Sue Warfield, President of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) discusses the outlook for this year in this extended edition of The Toy Book’s 2023 State of the Industry Q&A roundtable discussion. Want more insight from the all-stars of the toy industry? Click here to explore this year’s lineup!

The Toy Book: What is your take on the general performance of specialty toy retail in the U.S. last year?

Sue Warfield: The specialty toy retail performance among ASTRA members was a very pleasant surprise. Coming from a record year in 2021, many were concerned to be up against such a banner year. When the final numbers came in, some were actually higher, others were the same, and some were just a bit down. This is also amazing considering that across the U.S., the winter storms that created all the havoc with travel also happened during the busiest sales week and affected traffic in the stores.

TB: What are the biggest challenges facing specialty retailers this year, and how is ASTRA addressing them?

SW: There are two main challenges: staffing and finding new products. Finding and keeping staff has been and continues to be the biggest challenge going forward. ASTRA is working on a “Play is my Job” campaign to let people know that this industry is FUN! Getting paid to play? Not a bad gig. We’re also working to help retailers become creative in their flexibility with staff. Potential growth, meaningful work, fun … it’s more than pay that matters.

The refreshed ASTRA logo debuted late last year. | Source: ASTRA

TB: What are ASTRA’s key initiatives for the year ahead?

SW: We started the new year with a new logo and a new mission statement. Our Mission is to: Engage, Elevate, and Promote the success of our membership

We believe our community is stronger when we are learning, working, and succeeding together while remembering that we must play together.

To accomplish our mission we are going out to our members and engaging with them. We attended the January gift shows, the NY NOW x PLAY USA Winter Market, and have sailed out to sea on the Toy Boat with programs to educate, vendor tables to promote, and networking multiple opportunities to engage with one another in a more relaxed environment.

Our Best Toys for Kids awards are now the ASTRA Star Play Awards. Play is for all ages, not just kids, and our members sell games and more that are not necessarily toys but foster good play.

Our Certified Play Expert (CPE) Program is expanding as we are offering the in-person, two-day course in a variety of locations across the U.S. throughout the year. We are also working to add shorter versions for parents to help educate them on the basics of the importance of play from day one.

Marketplace & Academy in Columbus, Ohio, June 11-14 will have a new look on the floor to emphasize engagement and build the sense of community that is the foundation of our organization. Listening, responding, and taking action on what our members want and need will continue to guide all our initiatives as we look to our mission and goal to be the guiding star of the specialty play industry.

What are your overall predictions for the state of the toy industry and toy retail this year?

SW: I’ve been in this industry for more than 40 years. Over those years we have seen our economy go through various stages of turmoil — inflation, unrest, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. Toys and play are essential to all of us, regardless of what we are facing. Some of the challenges our society has faced over the past two years, in particular, have had us step back and examine how we live, play, and do business. The key need for in-person connections has only been heightened after we lived and worked in an age of forced isolation.

Related: The 2023 Edition of The BIG Toy Book is Here!

Toys, games, books, and plush not only connect us, but also soothe us. They will keep us strong for many years to come. Retail stores, especially those that are independently owned and can pivot immediately, have done an amazing job in connecting with their communities and will continue to do so. We work and live through technology and end up craving the “real” experience that involves people. Toy stores that provide individual attention, where there is an owner that knows you and your family, are a cornerstone of our specialty industry. With this continuing, along with the relationships we build and nurture, our industry can only get stronger in 2023 and beyond.

A version of this Q&A was originally published in the 2023 edition of The BIG Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue! Want to receive The Toy Book in print? Click here for subscription options!

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.