Isaac Elliott-Fisher, filmmaker, cinematographer (Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe), and owner of Village Toy Castle, discusses the challenges and wins of a first-year store owner, trends, and predictions in this extended edition of The Toy Book’s 2023 State of the Industry Q&A roundtable. Want more insight from the all-stars of the toy industry? Click here to explore this year’s lineup!
The Toy Book: You celebrated the one-year anniversary of your store during a December snowstorm that closed the store two days before Christmas. What are the biggest lessons you learned in your first full year of business?
Isaac Elliott-Fisher: The unfortunate timing of the snowstorm did shut us down on the final two days before Christmas, but honestly it is something to be expected where we are located. Though, this was one of those “every half century” storms. This first year has been very crazy, as we continue to restore this 146-year-old, long-abandoned, historic brick building that our store is located in, which is not a small task. All while trying to learn the ropes of retail for the first time, create and refine the experiential elements of the business, and develop our manufacturing company, not to mention raising three young boys. A lot of the lessons we learned center around the importance of execution on all fronts. From the moment our customers arrive at the front door to the time they depart, we want them to be immersed in the experience, and so far it’s been working very well, though the vision in my head is even grander still than it is now, but good things take time.
TB: “Experiential retail” is a buzzy term, but you’ve put a classic take on the concept. How are your experiences fueling sales?
IEF: We were very aware going into this endeavor that our geographical location would pose a challenge. Located in a very small village with literally no other businesses drawing customers in, nor giving them a reason to stop in town, we knew we had to be a destination. A lot of the classical feel was inspired by the building itself, a unique, well-positioned, large, standalone, two-story brick hotel from the Victorian era gives everything a rich texture and an old-world feel.
The fact that we came along and restored the building at all was enough to turn many heads; not many people take this sort of risk with these old buildings, especially with how far gone this one was. Pulling cues from the building’s historical roots we have created an immersive blend of new and old, connecting the architecture, play history, and modern toy products throughout the shopping experience.
Wherever possible we tie unique retro items or brands between the artifacts on display and the new products on the shelves. Our area sees a lot of cross-gen traffic, so we are seeing sometimes three or more generations come to the store together, and we are seeing those families truly enjoy rediscovering toys and games from their own childhoods and sharing those with the next generations.
We have quickly become a favorite spot for families, especially those with young children who might be looking for a rainy day activity or stop along the way in their travels. Parents can relax with a coffee or retro soda and snack while exploring the various toy museum displays throughout the store, as their kids enjoy the castle play structure or play a retro video game. We wanted to include as much free experience as possible taking up a significant portion of the store, which in the end enhances the shopping experience. We often say that we can’t compete with big-box businesses directly, but we can compete with experience.
TB: What were some of the best-selling toys and categories in your store last year?
IEF: We try to offer a wide selection of products that one might expect to see in any popular toy store. While I truly wish I could say it was the action figures and dolls category selling to kids rather than kidults, that was the top category. Overall, the retro novelty category sees the most sell-through in our store. It is probably no surprise that these fun, simple classic products ranging from wooden paddle boats and kaleidoscopes to tinker toys, pop rockets, and tin tops would sell well in a store that focuses on retro play. People really key into these basic items, there is something timeless about it, which is fantastic. Kids will likely never get tired of a good old potato gun or Whoopee Cushion.
TB: What is a big challenge facing specialty toy retailers?
IEF: Finding and accessing cool or different new products isn’t as easy as I assumed it should be. It boggles my mind that in a time of instant communication, more manufacturers don’t provide distribution information for retailers. I often find that manufacturers have no information available on their websites, no supplier lists, no internal sales contacts, nothing. With the rising costs of travel and the lack of trade shows in recent years, it is a challenge to source unique products that make the specialty shopping experience special, so it doesn’t make sense to me why manufacturers wouldn’t be more interested in connecting with buyers.
TB: An onsite toy factory is planned for the Village Toy Castle. How is that initiative taking shape?
IEF: This idea is actually how the whole toy store thing got started for us. As my young family continued growing in numbers, my time on the road shooting films became more difficult, so I was already looking for some alternative projects to work on closer to home, while still keeping one foot in the door of film. After my first son was born I was looking for a specific type of product to collect for him as he got older while we were traveling for the behind-the-scenes film on Netflix and Henson’s Dark Crystal series in the UK.
I identified a gap in the toy market and I started imagining how I could create something to fill it. This led to many years of me trying to learn as much as I could about plastics manufacturing and developing a unique way to produce highly detailed metal tooling for short-run production in our own domestic factory setup without going overseas or incurring incredibly high startup costs. Then the pandemic happened, so I used that as a reason to switch gears and find a place to house such a project. It just so happened there was this old rotting hotel across the road from my home, so I bought it to restore and put a toy factory in it. This spawned a series of plans and ideas that lead to opening a destination toy store/toy museum/play space that looks into the onsite toy factory through a window.
Now in early 2023 we are ready to bring in the equipment and get this ball rolling for our own products as well as production for third parties, but there are still some hurdles to conquer, both creatively and in investment, so we are always looking for new partnerships and guidance as we are breaking lots of new ground here and it is a really exciting time.
TB: What are your overall predictions for the state of the toy industry and toy retail in 2023?
IEF: It is my firm belief that the toy industry has some reshaping to do in the coming years. We have all seen the growth in the toy market provided by the so-called “kidult” trend that has bolstered numbers in recent years, as well as the push for ideas to sell to younger and younger audiences chasing the successes of preschool brands like PAW Patrol. As a father, I am saddened to see these trends in play moving children away from physical toys and towards electronics at younger and younger ages each year. I have been collecting documentary content and research on the subject for some time now and it would appear that the toy companies have become lazy and have lost focus on children in recent years. Taking limited risks on anything new and chasing the dollars of branded preschool products and the adult collector markets, the toy companies have left a massive void of limited SKU options in the middle age [5-10] bracket. Some of this blame should land squarely on the content producers and content regulators as it becomes harder and harder to market directly to children or create any original content of value with enough mass market appeal.
In the end, it is the kids that are left out, and they are still kids no matter what anyone says, I just think they have nothing but screens as options to play with. I struggle to have creative, engaging, story-based play options for kids ages 5-10 available in our store. We try to stock toys and dolls that invite creativity and story-based imaginative play patterns driven by interesting characters, settings, and accessories, the stuff that makes us human. Instead, I am left with incredibly over-complicated figures with too many points of articulation and too high a sticker price to amass any size of collection to play with, all based on tired brands that needed to be left alone years ago. This is especially apparent in the boys’ action category, where the only new idea in recent times with any kind of success has been Heroes of Goo Jit Zu (which I love by the way).
In the end, the adult collectors will stop collecting, and the kids of today will grow up, and I think we will find that the toy companies that are riding this nostalgic wave will all have nothing to sell because the next generation has nothing to be nostalgic for that they can call their own. I hope for all our children’s sake this trend turns around because I think we can all agree that while electronics aren’t going away, they probably shouldn’t be the only form of play available for young developing minds.
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!