at the center of success

by Claire Sykes

In the late 1970s, Jim Davis was a kitchen contractor and his future wife Retha was a food editor for a book publisher. While building cabinets and correcting grammar seem worlds apart, their cooking-related professions were common ground. The knot they tied in 1980 tightened a decade later when they opened a toy store together, Kid’s Center in Tucson, Arizona. At ToyFest West this year, after 30 years of selling toys, their careers were honored with their induction into WTHRA’s Hall of Fame. Here, Retha talks about the gratification of building a business from the ground up, and describes how the business has remained current in the changing world of retail.

edplay: Tell us how you became “toy people.”

Retha: Jim was an accountant at an accounting firm before running his father’s cabinet-building business, Davis Kitchens. I did computer work for the company. Then 10 years after we married, the business closed and the building was bulldozed to make way for a new road. By then we had two small boys and a big decision to make.

Jim’s thought was to open a travel agency – we both love to travel. When I travelled for the publishing company, I always visited stores looking for quality books and toys for our sons. Tucson had a high number of travel agencies per capita, but there were only a couple of children’s book and toy stores. It seemed logical to provide to others what we felt was important for our own family.

When we bought our building – it’s 3,200 square feet, freestanding, single story – we gutted it down to the studs and remodeled it. The retail space is 2,000 square feet. Kid’s Center is the only business in the building. It’s truly a destination store.

It’s located on a major artery in midtown Tucson between downtown and the east side. Downtown is mostly government buildings, attorneys’ offices, restaurants and arts venues, but no real retail presence.

What are some of the factors that made it work right from the start?

Jim and I entered into the business as a partnership with our own separate responsibilities. Jim has always handled the bookkeeping, bills, payroll and advertising, and I am the one who talks with sales reps and places orders. We both go to trade shows.

Owning a store has given us a lot of flexibility. We could still raise a family and travel. While the boys were in school, I could work at the store. I picked them up after school and went home to fix dinner. After they were asleep, I studied catalogs and prepared orders.

Our custom wrapping paper, monthly punch card and full-color holiday catalog helped us build a mailing list of 10,000 customers. From the beginning, they told us how much their children and grandchildren enjoyed what they purchased.

Today, the recipients of those toys during our early years are coming in to buy toys for their own children.

What’s in your product mix?

We tend toward more traditional – but not outdated – toys that involve children’s participation, and oftentimes the parents’, too. We have no screen or computer toys.

We carry merchandise for ages 0 to 100, but our target is up to age 12. Our biggest categories are books, arts and crafts, games, puzzles, science and construction. We always keep Klutz books in stock; the basic plush dogs, cats and Teddy bears; and desert animals.

Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty is an amazing seller. Brio train products are strong, and we still do very well with LEGO. One of our favorite product lines is Folkmanis puppets.

We’re always looking for toys that are trendy and hot, and we bring new products in throughout the year; more heavily for fourth quarter. We look to our sales reps for ideas and sometimes trade magazines. We attend Toy Fair, ASTRA and, sometimes ToyFest West. We network and share ideas on Facebook, and by emailing with other independent toy retailers.

When we travel, we check out the local stores for new and different products. Our customers sometimes tell us about toys they saw at a birthday party or a store across the country. If they like it, others might, too, and we’ll see what could work in our merchandise mix. Not everything will sell, so it’s a gamble.

Being a 20-year member of The Good Toy Group has also introduced us to a wide range of new products and ideas.

Who are your typical customers?

Millennials often prefer to shop with their iPads, but grandparents and great-grandparents come into the store. They want to squeeze that stuffed animal, check the color of that princess costume, get great suggestions for a gift from our employees, and have their purchases gift-wrapped or shipped. Not all our customers are local. Because we’re on a street that’s on the way to a couple of resorts we get tourists, too.

Our longevity can be attributed, in part, to the many ways we meet our customers’ needs. In addition to gift wrapping and shipping, we also special-order products and deliver them for free if it’s local. Though more so in the past, we host author and book-character visits, dress-up and craft make-and-take play days, and ones for Brio train products, too. We still do the occasional community event, like setting up an activities table at the zoo or doing game night at a local school.

When kids sign up for our Birthday Club, they receive a $5 gift card every year in the month of their birthday, which brings people back in.

Customers appreciate our staff, all of whom are sincere, patient and understanding. Most have been with us for several years and really know our merchandise and age appropriateness. Our quality products are not the cheapest or the most expensive.

Your website has a shopping cart. Does it keep you busy?

Online sales account for less than three percent of our business. That’s because it is not attached to our inventory database, so our biggest challenge is the daily one of maintaining inventory. If we upgraded to a newer POS system, we could track what we physically have in the store, but we’d have to input 15,000 book titles, plus merchandise SKUs. That’s not going to happen.

We got our website up and running about 12 years ago as more and more consumers were learning about online shopping. At the very least, it advertises that we are here.

Customers can come in asking for an item they liked on our website. If we’re out of stock, I can get it quickly for them. They can sign up to receive our regular email blasts announcing current sales and product themes. Those emails, and Facebook and Instagram, drive traffic.

How has selling toys in Tucson, and retail in general, changed for you since Kid’s Center first opened?

Retailing, especially competing with online sellers, has become more challenging – we’re very cognizant of the stores that have gone out of business because of e-commerce. For us, there’s no longer a strong educational market since schools don’t have the resources anymore.

We’ll keep the store going as we always have, but we’re starting to look toward retirement. Our children won’t be continuing the business, so we may sell the store. Otherwise, we’ll just wind down and lock the door someday.

We’re so glad we didn’t buy a franchise or existing business. We started from the ground up, did the research, visited toy stores, and trusted our judgment with business and buying decisions. We pretty much got it right on. It’s very satisfying that we were able to do this for 30 years, and we’re still going. We’ve made a lot of birthdays, Christmases and hospital stays happy ones.

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