by Tina Manzer
It’s GO time for the holidays at Snoozy’s Kids near Birmingham, Alabama. “We need to do what we do, and do it really well in the upcoming months,” says owner George Jones. “I’m ready now.”
He’s implementing a new strategy this year, his 30th holiday season. George and his staff have re-merchandised earlier than he has in the past 29 years, and brought in more product. Pictures taken in early September show a fully stocked store.
It’s one of many changes resulting, in part, from a conversation George had this year with Steve Starobinsky, the toy-trend guru from Diverse Insights. Steve maintains an office at AmericasMart, where he met with George and his buyer, Lucy Marks, during the Atlanta Gift Show. “We spent about 20 minutes together, and he gave us great advice on how to shop for Millennials. We hung on every word,” says George.
Steve told them that while Millennials will buy their basics online, “going shopping” is in their DNA – they need and want to touch the merchandise. “They’re going to come to your store because it’s been there a long time and you’ve made a name for yourself,” Steve told them. “But you’ve got to have what they want. Otherwise, they’ll consider it a waste of time. They could have shopped online instead.”
Based on what he’d heard, George and his co-buyers – his wife, his 27-year-old daughter, and Lucy – worked hard to “buy better” this year. It worked. “I’m thrilled to be up for the year as we head into the holiday season,” he says. “And thank goodness for ASTRA and for other conventions where I am able to see the latest items. I feel like I’ve left no stone unturned.”
Snoozy’s Kids opened in 1988; five years after George and his family – including his dad, the original “Snoozy” – began Snoozy’s College Bookstore. Located in Birmingham proper, it serves the students, faculty and staff of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“The bookstore was extremely busy at the beginning of each semester, but during the other months it was extremely slow, and I like to stay busy,” he says. “There are a lot of young families in our area, but there was nowhere to buy toys or books at the time. We started Snoozy’s Kids, what I thought would be the neighborhood children’s bookstore, with an inventory of 75 percent books and 25 percent toys. We found ourselves ordering and reordering more and more toys, so we quickly reinvented it as the neighborhood toy store.”
Today, he considers Snoozy’s Kids a gift store that specializes in toys and women’s accessories. It’s located in Crestline Village, a neighborhood in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook. It’s just a few miles from the city, but its atmosphere is strictly small town. The toy store is one of many specialty boutiques that line the streets. A majority of their owners, like George and his wife, live in Crestline Village, so the sense of community runs deep.
George divides his time between his two stores, but admits he’s at Snoozy’s Kids 99 percent of the time. “It’s a football weekend at the college, so I’ll sell shirts and other UAB gear tomorrow morning, but I’ll be back at the Kids in the afternoon,” he told me.
Got to have “WOW”
“I carry some Paw Patrol, and other items you’ll see in the mass market, like Hatchimals and Marvel action figures,” says George, about the product mix in his 3,500-square-foot store. “I don’t have big sections of products; they are small but they are good. Of course I buy from a lot of vendors we see only at ASTRA, and we embrace the manufacturers who try to stay with small retailers.”
Among his current favorite products are Micro Scooters and new releases from LEGO, plus Zipes from NeatOh! Lazer X from Toy Smith, everything from Jellycat, and anything remote control. “We try to have durable, cool and ‘WOW’ toys, and always something different,” he says. George’s specialty is enthusiastically describing those WOW items in YouTube videos. “I’m not proud,” he told me. “I’ll do anything to promote the store, even dance on street corners with signs.”
In addition to the videos, he also posts images of products on Instagram, and that is about the extent of marketing for Snoozy’s. “And, if anyone asks me to speak at their event, I’ll bring my wares and do it.”
It must be effective – George is a local celebrity. “At church, kids point at me and smile. I love it,” he says.
Snoozy’s Kids has 10 employees, including George, Lucy and others who live nearby, mostly moms. “They have kids themselves, and they know a lot of folks in the community. That helps,” says George. “I’m very demanding in terms of customer service. The store has earned a great reputation and I need employees who can keep delivering it.
“We do a lot of hand selling,” George continues. “Part of it is explaining why we stock the item in the first place. We tell our customers that we search for ‘the best’ for them, and it’s the truth. Sometimes I love a product but the packaging is poor. I’ll say, ‘Look: the box doesn’t do it justice, but I promise you that your kids will have the best time with this product.’ Parents and grandparents trust us, and that’s how we’ve built our audience. We’ve watched our original customers grow up and have kids of their own, and we love that they shop here today.”
He also hires employees from the local high school’s co-op program. He looks for kids with enthusiasm and personality “because I can teach them to sell,” he says. George majored in history and minored in business, but at sales, he’s a natural.
“Selling can be a mind-blowing thing for new hires. I tell them, ‘Learning this skill can change your whole life.’ We do some role-playing and sales simulations, and we teach them to engage with the products and to engage the customers. We teach them to ask questions that will always be answered in the affirmative, like ‘Don’t you love this color?’ or ‘Can’t you see your nephew playing with this?’ We never ask about budget or how much a customer wants to spend. We just start showing them the coolest things and that kind of does it for them, you know?”
The Snoozy’s difference
Service includes shipping to out-of-town locations, arranging for drop shipping, free gift wrapping, and fulfilling telephone orders like this one: “I live in Memphis but my grandson is having surgery there tomorrow. Can you drop off a care package at the hospital?”
“We have a great children’s hospital here, so that happens a lot,” George explains. “We keep customer credit cards on file for birthday-party gifts, so parents can call us ahead of time. By the time they get here, it’s paid for, wrapped and waiting. We’ll even walk it out to their car.
“We try to make everything fun and easy,” he adds. “We don’t want to be like Walmart, just pushing customers through and scanning bar codes. We want to be involved with the buying process.”
In terms of the next 30 years, George remains optimistic about retail, especially independent retail. “We’re watching the decline of large department stores like Macy’s and the rebound of smaller stores. Stores like mine are attracting new customers. We just have to make sure we’re keeping people happy.”
Evidently, he is. One of his favorite compliments occurs when locals bring their friends in from out of town and tell him, “We just had to show them Snoozy’s.”
George has a reputation for fashion. A few years ago, photographs of him and his wife appeared in a Birmingham magazine article called “Style Icons: George and Virginia Jones.”
So it’s no surprise that within Snoozy’s kids, George has carved out a space for women’s accessories, including chic and affordable jewelry, scarves, wraps, purses and more. He sources products from about 25 small designers. Shoppers love it.
“When you think about it, who are my customers? Moms. On a schedule,” he explains. “We started out with teen/tween accessories, but now we even carry diamond jewelry. We meet the needs of that mom who comes in to buy toys for her kids, something for her sister and something for herself.”
One day a customer told him, “I love your bracelets but I don’t want to give them in a gift box that says ‘Snoozy’s.’ Today, he uses a small logo left over from an idea for another store. It says “george.”