Getting Everyone Talking

ASTRA’s annual trade event in June got to the root of matters big and small, and proved once again that specialty toy folks are mighty together

by Tina Manzer

Nearly 3,000 industry professionals gathered in Philadelphia in June to take part in ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy, the annual specialty-specific trade show. The four-day event featured workshops, educational sessions, panel discussions and special presentations, plus a packed show floor with 600 exhibitors.

Sessions entitled “How Small Toy and Game Companies Can Compete in an Amazon World,” and “The Internet is Not Your Enemy: Showrooming, Webrooming and You!” tackled some of today’s biggest challenges head-on. As a result, people from every segment of the industry went home with fresh insight and practical solutions for the changing toy-retail landscape.

Discussions were constant, and no issue proved too uncomfortable to address. “When manufacturers sell online directly to consumers – and from time to time offer price incentives directly to those consumers – challenges and confusion can result for retailers, sales representatives, manufacturers and consumers alike,” said the official description of another workshop. The session, conducted in a panel-discussion-type format featuring Ann Kienzle (retailer), Betsy Harney (sales rep) and HABA’s Lea Culliton, presented a host of best internet-based business practices. While the discussion acknowledged “the modern forces driving our online environment,” it also offered ideas for maintaining a healthy specialty toy “ecosystem.” Here are just some of the points the panelists covered.

ASTRA’s membership as a whole has a positive outlook for the industry’s future, based on small-group roundtable discussions held by ASTRA in May. Retailers, reps and manufacturers agreed that innovative brick-and-mortar environments are the key to success.

Members believe communication among the three industry segments is fragmented at the moment, also according to the roundtable discussions. MAP pricing has become a constant talking point, as the panel discussion illustrated. “Be honest with us about enforcing MAP,” suggested one retailer to manufacturers in the room. “If you’re not going to stop selling to Walmart and Homegoods, at least let specialty retailers know what you’re doing with MAP.”

The internet has its advantages for our industry, and social media is one of them. Facebook has become a great information disseminator says Ann Kienzle, and Instagram’s new Stories feature lets you tell your story with a slideshow gallery of videos or pictures.

Her store’s new website, playlogansquare.com, includes a button called “The Services” that takes visitors to information about its free giftwrap, free local delivery, and call-ahead ordering services. The website also features an “Appointments” button for shoppers who want to book a free 30-minute session with one of the store’s Certified Play Experts/personal shoppers.

Rep Betsy Harney keeps stores in the know using Emma, “a digital marketing platform that makes it easy to create beautifully designed emails that drive results,” says the website myemma.com. “Think of it as an artsy Constant Contact,” says Betsy.
An online order-writing feature called Sugar B REACH was recently added to her company’s website, sugarbsales.com. “With clickable catalogs, this order portal is as easy as 1-2-3,” says the site. Retailers click on a link to get started. The feature lets them browse catalogs, see images, look at order history, and enter orders 24/7. After the order is submitted, a rep follows up to confirm.

HABA USA directs online shoppers to local stores thanks to a service called Locally. “Brands have to sell online,” explained Lea Culliton. “Our catalog is too big for every store to feature every product.”

But Locally, a mission-driven company based out of New Orleans, helps online shoppers of HABA products find and buy the merchandise at local stores. The firm exhibited at Marketplace this year for the first time.

Locally receives a certain percentage of every sale from HABA and the many other brands that utilize its service. Retailers can enroll to participate for free. “All of our services enable shoppers to engage with premium brands at local stores and purchase
products that are in stock near them through a sharp and seamless online-to-offline experience,” says Locally’s website. “Everything we do is to help online shoppers find what they’re looking for, in stock, near them.”

For more details, visit locally.com.

More and more people are playing board and card games, noted Lea, thanks in part to players who enjoy spreading the word. Now, retailers can ask them to demo games at their stores through the Envoy Program from game and game-convention company
Double Exposure. It adds structure to the game evangelist process by matching game companies with players (called “heralds”). The well-trained heralds are dispatched to local conventions, game stores and group meet-ups in their neighborhoods to get everybody playing. “Gamers love to share information about the games they play,” notes Lea, “and they’ll do it for free.”
For more information, visit dexposure.com/envoy/.

New leaders and deserving award winners

Now in its 25th year, ASTRA continues to gather momentum. Helping to take the association into its next quarter century is Eric Quam from Fatbrain Toys, who assumed the role of board chair during Marketplace & Academy. In addition, three new board members were elected: retailer Amy Saldanha from kiddywampus in Hopkins, Minnesota; manufacturer Kevin McGrath from The Original Toy Company in Milford, Connecticut; and Dee Farrell, from Neat-Oh International in Northfield, Illinois, who is chair elect.

Meanwhile, veteran retailer Brian Miller was awarded ASTRA’s coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. The owner of nine Geppetto’s toy store locations in and around San Diego began his toy career at about the same time ASTRA was founded. As a board member and volunteer leader during ASTRA’s early years, he helped shape many core programs that continue to serve the association’s members today.

“Brian is the epitome of what a specialty retailer should be: a smart businessperson with an eye for his brand and a love of the product,” said Ann Kienzle, former ASTRA board chair. Retailer Christine Osborne, owner of Wonder Works stores in South Carolina, noted, “Brian’s professionalism and grace in all situations shines brightly, and exemplifies why he is deserving of this award. His willingness to help move the industry forward is evident in all he does.”

Other ASTRA awards honored the retailers, manufacturers, sales representatives and young professionals who represent the best of the specialty toy industry.

Here are the winners.

Retailer of the Year
Erin Blanton and Susan Blanton,
co-owners Pufferbellies Toys and Books for Children in Staunton, Virginia

Manufacturer of the Year
HABA USA in
Skaneateles, New York

Sales Representative of the Year
Kimberly Leakas
24/7 Sales in New York, New York

Young Professional Rising Star
Elizabeth Royall, Toy Travelers
International in High Point, North Carolina (formerly with Wonder Works toy stores in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina).

Always something new

Making its debut on the show floor this year was ASTRA’s interactive toy store “The Neighborhood Toy Store Day Experience,” featuring hands-on product demonstrations, a helpful staff, giveaways and complimentary planning resources.

The theme showcased ASTRA’s holiday kickoff initiative that takes place each year in toy stores on the second Saturday in November. Retailers plan celebrations for that day to create awareness among consumers for high-quality toys, and to highlight their role in getting “the best” playthings into the hands of children.

“Retailers host Neighborhood Toy Store Day (NTSD) to celebrate their community, the shop-local message and the joy of play,” said an article in ASTRA Toy Times Magazine last October. The special events they plan often result in increased sales. Last year, retailers reported increases ranging from 5 percent to 349 percent, said the magazine.

Some stores start planning their NTSD activities at Toy Fair. Many take advantage of the support ASTRA manufacturer members offer through playday kits and specials.

“No glass-enclosed cases here!” said ASTRA about the exhibit hall’s New Product Nook. Instead, the collection of never-seen-before toys, games and children’s products invited people to touch and explore products displayed out of the box.

In 2018, ASTRA heads to New Orleans June 10 through 13.

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