Sari and Sam Powazek, “toy experts” in Arizona, have been married for 46 years. For most of that time, they’ve been toy store owners. Over the decades, there have been a lot of changes in the toy retail industry – and more than a few challenges – but the couple rolls with the punches.
They opened The Doll House in 1977, in Paradise Valley, a small and affluent tourist town bordering Phoenix and Scottsdale. Their specialty was miniatures and dollhouses; over the years they’ve expanded into other specialty-toy categories like arts & crafts, STEAM, games, dolls, puzzles, cars and trucks. Miniatures and dollhouses still account for about 10 percent of their business.
Then an American Girl store opened nearby, and kids began spending less time doing crafts and collecting, and more time on their computer. “The collectible market was strong until 2000 when Beanie Babies crashed it,” Sari says. “It never recovered.”
But the store bounced back, thanks to the Powazeks’ three-year plan. “We decided to reinvent ourselves every three years,” Sari explains. “We look to do something new or different, whether it’s launching a new website, phasing out a product line, or opening a Middleton Nursery in the store. Not only does it allow us to grow, it also gives our customers a new experience. Thinking about a reinvention gets my creative juices flowing. One year, it was as simple as reframing the windows in a bold color. We painted them bright yellow so passersby couldn’t miss us.”
Last year, the store relocated and rebranded in its biggest transformation to date. With the addition of an indoor children’s play area, The Doll House became Toys & Playtime Oasis.
Play time promotes shopping time and vice versa
Playtime Oasis, for kids ages 5 and under, was inspired by the couple’s twin grandsons; toddlers at the time. “I can handle an entire classroom of kids, but taking my 1-year-old grandsons to the park by myself, no way,” explained Sari, a former early-childhood educator. “There was an indoor play area in northern California, and when we went there the boys were safe, entertained, and would play for two hours.”
The timing was ripe for a change – their lease was up, and their landlord would not negotiate a reasonable rent. “When you move, it’s like starting over,” explains Sari. “We decided it was a good time to change our name. Many people thought a store called The Doll House was just for girls or only sold dolls.”
She and Sam looked for and found a larger space just two miles away. They signed a new lease in mid-November 2013, opened the store the following February and the play area in March.
They figured the new concept would be particularly appealing to parents of young children … who had years of toy buying ahead of them. She’s right – five to 10 new people come in each day. To get to the play area, they have to walk through the store. The challenge is getting them to stop and shop. That’s why Sari displays “pick-me-up stuff,” like eye-catching coloring books, along the way. Once they make their first purchase, she says, it’s easier to get them to buy again.
In addition, the toys in the play area are stocked in the store.
Display units – not walls – divide the retail space from the play space, “so shoppers can see in and hear children having a great time,” Sari says.
One big location
Today, 3,500 square feet is devoted to retail – quite a change from the 600-square-foot space they started out in 38 years ago. The store has moved four times, and at one point, the Powezaks experimented with a second location. “If your original store has great traffic and wonderful sales, you may think opening an additional one is easy,” Sari cautions, “But sometimes, what sells in one place can’t be given away in another. And how you do business in one place doesn’t necessarily translate to the other. If a second location is in your plans, make sure you’re strong enough to go through a learning curve.”
Through all its moves, the store has remained in Paradise Valley. The new location is on North Scottsdale Road, one of the area’s busiest streets. “The schools are great, so it’s a prime area for families,” Sari says. “We also serve a lot of snowbirds and tourists who come to the area for the fabulous golf courses and five-star resort hotels.” (Paradise Valley is home to eight full-service resorts.)
There are two specialty toy stores in town, located just three miles apart. “That’s okay,” Sari says. “We send people back and forth, I can’t carry everything and neither can she.
“This community is very loyal,” she adds. “Some of my customers have shopped here since they were kids and now bring in their grandchildren. But it’s also very transient – everyone is a transplant from someplace else. Very few people were born here.”
Sari complains about locals who shop online, but come into her store to ask for a donation. “It’s hard to figure out what to do in those situations,” she admits. “I never say no to school fundraisers, but if someone pops in who has never walked through our store, that’s a different situation.”
Spreading their message across the universe
Sari and Sam recently launched a new website that presents Playtime Oasis and the changes to their business model. “Our original website was state-of-the-art 10 years ago,” Sari says. To update it, they hired marketing and web-design company hibu. The site remains mostly informational, not e-commerce, and the team is currently working on a mobile app.
Toys & Playtime Oasis is one of the first businesses in the area to experiment with PikFly, a new, Phoneix-based online marketplace with plans to branch out nationwide. “Customers go to pikfly.com and choose something from our store,” explains Sari. “PikFly buys the product from us and gets it to the customer within two hours. The shipping/delivery is free.” Sari negotiated to pay a discounted introductory price for the service, but customers will pay around $99 per month if the venture is successful.
Sam and Sari also keep a marketing professional on retainer. “She gets us online and promoting our activities rather than our products, to get people to come in the door,” Sari explains. “Thanks to Amazon, traditional sales are no longer effective unless we’re offering 80 percent off.”
The store’s email list includes 5,000-plus addresses, and the average open rate is 20 to 25 percent – which is high, notes Sari. Online interactions like Google+ 360 Virtual Tool and videos have helped introduce new customers to the store and play area.
Not everything is high-tech. “We got a POS system in the ’90s but don’t use it to the fullest extent,” she says. “Sam’s an old-fashioned accountant, and he won’t use QuickBooks. It’s basically just for inventory control and a cash register.”
Toys & Playtime Oasis has just two employees, plus Sam and Sari. “We bring in a few extra people during the holiday season, but we really like to work our own store,” Sari says. “I love seeing kids’ eyes light up when they come in, and there’s nothing like getting a huge shipment while listening to belly laughs coming from the play area.”
Their business is one-and-a-half years away from its next reinvention. We wanted to know what’s next. “I haven’t gotten there yet,” Sari told me, “but we are thinking of expanding, redesigning and improving our new concept. The first try is always a learning experience.”
Sari’s vision for an indoor toddler play area came to life when they opened Playtime Oasis in February 2014. “There was nothing in the Paradise Valley community for that age group – the big kids were always there, too,” Sari explains. “We created a place where little kids can crawl around on the floor and be safe.”
The 2000-square-foot fenced-in play area is specially designed for children ages 5 and under, and features a super-fun climbing structure with plenty of soft mats on which little kids can play and roll around. The space is equipped with some of the bestselling toddler toys from the adjoining toy store like train tables, books, puzzles, chalkboards, ride-on toys, Magna-Tiles and more. The walls are hand painted with a Dr. Seuss-inspired mural and “clouds” hang from the ceiling’s exposed beams. “We’re known for the sky on our ceiling,” Sari says, “because for our children, the sky’s the limit!”
Parents love the space, too. They bring their energetic 2-year-olds to play while they sit in peace. “Playtime Oasis is very homey and welcoming,” Sari says. “Moms are comfortable nursing here, and dads have fallen asleep on our couches.”
Parents must remain in the play area to watch their children. “They know the rules. If they want to shop in the store, a friend needs to stay with kids.They can’t leave and come back, but they’re welcome to pack a lunch and stay for the day. Many do.”
She and Sam are all about fun, but the play area is an additional liability, so they made sure to purchase more insurance. They remain very focused on keeping it clean, so shoes are not allowed beyond the fence (ditto food and drink), and socks must be worn at all times. Before opening, they hired local child safety experts Arizona Childproofers to double-check for hazards. The fence, for instance, features a childproof gate. Each day, the playroom is cleaned, vacuumed, and disinfected with an all-natural sanitizer.
Playtime Oasis is open seven days a week: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 to 6 on Saturday and 10 to 5 on Sunday. A day of unlimited open play costs $9 per child. Adults are free and there’s no charge for babies who aren’t walking yet. A special session on Tuesday mornings ($6 per child) includes 30 minutes of open play, along with two structured music and dance sessions with finger-play songs, puppets and musical instruments. There is a free one-hour story time on weekday afternoons.
In addition to open play, there are parties! Playtime Oasis hosts two-hour princess tea parties or superhero surprise visits with a 30-kid limit, so that each child gets one-on-one time for activities like face painting and pictures. Parents can also book the space for birthday parties. Up to 100 kids can be accommodated in the space for one-hour live music or theater performances ($15 per child).
Over the years, Sari has not only become an expert on children, she’s learned a lot about their parents – so much so that Time magazine talked to her for the cover story in its October 26 issue. In “Help! My Parents are Millennials,” she notes that the parents she sees in her play space are more hands-on than those of previous generations, and that they look to their children for direction. “They question themselves, they question the child. ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? Is this what you want?’” Sari told Time.
“Powazek says that while the parents she sees at her store are constantly questioning, the kids seem more confident and more verbal,” says the article. “They’re used to talking and wanting to be heard.”
Story by Jenn Bergin
Photos by Toys & Playtime Oasis and thingstodoinphoenixwithkids.com