Thinking Out Loud

Tye and Joan Steinbach have owned Thinker Toys – “Portland’s most hands-on toy store” – for more than two decades.

“We’re like the Cheers of toy stores,” says Joan Steinbach, who owns Thinker Toys with her husband Tye. Kids and adults love spending time in the 4,000-square-foot store in Portland, Oregon. The happy hour has lasted for more than two decades.

“We create a fun vibe with lots of areas where kids can play, parents can sit and people can just feel good,” Joan explains. “We start by setting a good example through being present and pleasant. We truly like and enjoy our customers.”

Mixing it up in Multnomah

Thinker Toys is located in Multnomah Village, a neighborhood business district described on its website as “quaint, charming, a bit off-center and quintessentially Portland.” Located 5 miles from downtown Portland, the six-block main street is home to a wine bar and brewpub, galleries, cafes and unique shops offering everything from antiques to acupuncture services. Real estate in the area – primarily single-family housing – is considered some of the most desirable in the city.

“When we moved into our house about a quarter-mile from this awesome business district, our kids were just 2 and 5 years old,” Joan explains. “There were lots of young families in the area, but not much for children to do. That’s when we got the idea for a toy store.”

She and Tye were both teaching middle school science at the time, but Joan quickly signed up for a one-day “Start Your Own Business” class at the local community college, and came up with a 12-page business plan.

“Our background as teachers helped us to establish our credibility with parents,” Joan says. “As our kids grew up in the community, we saw our customers at swimming lessons or back-to-school night or soccer games, and we really got to know them.”

When the store opened in 1994, Joan and Tye kept their day jobs until the business gained traction. They hired one employee. “We’ve increased sales and added staff over time,” Joan explains. Today, Thinker Toys employs 18 part-timers.

The owners have also raised employee salaries to a minimum of $12 an hour (some earn upwards of $15), and added a matching retirement plan for long-term employees. “It happened incrementally,” she says. “Starting out, we didn’t sense how important our relationship with our employees would be, how much responsibility we feel for them or how much we care for them as a group.

“We’re invested in this neighborhood,” she adds. “We live here and have raised our now-grown kids here. We didn’t anticipate how involved we would become in the growth of the business district, especially connecting with the community and becoming a fun destination. I love having a relationship with our customers and their families, and truly feel that we’ve become a resource for visitors and residents.”

Creative recyclers

Thinker Toys’ first location was 300 square feet. It came with a month-to-month lease that was “signed” by a handshake. Two location-moves later, the store is 10 times its original size. “Many small businesses put lots of money into startup, and then wait to see if it sticks,” Tye says. “We’ve had 20 years of slow-and-steady, tortoise-not-hare success.”

Planning strategically and spending carefully was important to Thinker Toys’ survival, especially in the early years. “We did everything on the cheap,” Joan says. A friend built display units for the store; they joined other fixtures that were purchased lightly used. Bargain hunting remained the norm as they grew and improved over the years. Almost-new fixtures were purchased from local stores’ closeout sales: solid maple fixtures were rescued from the “dumpster pile” of a local toy store, part of a national chain, when it closed. A U-Haul truckload of custom fixtures were purchased from another, and they recently bought a counter system in near-mint condition.

“In our market, it’s the toys on the shelf that matter, not the fixtures,” Joan says. “Still, if you’re going the ‘recycled’ route, make sure your shelves are presentable.”

The advantage of “real” versus “virtual”

In 2009, Thinker Toys was named Portland’s Best Toy Store by Nickelodeon’s website (now NickMom). In 2011, it received the “Family Favorite” award from MetroParent. “At Thinker Toys, kids get hands-on play time and parents don’t get overwhelmed with commercialized toys,” said the magazine.

Hands-on is the norm there, where several dedicated play areas plus tables and a play cottage, are built into the store. “As we all know, toys are tactile,” Tye explains. “Kids need to see, touch, feel and manipulate toys to get a sense of how they work – that’s how they experience them.”

An area is designated for baby toys; toys for toddlers are clustered by age group. “As kids get older, their interests become more focused and particular, so those toys are arranged by subject or department,” Tye explains. Birth to age 10 is the store’s “sweet spot,” but items that have older-kid and adult appeal are always being added to the mix, including “German-style” board games like Catan and Ticket to Ride.

Thinker Toys’ thoughtful approach to its mix, product merchandising and hands-on play spaces is an advantage “real” stores have over the dotcoms of commerce, Tye says. “Our website is really just an online brochure. It’s stale and hasn’t been updated in years. Rampant price compression makes it tough to compete with volume-based e-retailers. For the most part, we’re in an ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mode.

“I know of one local retailer who maintains an e-commerce site and for 2014 he sold precisely six items online. Six,” he adds.

So instead of devoting their time to an online shopping cart, Joan and Tye focus on their community. Thinker Toys is one of many local “green” and “progressive” businesses that contribute to a city-wide coupon booklet. The store also offers a loyalty card that customers love. During the city’s “Little Boxes” promotion on the weekends of Small Business Saturday and Black Friday, the store takes part. “It’s like a treasure hunt where customers visit participating stores and enter to win some major prizes,” Tye explains. “Portland is committed to sustainable ideals, and we personally patronize local businesses, which resonates in the community.”

Full and efficient for fourth quarter

Almost 35 percent of the store’s annual sales are made in November and December. “It’s super-busy and fun, but exhausting,” Joan says. “Our staff is exceptional and it’s important to us that they don’t get burned-out during the fourth quarter.” A few seasonal workers will join the regular part-timers, most of whom have been with the store for at least a year, and others who have been there more than a decade.

While there are several thriving, independent toy stores in the Portland area, “We’re more collegial than competitive,” Joan says. “Most of us know and support each other. If one store runs out of an item during the holiday season, they will help customers find it at another store.”

Thinker Toys has 4,000-square-feet of basement storage space spanning the length of the building. It allows them to take advantage of free-freight options and, by October, the space is stuffed to the gills. “We hope it’s pretty much empty by January,” Joan says. “Most years, we’ve hit this target.”

For a long time they ran the store with just one – and eventually two – cash registers. In 2008, they started using QuickBooks POS. “Still, it isn’t exclusively a math exercise; there’s intuition involved,” Tye says. “Our basic rule is WWJD, or ‘What would Joan do?’”

Employees are encouraged to perform small acts of kindness for customers, and they will occasionally make house calls to take care of last-minute “toy emergencies.” Thinker Toys donates to about 100 schools and nonprofits each year.

“We can measure that we’ve made donations or given freebies with our loyalty card, but we don’t track whether they ‘pencil out,’” Tye says. “We simply like to do it, and think that supporting our community creates good will.

“It’s interesting that there’s currently a lot of attention on the work environment and the stresses on employees at the nation’s largest retailer,” he adds. “To me, it’s a question of what kind of future we want. Thinker Toys can’t compete on price, but we can provide a wonderful environment that edifies both employees and customers, and adds value to our community.”

Story by Jenn Bergin
photos by Annie Lindekugel
Annie’s Sweet Pea Photography, Portland, Oregon

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