by Tina Manzer
“I think fourth quarter will be bonkers – we need to prepare now for the onslaught,” commented Sarah Evers, co-owner of Dancing Bear Toys in Ashville and Hendersonville, North Carolina. “Business will be coming at us from our website, the stores, and curbside. It’s a time-consuming way to do retail, based on our experience this summer. I expect it will make the holidays very intense.”
Dancing Bear closed its doors in March and reopened in May on a limited schedule. “We are being ultra-careful and conservative about this virus,” reports Sarah. “Shoppers are required to wear masks and social distance, and we set a store capacity limit that’s probably half of the recommended number.”
For a variety of reasons, several employees did not return to work when Dancing Bear reopened. “It’s been a challenge. It has been very hard to get back to hiring because of all that we have to do as a result of the pandemic.
“We never thought that coming to work in our toy store would be a health risk, but COVID has changed everything,” she adds. “We keep an open dialog with all of our staff, and make sure we are all in agreement about how to handle things. It feels good when our employees tell us how much they appreciate the steps we take to keep them safe.”
Business has been good, says Sarah. “We have been having very large average sales. Our website is doing awesome!”
Pre-pandemic, the scope of Dancing Bear’s ecommerce site was limited. “But during March and April, we went to town getting categories updated with tons of new products and images. It was well worth all of the time and hassle – we think that the website will continue to be a big part of shopping for the remainder of the year and into next.
“We are proud of the work we did on the website,” she adds. “It finally feels like it represents our store.”
The death of George Floyd in May added to the COVID conflict. For Ellen Joy at Alakazam Toys in Charlottesville, Virginia, the incident was a catalyst for starting a community dialogue about diversity – as an important theme in raising kids and as a change agent for the toy industry. In July, Ellen kicked off a blog series (visit alakazamtoys.com) with a post entitled “Representation in Toys and Why It Matters to Us.” She wrote:
The lack of diversity in toys means so much to children of color. I hear often from parents that they want a doll that looks like their child. I have bought those dolls myself, for my own children. White parents: imagine what it must feel like to struggle to find a doll that looks like you. Imagine what it must feel like for a child of color to walk into a place that is supposed to be for them, and to find themselves immediately excluded. When we don’t make an effort to represent all children, we are doing all children a disservice. We aren’t doing our jobs as parents if we don’t expose our children to the world. Not just their world, but the world at large.”
Ellen is a relative newbie in the toy industry – the transplanted New Yorker has owned Alakazam for a year. She believes in being transparent; in making it clear to customers where she and her business stand. “We support Black Lives Matter and the blog series helped illustrate our position,” she said. “It garnered us a lot of support in our little community, which, as you know, has undergone its own difficult patches in the past.”
The series has featured the voices of a variety of writers. They’ve addressed the responsibility of keeping all children safe, solutions to parent/child power struggles, celebrating a kindergartener with Down syndrome, and the therapeutic power of creating art.
“Being honest has helped us to form stronger relationships with our customers,” Ellen says. “Even if it hadn’t worked out that way, we feel it’s important to be honest. It’s a conversation that needed to be had. We have also been very clear on how grateful we are for our customers’ support. Our goal has always been to be useful to them, and to bring joy into the world.”
When the doors of Alakazam were locked in March, delivery and curbside pickup remained customer options. Reopening was postponed until July so that she could use June to post products online. “We were lucky that we started the process pre-pandemic. We had invested in a pretty serious inventory designed to make e-commerce part of our business and, right now, we have more than 3,000 products online.”
By August, business was “okay,” Ellen said, “but to be honest it’s been tough. I had to let my staff go. We kept them as long as we could; we didn’t want them to leave. I took advantage of PPP early on. I paid my employees and it was gone.
“By the same token, I remain optimistic,” she adds. “I’ve learned so much. While everything has been much more difficult at times, frustrating, and even sad, I am happy that we are still in business.”
With fourth quarter looming, Ellen doesn’t know what to expect. “It will be as unpredictable as things are now. There are no clear sales patterns to help us. During the holidays, we’ll be in some version of what we’re in now with limited hours, delivery and curbside service.”
Last year, the walls of Old Tyme Commissary in Ridgeland, Mississippi came down – on purpose. Four walls between its gift store in front and toy store in back were eliminated, making the 50-year-old local staple one big store. “It was a great idea and made all the difference in the world,” says owner Melissa Skelton. “Customers who always looked at gifts discovered the great toys we had, and toy shoppers found our gifts for all ages. They still talk about what a positive transformation it was.”
This year, though, she worries that those enthusiastic shoppers will be scared away by the lingering pandemic. “We have a website and there are lots of items on it, but you know as well as I do that in-person selling is much more effective. It’s hard to explain how an item works to someone who can’t see it for themselves. Plus, we enjoy helping our customers. My employees are trained to demonstrate our toys and games, and they like playing with the children.
“My biggest concern is that the constant talk about rising COVID-19 cases will keep customers out of stores.”
The COVID shutdown closed The Commissary in April. It reopened in May. “Business was great during June,” Melissa reports. “I feel there was a lot of pent-up demand on top of everyone’s frustration over being self-quarantined. Shoppers were ready to get out again. Numbers continued to grow and August got off to a good start.”
Melissa attended some virtual tradeshows. She meets with reps via Zoom and in person. “I did not attend any markets this summer because I don’t need to spend the money,” she says. “All of my vendors have websites with pictures, demonstrations and price lists, and I order online. The challenge right now is ordering the right amount of merchandise for the last four months of the year.
“I am very optimistic about the fourth quarter,” Melissa concludes. “I know that many of our customers enjoy the shopping experience, and love to come in to see what’s new and fun. We offer layaway, and several customers have already started layaways in anticipation of Christmas. That’s a good sign.”