Bay Area toy stores hold their own as retail industry shifts – The Mercury News
Ask Mr. Mopps’ Toy Shop owner Devin McDonald what draws people into his store, and among the list of attributes is this: a sense of magic and what he calls “a sort of folklore.”
People have stories about the Berkeley shop, said McDonald, who took over the store with his wife, Jenny Stevenson, seven years ago. From the mother who told him her daughter used to dress up as “Mr. Mopps” (complete with the apron and hat that McDonald typically wears, as there is no actual person named Mr. Mopps at the store), to the older customers who recount going to the store in its early days after it opened in 1962, people have personal experiences with the store to share.
It’s not the kind of answer that executives at say, Toys R Us, might give, but that’s part of why independent toy stores like Mr. Mopps are holding their own in the face of stiff competition from e-commerce giants like Amazon and big-box stores like Target, McDonald said.
“It is about building a rapport with customers,” he said.
Owning an independent toy store — or any small retail business — in the Bay Area is fraught with business challenges and competitive hurdles, toy store owners say, but, especially with another holiday shopping season quickly approaching, veterans in the business are finding ways to connect with customers and keep them coming back.
Stephanie Sala, owner of Five Little Monkeys Toys and Gifts, said independent toy stores like hers are able to offer a different experience from most big-box or online retailers.
“Independents are able to offer customers a better shopping experience that is very hands-on and fun,” Sala said. Her company has four locations around the Bay Area, including Novato, Walnut Creek, Albany and Burlingame. “We offer a unique, carefully curated selection where we have already sifted through the pages of junk for our customers, which is both a science and an art.”
In a way, independent toy stores are carving their path as toy experts and taste makers, said Kimberly Mosely, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.
“Indie retailers are offering more than just product — it’s the additional things that the store can do for you and their expertise of knowing,” Mosely said.
Things like getting staff recommendations or the opportunity to stop by on the way to a birthday party to buy a present and have it gift wrapped are “not something you can do online or through the mass market,” she added.
Toys R Us, which filed for bankruptcy last month, may have done well to heed some of independent stores’ best practices. While it once posed a major threat to toy retailers, competitors have surpassed it with better customer service, prices or selection, toy store owners say.
Karen Murphy, of Berkeley, prefers to shop local over big-box stores, she said at Mr. Mopp’s on a recent afternoon. Murphy had brought her granddaughter, Eryn, to browse the store.
“I like the variety — there are lots of educational toys — and it’s such a nice atmosphere,” Murphy said.
Eryn, who said she often shops at the store with her parents to buy presents for peers’ birthday parties, likes the crafts section.
Part of what’s so important for toy stores in creating experiences is the fact kids have different desires from their parents when it comes to shopping.
“Kids don’t care about buying online,” McDonald said. Kids, toy retailers agree, want to browse, play and pick out items. Shopping for the toys is almost as much of an experience as playing with them at home.
Keith Schumacker, who runs Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo with fellow general manager Daniel Janoska, said the store has different departments — areas for crafts or books or dolls, for example — with play zones in each department. Kids can play with a model train set, for example, while parents talk to store associates, Schumacker said.
“It’s all about creating an experience,” he said. “Anyone can put up four walls and fill it with stuff.”
Talbot’s Toyland is about 35,000 square feet, so it indeed has a lot of stuff, but even at that size, Schumacker said, it’s hard to compete with the selection volume of giants like Amazon.
So Talbot’s Toyland — like Mr. Mopps and Five Little Monkeys — doesn’t really try to compete with Amazon and the like. While the toy store owners and managers acknowledge that Amazon and big-box stores have likely taken away sales and continue to present competition, especially for those shoppers who are looking for the lowest prices, they instead turn to the things they can offer: toy expertise, good customer service and, as McDonald put it, “coziness.”
At Mr. Mopps, you won’t find toys licensed to the latest movies, for example, McDonald said — he wants to offer toys that hold their ground even as cultural trends ebb and flow. Sala, of Five Little Monkeys, and Schumacker of Talbot’s Toyland said they choose toys that are educational, high-quality and often eco-friendly. A kit for kids to make their own gummy candy and a make-your-own solar car are among the items sold at the stores.
They’re careful to educate staff about toys. Mosely, of the specialty toy retailers association, said the organization has seen an increase in the number of toy retail owners and staff getting certified in its “expert play” program.
But relying heavily on the expertise of staff can be difficult in the Bay Area, where high costs of living and low unemployment make it hard to fill traditionally low-wage retail jobs.
“Retail has never been a high-paying career … and when a house around here costs $1 million, you need to make $100,000 to survive,” Schumacker said. “What happens to a lot of these specialty stores is that margins shrink and you can’t have the labor force (you need), and the experience goes down.”
And while the Bay Area is dotted with toy store stalwarts, they’re not immune to the closures that have plagued the industry recently. Earlier this year, one longtime toy store, Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World, closed its doors after nine decades in business.
It does not seem that toy sales are waning in light of, for example, the growth of personal electronics. U.S. toy sales grew by 5 percent in 2016, reaching $20.4 billion, according to data firm the NPD Group. The biggest growth came from games and puzzles, dolls and outdoor sports and toys.
Independent retailers are cautiously optimistic.
“Those who are willing to adapt and change, really listen to what their customers want, and continue to innovate and create unique and personal customer experiences should be able to not only survive but thrive,” Sala said.