building websites if they didn’t already have them (or making their websites more user-friendly), hosting online and virtual events, setting up private shopping appointments, offering local delivery, and creating personalized experiences for customers, such as custom-made Easter baskets sold by price-point and age group. “The customer base was so appreciative of the fact that the store saw the need and met the need, and did it in a way that created a great experience, that they became a loyal customer base and continued buying from them after the shutdown ended,” Rust says.
The most important strategy for any business to have is a plan. “I can’t emphasize enough, if you have a plan, you can adjust the plan. If you don’t have a plan, then you’re really winging it,” Rust says. This applies to the uncertainty of the pandemic, but will serve businesses well for any future issues that may arise, such as blizzards or power outages.
Rust offers a course called “Retail Roadmap to Financial Success’’ that helps store owners understand how to make small changes in their business to help their bottom line. She also works one-on-one with clients to create, monitor, and adjust plans to help them understand their finances and drive profits, which retailers can learn more about by visiting creativeprofitplanning.com. “There is no more room to treat your business like a hobby anymore,” Rust says. “You really need to treat your business like a business and run it like a professional in order to survive during these challenging days.”
There’s no way to predict what the future has in store in the volatile world that we’re living in, but small business owners can hone in on their customers and rally their communities to become a powerful lifeline. All we can do is forge forward and ride it out together.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!