Pattycake Doll Company (BestDollsForKids.com) is an online store only, and its owners, Peter and Addie Laudin, are typical independent retailers.
by Tina Manzer
Peter gets prickly if you suggest otherwise. “We are an American Specialty Toy Retailer, just like ASTRA’s other members,” he says.
Like brick-and-mortar merchants, they love the Santa Claus feeling they get each time they sell a Cari doll by HABA, or Leota by Bonikka. They get annoyed by the occasional customer who returns a Dottie Aja doll that obviously has been played with. Gift-buying parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles are their bread and butter. They scour the shows and the magazines and the blogs for new and unique merchandise to bring in. In the past 19 years, business has been up and it’s been down.
They are not in it for the money.
“Look, we’re not Amazon,” Peter explains. “Amazon is a marketplace, a collection of stores competing amongst themselves for placement. For that privilege, Amazon takes a 15-percent cut. We’re a store and we don’t sell on Amazon.”
But sometimes in our industry, he’s treated like a ruthless e-commerce giant. Brick-and-mortar retailers have a natural antipathy to online etailers, he points out, “when, instead, their question should be, ‘How can we profit from the internet’s strengths?’”
And every once in a while, a vendor is hesitant to sell to him; afraid that his online business will undercut brick-and-mortar customers. “It’s because they don’t get that we are, in fact, the same as their usual B&Ms. It doesn’t really hurt my business – it doesn’t matter to my customers if we have 80 Black dolls or 81.”
A doll to love for every child
Black dolls are, in fact, a Pattycake Doll specialty. They have been since day one. “We kind of fell into multicultural dolls when our previous attempt at ecommerce failed,” Peter said. “While trying to recover our investment in inventory, we discovered a need. And when you’ve discovered a need, you’ve discovered a business.”
Back in 2002, Peter and Addie ran a graphic design and print shop. They also assembled baskets to sell to families of adopted children. In them were a variety of items – one was a cloth doll named Ling by Russ Berri, and another was an infant T-shirt proclaiming, “I am the newest Asian American!” (or Irish American, Russian American or Black American, depending on the child).
“We never sold one basket,” Peter laughs, “but when we deconstructed them and sold the items individually, we found there was a market for multicultural and ethnic dolls.”
After that, the Laudins just kept adding categories. Today they sell Boy Dolls and Dolls for Boys, Dolls for Black Children, Multiracial Dolls, Biracial Baby Dolls, Dolls for Asian Children, Baby Dolls, Dolls for Bath and Water Play, Doll Clothes, and The Grinch & Other Holiday Dolls. Bestsellers include the black ballerina musical jewelry box from Jewelkeeper, Miniland Educational’s “Down Syndrome White Girl,” a biracial toddler rag doll by Spinmaster, and the Bluebeary Learn-to-Dress Teddy Bear by Marvel.
“While lots of stores, both online and off, sell dolls, none that we know of focus on diversity and ‘storyselling’ product pages like we do.”
The nuts and bolts
Depending on the season, Pattycake Doll Company stocks about 300 or so different SKUs in a 1,400-square-foot space in Fayetteville, New York. Every item ships from there and in terms of staff, it’s just Peter and Addie. “We use lots of apps and software – AWeber, Privy, Shopify, Quickbooks, Google Shopping Ads, etc. – and they do most of the heavy lifting for us,” says Peter. “Our customers find us through search engines and inbound link referrals, plus a tiny bit of social media: Pinterest, and Facebook groups chatting amongst themselves.”
As any specialty toy retailer knows, getting shoppers to your store is just one part of the equation. Another is getting them to make a purchase. To facilitate sales, BestDollsForKids.com presents a wide selection of products with beautiful, high-quality photographs. “All in all, it’s a well-designed etail platform created with the mobile shopper in mind. It has all the one-click payment methods available,” explains Peter.
I asked him why his business seems uniquely suited to online, to which he replied, “That’s really a chicken-or-the-egg-type question. Once we finally understood the rules of etail – and I’m referencing the ‘failed e-commerce attempt’ mentioned previously – we adapted to take advantage of those rules: longtail, Google rewards relevance, email marketing, pay-per-click, unique selling proposition, keywords and SEO.”
The Laudins never considered brick and mortar. Peter imagines that it’s a lot of work to operate both an e-commerce site and a store. He guesses that, in light of the pandemic shutdown, most independent brick-and-mortar toy stores also have an e-commerce component now. “It’s smart to not have all your eggs in one basket, or as Jim Rohn used to teach, to have ‘multiple streams of income.’ I have seen online stores open brick-and-mortars, but I don’t know of any brick-and-mortars that have moved exclusively online successfully.”
The couple collects Social Security now, and Peter admits that he and his wife “are slowing down some.” At the same time, “It’s nice to make money, even though it’s not a lot.
“What’s even better is knowing that every day, some child somewhere is going to get a new doll to love, and it’s great knowing that Black kids are getting Black dolls and Biracial kids are getting Biracial dolls, and that they weren’t picked over and looking ratty at the big box stores,” he adds.
But Peter’s favorite thing about Pattycake Doll Company is this: “While KB Toys, Toys “R” Us, Kmart and many other toy-selling chain stores have disappeared, and while everyone in the world complained about Amazon and the Retail Armageddon, we’re still here and doing better than ever.”
Around Christmas 2019, when Essence magazine published a link to BestDollsForKids.com, business increased 3,000 percent. “That increase can only happen if you’re small to begin with,” Peter laughs.
He finds it fun and challenging to keep up with the changes and improvements to ecommerce. “As much as I follow edplay, Toybook and Global Toy News, there are thrice as many feeds, blogs and emails in the ecommerce press to keep up with, and it’s a fascinating, fascinating subject. I’ve always said, ‘An idle mind is the devil’s playground, and the devil’s name is Alzheimer’s,’ so on that basis alone, it’s worth continuing with the business.”
At the same time, he says it can be an anchor. Peter and Addie’s children have moved away from their rural Upstate New York hometown, and the two find it hard to travel with doll orders coming in 24/7. “Whenever we move, though, it will be easy to take the business with us. All we need is 1,200 square feet and a connection to the internet.
“If someone were to make a good enough offer for our Shopify store, we’d sell,” he adds. “Know anybody?”