By Maria Bucci
Travel down the old Airline Highway in Metairie, Louisiana, and you can’t help but notice the brightly painted yellow and blue building with toys in the windows. But you probably won’t stop. The busy divided highway “is a bit of an odd space for a retail business,” admits 73-year-old Buddy Wood, the founder of 50-year-old toy store Le Jouet. “I have learned to really appreciate that if people stop in they’ve made an effort to get here.”
After one visit, they’re usually hooked.
“We’re big on customer service,” explains the veteran retailer who makes it a priority to learn something new every day to improve the shopper experience. “I want people to come into the store and have some interaction with us and our toys. That’s the difference between what we do and the experience people have when they shop online, or at a Walmart or Target. We greet everyone and offer suggestions. People seem to like that. We build relationships with them. It’s gratifying.”
The man with all the toys
Great service creates repeat customers, but the initial attraction is the mix. Unlike other independent toy stores, Le Jouet closely follows trends – mass market and specialty – and brings in whatever toys are trending at the time. “If Walmart has it, we want it, too, because they know what sells,” says Buddy, who makes sure the store also stocks the classics and specialty products that customers look for.
“Every year there is a hot toy,” he explains. “When the store was young, the hottest toys were more accessible to small retailers than they are today.”
In the early 1970s, when people went crazy for bikes for instance, Le Jouet began stocking bicycles and parts and providing bike repair services. “That was a tremendous boost for our business,” Buddy says. Today, bikes for kids are bestsellers, but the store carries bikes for all ages from brands like Schwinn, Haro, GT and KHS, in addition to adult tricycles made by Schwinn and Miami Sun. Bike sales account for about 20 percent of Le Jouet’s business, and about 100 bikes are assembled and available in the 6,600-square-foot store at any given time.
“There are many bike shops in the city, but we are unique in that we service any bike, not just the bikes bought here,” Buddy explains. “We’re a specialty bike shop that also sells kids’ bikes – that’s unique, too.”
Wheels are a theme at Le Jouet. In addition to bicycles, customers can also find a wide selection of unicycles, tractors, wagons, and dozens of other ride-ons there. It’s not uncommon for shoppers to make way for adults and kids out for a test ride around the store.
Typical customers are young mothers with children who travel to Airline Drive from the Greater New Orleans metro area less than 10 miles away. “They will be on their way to a birthday party and need a gift. We offer suggestions, get the gift wrapped quickly, and they are so appreciative,” says Buddy. Some of the moms can remember coming to the store when they were kids.
Buddy and his employees wrap more than 12,000 gifts a year, he adds. “We have all sorts of paper choices, and people love the free service.” A gift from Le Jouet is easy to recognize: it comes with a signature ribbon and bow, along with a card and sticker featuring the store logo.
As a result of all the wrapping, every employee is an expert. “Shoppers will come up to the counter with their purchase and ask, ‘How in the world are you going to wrap this?’ Sometimes I joke and say, ‘I’ve already got one wrapped in the back.’”
Back to the beginning
Buddy got into selling toys in 1968 after a family friend approached his father about a temporary toy store. “My dad had a lumber business on an adjacent property and a guy we knew wanted to have a toy store here during the Christmas season. My father decided to put up the building. I put up the labor, and the other man put up the money. After the first season, we bought the guy out – he couldn’t stand on his feet all day like you need to, and was receptive to the idea.”
At the time, the store was called Toy City Discount, “but I got tired of people telling me that they could find toys cheaper somewhere else. I didn’t want to play that game. I didn’t care about being the cheapest toy store around because we needed to make a profit.”
He changed the name to Le Jouet (“the toy”) two years later, and kept the store open year-round. “You know, it’s risky to name a business something that people can’t spell or pronounce, but I decided to go for it. At first I thought I had made a big mistake – people didn’t understand it and they didn’t know what we were doing. But we persisted. Now when people see me wearing a shirt with the logo, they come up to me and say, ‘Hey, it’s Le Jouet, the toy store!’”
Nobody can be successful in business for 50 years without a little help from good friends. In Buddy’s case, A.L. Shushan from Shushan Brothers wholesale in New Orleans became a friend and mentor early on. “Thanks to our relationship, I could always get what I wanted for the store,” he says.
“In those early years, we bought from wholesalers instead of directly from the toy makers. A.L. did me a lot of favors, but treated me fairly. After I told him I wanted to go full-time, he said to order what I needed and pay him when I could. Then, he took me around to all the toy fairs and introduced me to people like Merrill Hassenfeld, the CEO of Hasbro. That’s how A.L. was – just a great guy and incredibly generous with his time.”
Before the internet became a thing, another friend of Buddy’s called him up with a proposition. “He said ‘Buddy, I just bought the domain name lejouet.com.’ I wasn’t even sure what that meant and I told him I wasn’t interested.” In 2010, after his daughter Tricia suggested that the store needed a web presence, Buddy called the friend back. “He told me, ‘I knew you would call me one day.’”
The store’s website is one page with no frills. It lists Le Jouet’s hours, the brands it carries, and contact information. Buddy is unapologetic about its simplicity. “The online market doesn’t appeal to me, no matter how much money we’d make,” he says. “I’m an Amazoner myself, but I guess they use all sorts of algorithms to target people. I want people to come into the store because we are selling an experience. I want to build a long-term relationship with our customers.”
The website does feature four live links: to Google maps, and to the store’s pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Le Jouet is very active social-media wise, with Buddy’s daughter Liz and other store employees hilariously promoting everything from the Speak & Repeat Unicorn to a zip line.
A joyful job
It’s a family business in the truest sense. Until she died last year, Buddy’s mother retained partial ownership in the store, and all of his children have been involved in the business at some time or another. Liz works on the floor and handles marketing. Her brother Peter is always on call to troubleshoot computer issues. “My sister Tricia lives 40 miles away,” says Liz, “but she does all the buying. She has a good pulse on what to buy and goes to all the shows in Dallas, and sometimes New York. She attends ASTRA – it will be in New Orleans this year! – and is planning a visit to AmericasMart in Atlanta.”
Even the non-family member employees are like family – many have worked there for years. Le Jouet employs 10 people full time who all chip in wherever and whenever they’re needed, whether it’s unloading a truck, laying out merchandise, or greeting customers.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover here,” says Buddy. “Our customers get to know our employees and when they come into the store, they look for their favorite one.”
“People come here because of my dad,” laughs Liz. “It wouldn’t be good for the business for him to retire. But all joking aside, we all have an interest in keeping the business going.”
The customers keep Buddy going, even after 50 years. “You know, there has been an incredible amount of change in the toy business since 1968. Sometimes I look around the store and say, ‘How did we do this?’ I don’t have a crystal ball, but we still have new people coming in every day and enjoying the experience. That is really important to me. I want to continue that.”
He and his daughter agree that the joy of being in the toy business is infectious. “It’s hard to be miserable working at a toy store,” admits Liz. “We are lucky – we have nice, loyal customers. Like any place, the occasional person can make you crazy. In our business, you never know what people are dealing with when they come in the door. We just try to be nice, and every day is pretty joyful.”