After five years of operating Color Wheel Toys as a holiday pop-up, educator Keri Piehl is making it permanent this fall. Here are her thoughts on the trend of temporary retail, the non-negotiables of good store design, and the value of testing the waters before plunging in.
by Tina Manzer
In September 2017, while her fellow teachers were settling into a new school year, Keri Piehl was setting up something new in Albuquerque – a pop-up toy store for the fourth quarter only. Working for herself might give her better work/life balance she thought, but before she abandoned teaching, she needed to put her theory to the test.
A veteran preschool and elementary-school teacher, Keri planned to operate her pop-up from September through January and then teach during the off season. She had worked enough retail in college “to understand the sort of grind of it.” Later, she helped her friend Carolyn Miye, former owner of Oodles 4 Kids (now Oodles Toys) in Portland, Oregon, “so I also knew the fun of it.
“I wanted to collect enough data to know how to ensure some success or to simply walk away,” Keri explains. “What if I didn’t enjoy it? What if three other toy stores opened and I couldn’t compete? The minute I opened, I started building a wish list of what I wanted and needed to do it full-time. Right now, I’m putting five years’ worth of ideas to good use.”
Locations, locations, locations
Her first challenge was securing a temporary storefront. “It was hard to get anyone to rent to me,” she remembers. “There were certainly enough empty spaces, and I had references and insurance. I don’t know what the deal was, but it was like pulling teeth.
“I had to explain the concept of a pop-up so many times!” she continues. “I talked to a realtor who had absolutely no idea. Albuquerque is a small market, so I get it – it takes a while for trends to get here. But I thought, surely, this couldn’t be the first time they had dealt with pop-ups. I would say, ‘It’s just like Spirit Halloween, only for Christmas!’”
Keri finally secured a spot after she offered to pay the entire sum up front plus a deposit. The space was a little rougher than she liked and a little out-of-the-way, but cost much less than the elusive locations on her top 10 list.
Its windows had bars on them. “I had to overcome the fact that it looked a little jail-y,” Keri says, “but in the end it worked well enough to show me I should continue.”
By the time she started planning for the following year, she had bumped into a commercial real-estate agent at a yard sale. “She helped me get into a shopping center. I was in one empty space there one year and in a different empty space there the next,” she says. “By then, the landlords understood that Color Wheel Toys provided a positive family environment and helped increase traffic for neighboring stores.
“There was a security guard, an ample parking lot, and more charm than my first location,” she added. “It didn’t require much work to make it appealing. The goal was not to put a lot into it.”
While her locations changed each year, they had one aspect in common: they never looked temporary. “You would never have known it wasn’t a permanent store,” Keri says. “There was plenty of signage, tons of displays and lots of hands-on activities to try out. I don’t think our customer base knew that Color Wheel was a pop-up. It was a toy store when they needed to buy toys.”
Without a signed lease in her hand, Keri had no place to store merchandise. By the time everything fell into place – in August – she realized she didn’t have a clue about buying. “But I wasn’t afraid to ask. If you pretend to know what’s going on, that’s when you look dumb.”
Help came in the form of Erin Benham, a rep with DanSon Sales. “There was one company I knew I wanted to order from – Green Toys – and when I called them, they said they’d connect me with a rep,” Keri recalls. “Erin met me at a Starbucks, and I was grateful that she took me seriously. She talked about products and how to place orders. She was so nice to explain the acronyms – FFA! Once I understood how it worked with her, I called another brand I liked and connected with its rep. I also used marketplaces and brands that didn’t have reps, but working with a collection of reps was the key.”
In 2018 she joined ASTRA and in 2019 she went to Nuremberg, her first trade show. “My husband and I went; we had wanted to visit Germany anyway. I loved it but it was so overwhelming. I was geeking out over all the products!
“I found a really cool niche of items that were not yet available in the U.S., but I asked them to let me know when they were,” she continues. “Over time, they contacted me, and I stock their product in my store today. It sells out.”
Color Wheel Toys sources product from Indonesia, Thailand, Denmark, Italy, Korea, and China, but a good 20 percent of her merchandise is made in the U.S. “I was surprised to discover how many good products are made here,” she says. “It may be the one thing that people across the political spectrum appreciate.”
She avoids licensed products – “most media tie-ins are fads, making the toys irrelevant for younger siblings as they grow” – and products from manufacturers who may exploit their workers. Gender neutrality is important, as is sustainability. “I don’t understand why some manufacturers have sustainable products but not packaging,” Keri notes.
Color Wheel Toys didn’t open until October that year. “I needed to figure out what the pandemic was doing, and how Color Wheel Toys would adjust to it.”
Her information-only website didn’t have a shopping cart – it doesn’t now – and in 2020 she really needed it. As a workaround, Keri switched her POS to Shopify and had it configured for use in-store and online for curbside pickup. “It would order online and reconcile,” she explained. “It worked really well and helped me to grow.”
Since then, online ordering has remained available from February through August, even though there was no physical store. “If someone orders merchandise and I still have it, I bring the completed order to a local business I partner with, so that the customer can pick it up. I’m paying for Shopify anyway; I might as well use it,” says Keri.
The pop-up traditionally employed three parttime employees in addition to Keri, but in 2020 it could have used more. “Three weeks before Christmas, New Mexico shut down because the COVID situation was out of control. I had rented a storefront on a hard corner on purpose because it had windows on two sides. We pushed the shelves right up against the windows so shoppers could step up and point to what they wanted. We would put their order together and literally sell it to them out the door. We did tons of business.”
Weary of the pop-down
Part of being a teacher is closing up your classroom every year, so Keri was used to an annual spring cleanup/fall setup routine. But assembling, and then disassembling a 1,200-square-foot store to the bare walls was a different story. When the process became old, it was time for a decision. Keri began shopping for a permanent location, and she knew exactly what she wanted.
“Having an easily accessible customer restroom – not a down-the-hall, shared-with-other-businesses setup – was non-negotiable. I was also looking for track lighting, good parking – ADA accessible parking – plus stroller and wheelchair accessibility,” she says. “That last one is so important. At each pop-up location I would walk with a yardstick at waist level to make sure the aisles were wide enough.”
She found the spot she wanted at The Village Shops at Los Ranchos, a shopping center on Albuquerque’s busy 4th St. corridor. The complex of buildings has a traditional New Mexico look and is anchored by one of the best restaurants in the state.
“Last January when I was packing up, I felt really good about my decision to give the store my full-time attention,” Keri says. “More recently when the movers started transferring everything out of my storage unit into my new space, I was positively gleeful.”
She cautions that if you want to do a pop-up – to try a new location or a different mix of products – you must go into it realistically. “When I told people what I was doing, they said, ‘It must be great! You have all that time off!’ I would say, ‘Hold on. Don’t quit your day job. I don’t live off this alone.’ My spouse works full-time, and he has health insurance and a pension. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have this opportunity to try on a new career,” Keri continues.
“Pop-ups may be the latest craze, but the idea that you work parttime and make money hand-over-fist is a fantasy. Realistically, you’d need family money or a big settlement to fund it. We saved and then borrowed our savings for the business. The business paid us back over time. I don’t have serious debt because I knew what I was getting into.”
She didn’t know she’d end up owning the only toy store in town.
“All the others closed,” Keri explains, “the last one in 2020. I was a patron of all of them. Without them though, Color Wheel Toys acquired many loyal customers in the past five years. I hadn’t planned on total market advantage, but it has really bolstered my business and helped promote my brand.”