by Tina Manzer
There are more than 70 specialty toy stores scattered throughout New York State, says ASTRA’s 2017 Membership Directory, but only one is fewer than 20 miles away from edplay’s headquarters. Our company has watched other toy stores in our lovely rural area come and go, independents and chain stores alike, but The Unique Toy Shop in nearby Canandaigua has stood the test of time. What’s more, it has thrived. In 2018, the Hodock family – parents Jamie and Katy plus daughters Laura, Mary, and Libby – will celebrate their store’s 35th year, although they are only responsible for its most recent decade. But what a decade it’s been. On a recent visit there, they filled us in.
edplay: You purchased the store in March of 2008, at the beginning of the recession. What helped you survive?
Jamie: It helped that The Unique Toy Shop was an established business. It had been here since 1983. It already had a loyal clientele.
I’m a big believer in the toy industry. When the economy is poor, parents and grandparents will sacrifice so that their kids can have toys. As parents, we did it, and I think most people do, too.
Katy: We didn’t feel the effects of the recession until a few years later, but we were driven to make it succeed so it didn’t matter what we had to do to stay afloat. We just did it. I’m a frugal person anyway. There were no frills at the time that we could cut.
There is such a difference between then and now. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like, and it’s sometimes hard for me to get my head around where we are right now. We’ve grown so much in the past year.
Tell me about your expansion.
Jamie: The original space, about 1,200 square feet including the break room, had always been too small – we knew that going in. Customers couldn’t walk through the aisles without the fear of tipping over a display. The comfort of our customers was part of it, but the other part was that we didn’t have room to bring merchandise in that we wanted to carry.
Katy: We thought about moving to bigger places here on Main Street, but last year, when the antiques store closed next door, the owner of our building came to us. He was all over the idea of knocking the wall down between us so we could expand there. It doubled our space.
Jamie: He probably had a good feeling that we would be around for awhile. The store is a stable, longtime business. When it’s time, we plan to hand it down to our daughters.
In the former space, we couldn’t create the warm, fuzzy, family-toy-store feel we were after. The atmosphere we create is just as important as the merchandise we sell. We want people to like to come here, to have a good experience, and to feel confident that their child or grandchild will enjoy the toy they just purchased.
Why does your store work so well in Canandaigua?
Jamie: It’s a traditional downtown with a variety of independent stores. We partner with each other a lot. There is a strong rapport among the merchants. We have a good Downtown Merchants Association – I serve as the current president – plus a good Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce. When we all pool our resources, we can make downtown events happen that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
We are also right in the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes Region. The city, in fact, is on one of the lakes. The area is an established world entity in the wine industry and our countryside is beautiful. It attracts a lot of people. Tourists come here in the summer for the lake, but in the winter to ski. The area is also a wedding destination.
Mary: On top of everything going on outside of the store, The Unique Toy Shop itself brings people into town. It has become a destination location; shoppers tell us that they travel here because they’ve heard good things about the store.
What do they like about it?
Katy: The wide variety of merchandise. That was another benefit of the expansion: it gave shoppers a better view of the variety of items we carry.
I’m torn between being out here on the floor with those shoppers or in the back on the computer hunting down new products. I am obsessed with finding different items to bring in all the time to keep the store interesting. We always go to Toy Fair and to ASTRA’s Marketplace as often as we can, and we also listen to our customers.
We don’t seem to have bestsellers per se, although Squishables have been strong consistently, and people are always delighted when they purchase Stomp Rockets. Shoppers come in and buy just about everything I have. That’s what’s so fun about it. I’ll think maybe I shouldn’t bring in this random thing, but then it ends up working for somebody. There is such a variety of shoppers these days.
I’m not a fan of fads; not a fan of jumping in deep with anything no matter what advice I’m getting. We don’t carry many licensed products beyond Sesame Street, but as Jamie reminds me, we have to recognize that opportunities can come from anywhere.
Libby: Our customers come back for our service. We spend a lot of time with each and every one of them to pick out the perfect gift, especially grandparents. They need help with what’s “in,” and figuring out what the child they’re buying for may already have.
Katy: we offer customers free gift-wrap, we’ll deliver packages locally if they need us to, and we will ship things for them.
How do you think the Toys R Us bankruptcy is impacting the specialty toy industry?
Katy: I don’t think it matters. To make our store special, I had to put aside what my competitors were doing long ago. We are simply going to be the best that we can be.
Sure, I don’t like to go to the grocery store and see the Gund plush I sell being sold there, but we can’t control what happens outside our walls.
I do believe – and everything I see supports it – that people like to shop in stores, especially toy stores. Parents, grandparents and kids, especially, don’t want to push a button to buy a toy. They want to feel it, touch it and hear about it. We’re in a transitional time, but things are shaking out for bricks-and-mortar, at least in this industry.