by Claire Sykes
Most people only dream about their dream job, figuring they’ll get to it someday. Jack Cohen of Pittsburgh wasn’t going to wait. Fifty years ago, at age 23, he “woke up” from his mechanical-engineering job and decided to do something fun. After spending long hours each day creating “pointless” sketches and mathematical equations in a little windowless office, he and his wife Linda bought a Mister Softee ice cream truck for $3,500. Six months later they had earned enough money to rent an empty storefront in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
“Why not sell toys?” they asked themselves. With a family that grew to four kids – kids the couple had trouble finding good toys for – they went to the Toy Building in New York and got as many catalogs as possible. Then they visited one toy store after another to learn how to sell toys, and decided one thing for sure: their toy shop in Pittsburgh would be like no other. From the beginning, the Cohens focused on traditional toys over trendy ones.
They called their store S.W. Randall, inspired by their children’s names: S for Sherry and Stacy, W for Wendy, and Randall, their son James’ middle name.
At one point, there were seven S.W. Randall locations. Today, they have three: the original Squirrel Hill store, one in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood, and their flagship location on Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh. It fills a five-story building that the Cohens own, and it’s just blocks from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center where ASTRA will hold Marketplace & Academy in June. “If ASTRA attendees come in, we’ll take them up to the third floor in our antique, 80-year-old elevator that one of us will operate,” promises Jack. “It’s even got a crystal chandelier. We’re old school, you know.”
S.W. Randall is the city’s largest specialty toy store. We wondered if anything had changed since we interviewed Jack 10 years ago. Recently, we asked him for an update. Here’s what we found out.
What kinds of customers are you serving today, Jack?
Downtown, they’re mostly office workers, conference attendees and tourists. And celebrities! Ron Howard has come in, as has Brittany Spears’s mother with her bodyguard, Anne Hathaway, Zoe Saldana, Judd Hirsch, and many others over the years.
Our Squirrel Hill store attracts families who live in the neighborhood; Shadyside, too. It’s in a trendy suburb. But we see shoppers from all over the city in our stores. Once they come in, they always come back.
Then there are our customers on Amazon. They’re looking for unique items that they can’t find anywhere else, like metal toys, discontinued games, classic card games and puzzles. We sell a lot of puzzles.
When did you start selling on Amazon? Why did you start?
We’ve been on Amazon for about eight years now. We could see that people were shopping on the internet more and more, and we thought that the time was right for us.
We used to have our own e-commerce site, but it generated only one or two sales per month. Today it’s for information only.
When we got on Amazon, we were making 10 to 20 sales a day, and sending out more than 150 boxes, often during the holidays and to locations all over the country. But it’s getting harder because more and more people, and other businesses, are doing the same thing on Amazon that I am.
What are they buying? What are your bestsellers?
We sell a lot of Magic the Gathering and Pokemon cards. We hold tournaments in our Squirrel Hill and Shadyside stores.
Also big are puzzles, squishy toys, yo-yos, Japanese skill toys, board games, card games, and classic and new games. We sell tons of model kits – cars, boats and planes – plus paint and glue. We’ve always done well with nice chess sets, tin toys, electric trains, horse figures, dolls, nesting dolls, music boxes, and perfume bottles. Old Fisher Price toys – ones that they’re remaking today – are great sellers. We sell a lot of things you can’t find in other toy stores.
In our downtown location, our largest store and the one generating the most sales, we stock gifts. So many gift stores in the city have closed! We carry watches, jewelry, fancy boxes, figurines, glass sculptures, beaded animals, music boxes, jewelry boxes, and high-end chess sets.
Where do you get ideas for new products to bring in?
I go to Toy Fair every year and to NY NOW every February and August. I’ll go to ASTRA Marketplace next month because it’s just a few blocks away.
All the reps come into our store anyway, and customers tell us what they want. We also scour trade publications, the internet, and online forums to see what’s trending.
Your team does a great job with Facebook. Do social media generate sales for you?
We use Instagram, too, and that’s been great. As soon as something new comes in, we post about it and all of our 85,000 followers instantly know it’s in stock. For instance, we recently posted pictures of a new Japanese skill toy that came in, along with a new model to build. Within five hours, customers were buying them at $60 apiece. That never would have happened without Instagram. Our store managers post a few times each week or month, depending on what’s going on, about special promotions we’re running and our tournaments.
In the last 10 years, business has increased. I can’t complain.
What is the biggest challenge in retail today?
Just staying in business is a challenge! A lot of stores in downtown Pittsburgh are gone. On our street alone, we’ve lost Barnes & Noble, Macy’s and other department stores – but the city’s rivers, bridges and great views are still here.
When we were making plans to open, we wanted to see if there was enough foot traffic in front of the store. We stood here and counted how many people walked by and in an hour, we counted 6,000. But those days are gone. It helps today that we own a couple of the properties – that was one of the smartest things we’ve done.
How do you overcome that?
Selling toys today is no harder or easier than it’s ever been. The only difference is that now our biggest competitor is the internet.
So we work harder. We have to really impress people when they come in to keep them coming back.
We explain the importance of shopping local. We point out that with us they can see and touch a product, so even if it costs a few dollars more to buy from us, it’s worth it. We’ll take the time to show them how a game is played.
What’s next for S. W. Randall Toyes & Giftes?
I still love coming to work. People come in happy and they leave happy. There’s something about toys that puts them in a good mood; maybe it reminds them of their childhood; growing up. I’ve known a lot of my customers for years and they’re still happy to see me! If they’re having a bad day, just being in the store changes their whole attitude, even if they don’t buy anything. They love the atmosphere.
We’re not going to open any more stores. Three is enough.
Next year is our 50th anniversary. We’ll have to do something to celebrate!
And what’s so special about the third floor?
It’s full of collectible bears, dolls and accessories, and it’s only open two selling seasons a year: Christmas and Easter. During the holidays we feature lighted villages from Department 56. It sparkles.
We sell year-round on the first two floors. They’re 3,000 square feet each. We store stock in the basement and the fourth and fifth floors.
Everyone talks about The Third Floor
“I was shopping today for a book of paper dolls, and though the doll floor is closed in the summer, one of Randall’s faithful associates took me up there in an elevator straight out of Gatsby, complete with a crystal chandelier,” says one customer review. “That in itself was worth the trip, but so was the book of paper dolls that I purchased for a mere 4 bucks (pretty sure it’s worth more like $40).”
Then there’s this: the store is often a stop on “Haunted Pittsburgh” tours. “Staff members tell of seeing a lady’s apparition on the third floor with the dolls,” reports The Globe, the student newspaper of Point Park University, “Customers have reported ‘cold spots,’ feeling a ‘presence,’ and feeling like their energy is being drained.”
“The toy store is said to be the home of multiple different apparitions,” agree students at Duquesne University. “The staircase up to the third floor has been described as ‘a portal to another dimension,’” says The Duquesne Duke.
Good thing we’ll be taking the elevator.