Story by Claire Sykes, photos courtesy the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce
Each year during the holidays, the curtain rises on the delightful walk-in window display at G. Willikers, a toy store in Saratoga Springs, New York. Drawing on her theater set-design skills, owner Linda Ambrosino dreams up each idea, and then she and her staff start building. One Christmas, a huge ballerina turned circles on top of a music box. In another, a Santa likeness sprung out of a giant Jack-in-the-box.
In 1986, Linda was manag-ing a restaurant, but her role lacked creativity. She started looking for something else – something that the theater major would enjoy as much as playing Stella in a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She had always liked retail and working with people, and thought that with a store, she could create a little drama. After making a list of shops in downtown Saratoga and then another list of shops that were missing, Linda settled on a toy store. By combining her imagination with a little magic and fantasy, she opened G. Willikers. Over the past 33 years, she’s been able to replicate the successful formula to open two more – in Albany and in Katonah, New York.
A wide variety of curated products play a leading role in the store’s success. They’ve inspired standing ovations from customers loyal and new. They give Linda’s stores nothing but rave reviews.
What kind of atmosphere do you strive to create in your stores?
Fun, exhilarating, educational, welcoming, and at times, peaceful. I have a lot of play areas in the Saratoga store. In the back there’s a coloring table, a train set and building toys. On the other side of the store, we have a dollhouse, a kitchen set and a Calico Critters house. There’s something in every corner. The other two stores also have play areas.
What are customers looking for? How do you meet their needs?
Sometimes they’re looking for something to entertain kids when they go out for dinner. Or, they want a gift for a birthday party. We can help them best if they can tell us something about the child and the situation. Do they want birthday-party grab-bag gifts? Do they want to give their grandchild his or her first wooden blocks?
Today, more and more people want games, and science books and toys. Whatever it is, I like to offer different options and price ranges. Everyone wants us to gift wrap, which we’re happy to do, free of charge. We have a whole selection of papers and ribbons. Delivery to anyone in the Saratoga city limits is also free. We’ll also put together a train set or dollhouse for free, with 24-hour notice.
Do all your stores carry the same mix?
Merchandise depends on each store’s customer needs, and each manager brings their own personality to the mix. The Albany store doesn’t carry a lot of books, and neither does the one in Katonah, because both have bookstores nearby. We sell baby clothes in Saratoga and Katonah, but not in Albany.
Bestsellers depend on the child’s age. Three-year-olds might want baby dolls; older children like Magna-Tiles. The games category has grown, as has science because of the emphasis on STEM in schools. Plus-Plus is one of our bestsellers; so is GraviTrax. And we’re doing really well with Thames & Kosmos Light-Up Globes.
Customers in Saratoga and Katonah are families with gift-giving grandparents, aunts and uncles. They care about what types of toys children play with, and what babies put in their mouths. They’re also looking for something different and intriguing, something that’s going to stand the test of time and not fall apart. They want quality, and they want to go into a store and have someone wait on them. I think that’s super important to be able to help somebody.
Albany wants these things, too, but customers there are more of a mix, more commuters.
What new products did you bring in this year? What will you be looking for at Toy Fair?
Other than Melissa & Doug’s Magnetivity, I didn’t bring in any new lines; I just expanded on last
season’s. I don’t know about Toy Fair yet. We go with a book we’ve kept all year. It lists products that customers have asked for that we haven’t found yet. It includes the name of the person, whether the
toy is for a boy or a girl, and the child’s age. We walk every day of the show, every aisle, taking notes.
I try to stay true to who I am, but I’m always open to people who want to show me something new. I don’t agonize over should I or shouldn’t I carry something. I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I don’t beat myself up. I just correct it and move on.
How big are your stores?
The G. Willikers in downtown Saratoga, which opened in 1986, is 2,200 square feet. In 2004, I opened Albany with 1,200 square feet. It’s in a lovely high-end strip plaza with other independent stores and a few chains. Three years ago we opened 900-square-foot Katonah.
What makes those communities good for independent retail, especially toy stores?
Saratoga is an awesome town. It’s always had a thriving downtown and people shop it frequently. In addition to offices downtown, Skidmore College is up a few blocks one way with the hospital a few blocks the other way, plus condos and apartments, restaurants and other businesses.
Saratoga Race Course, a thoroughbred horse racing track; and Saratoga Performing Arts Center attract a lot of people in the summer. By fall, there’s a lot going on at the convention center.
There was no toy store here until I opened G. Willikers. Local families visit us daily on their outings to the library and the children’s museum. Katonah, in Westchester County closer to New York City, is similar to Saratoga, only tinier. The Albany store isn’t in a residential area; it’s more of a destination.
Who are your competitors and how do you differentiate yourself from them?
Our biggest competitor is Amazon. It can be frustrating when the difference in price is only 98 cents, or when what’s online isn’t what customers think it is.
I’ll go into Walmart or Target and see what they have, but honestly: I usually don’t see things I’d want to sell. I also don’t have the room or the financial ability to carry some of the things Walmart carries. They have their place, I have mine. Neither is better than the other; I’m just smaller.
So I’ll fill my stores with products the other stores don’t have. If they carry a brand I love, I’ll sell the parts of it they don’t.
We try to check pricing when new items come in here. We keep our prices in line with other places as much as we can, but sometimes we can’t because we pay more in shipping costs, for instance. If someone tells me they can get something at a lower price than what I bought it for, my first reaction is, “Go buy it.”
How much has customer loyalty contributed to your success?
Loyal customers are everything. We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t make the effort to come downtown knowing that it might be hard to find a parking spot. Our customers make the conscious decision to come into the store and buy something from us, even if it costs more than what they’d find on Amazon. Sometimes their choice is based in knowing that if people didn’t choose us, the store might go away.
What do you most enjoy about being a retailer?
The customers. How can you not love the customers? They all have stories. They have children, grandchildren, and you get to meet them, and see the children grow up. They’re amazing. Sometimes they throw tantrums and don’t want to leave the store, and that’s good advertising!
I also enjoy picking stuff out. I like making the choices; finding something that I think will be valuable to others. I like sharing.
Retailing is so gratifying. Some days I wake up and think, “I am so lucky.” I love where I live. I love what I do. I’m happy. I have a wonderful husband and daughter and three grandchildren. I’m fulfilling my dream of doing something that I feel satisfaction with, that I enjoy.