by Jenn Bergin
photo by Nanette Faye Photography
Rainbow Toys was a “sweet, sleepy little shop” when Juliette Steinbach first discovered it more than 25 years ago. Located in the small coastal town of Falmouth, Maine, she often visited the specialty toy store with her sister whose child loved its endless shelves stocked with Playmobil.
At the time, Juliette was a stay-at-home mom – she left a job at IBM to raise her two children. One day, a friend asked what Juliette would want to do if she re-entered the workforce. “I think I’d like to own a store like that little toy shop in Falmouth,” Juliette recalls telling her. “A month later, she tracked me down on vacation to tell me Rainbow Toys was for sale, and the owners were privately looking for someone to carry on the business.”
Juliette arranged to meet with the original owners and brought her kids along. “When I returned home, I realized my 3-year-old son had ‘given’ a toy train from the store to my infant daughter in her car seat. I was embarrassed to go back and return it, but the owner and I ended up having a good laugh. Four months later, I bought the toy store. Everything about finding and purchasing the store felt very serendipitous!”
Juliette has owned Rainbow Toys since 1996, and is celebrating the store’s 25th anniversary this year. “When I took over, I simply intended to continue what was already being done,” she says. “I quickly learned that people wanted more. Customers wanted longer hours and more products – they were asking me to carry certain lines and looking for specific toys. Business grew. It didn’t stay the sleepy little toy store I had imagined.”
The staff: a mix of ages and personalities
Within just months of taking over the business, Juliette realized she needed help – and those employees have been instrumental in her long-term success. As his second job, her husband Karl took on responsibility for paying the bills, doing the payroll and taxes, and even cleaning the bathroom! Juliette was able to concentrate on the product and showroom.
“My long-time employees provide a lot of stability,” she adds, “not just for the customers, but also for me.” Some have been with Rainbow Toys since the beginning, like the store’s go-to designer, Carol. “I pick the toys but she does all the displays and arranging,” Juliette says. “She has that ‘eye’ and I definitely don’t.”
Another long-time employee, Betsy, is known for her great customer service. “The comfort and confidence I’ve had in them through the years has allowed me to focus on buying and selling. I couldn’t have done this without them.”
Many of her customers like to consult with Rainbow Toys’ staff who have children and grandchildren of their own. Other customers appreciate the viewpoint of the teenagers who played with many of the toys themselves.
“I hire teenagers each summer to replace the ones going off to college. They learn about customer service and the products in the store so they’re ready for the holiday season. Teens tend to go with the flow and I love their energy and enthusiasm!”
She doesn’t require new hires to study an employee manual or sit through hours of training. “I turn them loose and let them learn by listening, watching and doing.”
A risky move pays off
Juliette also credits her store’s success to its location. Falmouth is an affluent suburb of Portland, with one of the best school systems in the state of Maine. “The area attracts families with kids and our customers are educated and loyal,” she says. “They understand the benefits of buying local, and then actually do so.”
Even though Falmouth is a seaside community, it doesn’t experience the big influx of summer tourists that other coastal towns like Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor do. Her business isn’t seasonal; it increases incrementally from January to December with a slight plateau in the summer months.
“We don’t have a Main Street in Falmouth, and our post office is in the grocery store,” Juliette explains. Most big-box stores are 20 minutes away, and the town keeps it that way with an ordinance on the size and scope of new buildings.
In 2000, a developer turned a local car dealership into a strip mall in an attempt to establish a pedestrian-friendly “Main Street” in Falmouth. Rainbow Toys was invited to move in, but Juliette was hesitant. “Things were going well and I didn’t want to upset the apple cart.” But when she was offered 2,500 square feet of space – 500 more than her store at the time – plus a prime location at the end, next to a courtyard, she decided to take the chance. The fact that it backed up to a Little League field was another plus.
“In the courtyard outside of our store, there are chairs and benches for people to gather. Sometimes we use the open space to test toys, such as remote control planes and flying objects,” Juliette explains.
Staples is the anchor at the mall, which also includes a Mexican and an Italian restaurant, a bank, an upscale shoe store and clothing boutique, a spa, a sports chain, and three second-hand stores; one of which sells toys.
Juliette uses the handmade wooden fixtures from her original location and describes the store today as “comfy, cheerful and bright.” In fact, when they moved in 2000, they won a Merchandising Achievement Award for new store design from Playthings magazine.
Kids have nicknamed Rainbow Toys “the panda store” because of the giant bear on its sign and in the store logo. Inside, there’s a small play area with a Nilo train table and a Hansa Great Red Dragon ride-on toy. High ceilings with three lowered arches represent the arcs of a rainbow with clouds hanging from the highest points. Bright yellow walls feature Jack in the Beanstalk characters and checkerboard edges, hand-painted by a local artist.
And everywhere you turn there are toys. “I keep the store really stocked, for better or worse,” Juliette says. “I want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt for toys.”
Thoughtful purchasing reflects changing consumer habits
“When my kids were young, I filled the store with toys they liked – my main criteria was the fun factor,” Juliette says. “Now that my children are grown, I rely on my reps and tradeshows like ASTRA and Toy Fair to help me with purchasing decisions. But because I love toys and kids, the fun factor is still important!”
Online competition has also changed the way she handles purchasing decisions. For instance, people shopping for big-ticket items today often make those purchases online, at discounted prices, so Juliette no longer stocks them. “Most of the year, I focus on birthday party-priced toys, things that kids can spend their allowance on, and classics like Ravensburger, Playmobil and Bruder. For the holidays, I bring in more expensive items, but sadly no longer carry big-ticket items such as trikes, table and chair sets and kitchens.
“Years ago I wouldn’t have carried the trendy items like fidget spinners, but customers are looking for them and I don’t want to send them away. So I dabble, but not too much.”
Her sales reps have proven to be invaluable trend experts since day one. “I’m in Maine, and trends reach us later than a lot of the country,” she says. “My reps keep me in the know.” She prefers to meet with them face-to-face, and laments the fact that many manufacturers have switched to online ordering. “I’m old-school and I want an appointment scheduled on my calendar. If I have to go to my computer and sit down to place an order, I will never get to certain manufacturers. It’s just another task on my plate.”
Retail Pro Software Solutions track the store’s inventory. “It features a powerful reporting program and I base a lot of my ordering off that,” she explains. “And I follow my gut.
“I used to be able to remember everything in my head,” she adds, “but now we turn too much inventory for that.” So much inventory, in fact, that each fall she rents a PODS portable storage unit to use as a “mobile warehouse.” She fills it to the brim with products for fourth quarter that she doesn’t have room to stock in the store, and by mid-December it’s empty.
“We owe our success and longevity in great part to the many employees – current and past – and customers who have been so loyal to us over the years. We feel very lucky to be part of such a wonderful community.
“I love the process of buying and selling toys,” Juliette says. “But the best part of running Rainbow Toys is the people.”