When Dee Stevens opened her little toy store, The Grow-Cery, in downtown Glen Rock 25 years ago, there were two giant Toys R Us stores nearby, each 15 minutes away. She also had to contend with Noodle Kidoodle, Zany Brainy, Imaginarium and KB Toys stores all within easy reach of her customers.
Now Toys R Us and all those other toy chains are gone. Dee Stevens and The Grow-Cery are always there.
She won by playing by a different set of rules – choosing quality toys, avoiding mindless fads, and not caring what the big box stores around her were doing. “Would I survive them? I never thought about it,” she said. She considered her small store to be part of a different universe than Toys R Us. “They were 50,000 square feet and I was 1,100 square feet. And I didn’t want to sell the same toys they did.”
This Christmas – the first since all Toys R Us stores closed following the Wayne-based retailer’s collapse following its bankruptcy filing – promises to be a joyous one for toy store survivors like Stevens.
At the Tons of Toys store in Wyckoff, just before the start of Hanukkah, there was a line of shoppers at the cash register and owner Ken Maietta and a store employee were quickly packing up Lego sets, building blocks, dolls and dozens of other purchases for customers.
Recently, at the Let’s Pretend toy store in the Ramsey Interstate Mall, owner Janet Zuendt fielded calls from customers looking for hot items like the $199.99 Melissa & Doug Farm Stand Fresh Mart, and the store was filled with parents and grandparents buying gifts.
The demise of Toys R Us has caused shoppers to rethink where and how they buy toys, leading some to discover or rediscover local toy stores.
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“We hear stories from owners about someone walking through the door and saying ‘Oh, I didn’t even know you were here’ – in a store that’s been around for about 25 years,” said Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association (ASTRA). “They feel like they’ve found new customers” who could be former Toys R Us shoppers, she said.
Mosley thinks neighborhood toy stores are also benefiting this year from growing consumer interest in shopping local. “People are looking for what they can do in their own neighborhood” and supporting their local cafes, bookstores and toy stores, she said.
Another “sad but true” benefit resulting from the Toys R Us closures was that news about Toys R Us “keep toys top of mind for everyone” and prompted consumers to look for other places to buy toys. , Mosley said.
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There are about 3,000 specialty toy stores in the United States, according to ASTRA. This number includes game stores and hobby stores.
It’s usually the busiest month of the year for local toy stores, as it is for Toys R Us. owners.
“We’re always busy, but we’ll probably get a little boost this year,” said Ken Maietta of Tons of Toys at Wyckoff. His father opened the store 30 years ago, and the company added three more stores in North Jersey – in Westwood, Madison and Bernardsville.
Independent toy store survivors have long been doing a number of things that analysts say could have saved Toys R Us. They are working to make their store an experience, with displays kids can play with for their parents do their shopping. They also have strategies to draw customers into the store, such as in-store birthday parties or “wish bins” – a kid-friendly version of a gift registry. Wishing bins are plastic bins marked with the child’s name that a child or parent can fill with toys from the store that the child would like to receive for a birthday.
At Let’s Pretend in Ramsey, more than a dozen wishing bins full of toys were stacked on shelves. The store also hosts birthday parties and creates experiences for children, such as the Thomas the Tank Engine play table in the center of the store or the spinning K’nex Ferris wheel in the front of the store.
Dee Stevens said she was a little embarrassed when looking at old photos of her store from the year she opened The Grow-Cery because she barely had any merchandise. “I’m looking at pictures and thinking, how the hell did you have the nerve to open with nothing? You know what? I didn’t have any money.”
What she had was a retail pedigree. She was a graduate of Macy’s Executive Education Program, with previous experience at Macy’s Herald Square and other stores. Now every square inch of his store is filled with inventory, and his forte is being able to instantly get his hands on the perfect toy for a customer who says, “I need something for a 4-year-old boy who likes cars, but there can’t be little bits because he has a little brother.”
“I hope this store never closes,” said Maggie Enright, a New Yorker, who shops at the store while visiting her sister in Glen Rock. “You find things here that you can’t find anywhere else.”