by Jenn Bergin
Each year, North Carolina-based Toys & Co. kicks off the fourth-quarter selling season early. During the first week of October, the family-owned chain of four stores holds a 20-percent-off sale that not only jumpstarts holiday sales, but also measures the success of its merchandise mix.
“Customers purchase holiday gifts during the sale, which helps us understand what they’re interested in buying,” explains Sherry Stone, manager of Toys & Co.’s 9,000-square-foot Charlotte location. “We talk with them, and learn – for instance – about popular items that we may not be carrying, or may need more of.”
In October, they still have time to adjust quantities and place orders in time for Christmas, but as Sherry points out, Toys & Co. buyers are usually right on target.
Strength in numbers
The store has been a fixture in Greensboro for nearly 40 years. In 1987, when Nancy and Larry Holcomb purchased the 10-year-old business, it was a single store with a wide-ranging product mix: children’s furniture, clothes, strollers and hobbies. Since then, it has expanded with locations in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, and also in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they operate a 3,000-square-foot store on the boardwalk.
Initially, the Holcombs narrowed the store’s focus to toys and dolls. “Dolls were about 40 percent of sales until 2001.Today, the category is less than 10 percent,” explains their son Marc, operations manager. Over the years, as it became more of a traditional toy store, its product mix broadened. The Greensboro location grew from 3,500 to 7,200 square feet.
Running multiple toy stores has its challenges – and benefits, says Marc. Toys & Co. routinely moves inventory between stores to fill holes, which improves turn and keeps stock fresh. Typically, slow-selling product is moved to Charlotte – the largest and highest-volume location – to make room for better sellers in the smaller stores. During spring and summer, they aggressively stock the Myrtle Beach location to meet the needs of “tons of tourist traffic.” In the fall, they distribute the leftover product among their other locations for fourth quarter.
One more “store”
Fifteen percent of Toys & Co.’s overall sales are made online – almost the same volume as one of its brick-and-mortar locations. In addition to the website toysandco.com, its merchandise is sold on Shopatron, Ebay, Amazon and several other platforms. Those virtual locations are instrumental to the company’s success, Marc says. “We don’t have a central warehouse, so each store fulfills online orders daily. The stores’ combined inventory is represented as available for sale online – less a small inventory buffer to minimize the risk of overselling, since we’re operating in a dynamic environment with sales on the front end and online at the same time.”
They offer same-day shipping in the U.S. “As a small, local retailer we’re nimble,” Marc explains. “Shipping expectations have grown dramatically and we aim to please!”
The store does charge for shipping on third-party orders, however, and it doesn’t discount or use FBA. “We’ve learned that margins are too thin to discount after paying third-party fees, plus materials and labor for processing. And we owe it to the industry and our suppliers to prevent brand decay by maintaining online prices at or above MSRP.
“The supplemental online income is critical to our company,” Marc adds. “We routinely plead our case with suppliers opposed to third-party platforms. This is a way they can have a positive presence in those marketplaces, while not sacrificing their brand.”
Spotlight on Charlotte
Sherry Stone has managed the Charlotte location since it opened in 2007; before that she worked for almost 20 years at another family-owned toy store. Her store is bright and happy, she says – even on its “darkest” days. It recently experienced the wrath of Hurricane Matthew, and lost power on a busy Saturday. With lots of flashlights, the store stayed open until sunset. “Customers stopped in during the storm and had a great time,” Sherry says. “They were amazed that we were laughing, smiling and chugging along, but that’s just our store’s personality – and it’s contagious!”
It’s located in Cotswold Village, a 260,000 square-foot shopping center in a densely-populated residential area close to downtown. The center has a warm, neighborhood feel, and retailers like PetSmart, Marshalls and Harris Teeter bring in a lot of business.
Toys & Co. stands out in the shopping center, thanks to its eye-catching sunflower-yellow and red awnings. Kids love to peek through the two large display windows that surround the store’s exterior. “Our windows are covered with little nose and hand prints – but that’s a good thing,” Sherry says. “After all, our motto is: Not just a cool toy store … A cool place to play!”
There’s sure plenty of space for it. When customers enter the store, they can see straight through the sprawling space to the back wall. A ledge surrounds the entire perimeter which allows back stock to be easily accessed and displayed.
With so much room, there are plenty of play stations and products on display: kitchens and dollhouses, Magna-Tiles, Bruder trucks, Swing Ball, Jungle Jumperoo – and a local favorite, Bulzibuckets, a bulls-eye toss game that combines aspects of Corn Hole, Skee Ball, and Hacky Sack. It was developed by a local entrepreneur, one of more than 40 whose products are sold in the store.
Sherry is passionate about shopping – and selling – local, which inspired her to start an annual “Local Authors, Inventors and Entrepreneurs” event. “Kids can come in to meet an author and discover a love for writing. Or, after talking to an inventor, they can go home and create an invention of their own.”
Another weekly event, “Tunes with Tommy,” features an engaging and talented musician who gets toddlers singing and dancing in the store. “One little boy pretends to be Tommy at home, so his mom just purchased the Schylling accordion for him!”
The month of May is Customer Appreciation Month. Many customers come in multiple times each week to submit an entry in the stores’ month-long raffle. Winners can choose from among great products like EzyRollers, dolls, games and a Calico Critter house – all donated by manufacturers. For kids, there’s a wheel to spin for a prize. No purchase necessary.
During the event, the store offers $10 SUPER BUCKS for every $50 spent. All purchases over $100 receive a Toys & Co. tote bag, “a great way to
advertise,” Sherry notes. “I’ve spotted the bags all around town – at the mall, at the grocery store, and even at the beach.” May ends with a LEGO Challenge; many kids start their builds in January. The entries – hundreds of them – are displayed in the store’s front windows.
Circling back to the holidays
During the fourth quarter, the Charlotte store’s windows are beautifully decorated with “seasonal warmth,” says Sherry, and filled with lots of product. “Adding decorations and wrapped boxes – which are open, with gift ideas exposed – sells product!”
She says her biggest challenge during the busy season is making sure that all merchandise is represented on the sales floor at all times. Arranging high-demand products in stacks and pyramids is a good solution.
Demo areas set up throughout the store feature games like SLAPZI, or Selfie Mics for customers to enjoy. Local youth carolers stop in and add a little charm. Every Sunday in December is “Santa Sunday” in Cotswold Village’s tree-lit courtyard. Toys & Co. sets up a craft table for kids to make ornaments and snow globes.
“It is all about the experience,” Sherry says. “We love when customers tell us our store reminds them of their own local toy store growing up.”
Nearly half of Toys & Co.’s online sales happen in December, Marc says. Not only do they hire additional staff to fulfill orders in each store, they also change their routine – processing order batches twice per day, instead of each morning.
“Our employees are the most important piece of the puzzle,” Sherry says. “A good manager works alongside them, and empowers them to make the business successful. My employees keep me on my toes. They have great ideas and input, and their love for the store is incredible.”
“We feel very lucky to get to do what we do every day,” Marc agrees. “The toy business is fun! It’s one of the most exciting and rewarding industries to be a part of.”
Each year, Toys & Co. store managers, buyers and employees put together a “100 Best” toy list. Copies are available at each register, and items are clearly marked with a sticker/seal throughout the store. “The list is also a great employee training tool, and a learning guide for seasonal employees,” Sherry adds. “We all carry it for quick reference.”
Here are some of Toys & Co.’s picks for 2016.
Bloxels Game Builder Set – Games
Dr. Eureka from Blue Orange Games – Games
The Swurfer – Active Play
Superstar Guitar, Early Learning Centre – Music
Manga-Tiles Clear 100-piece Set – Construction
Slackers Ninjaline – Active Play