The House that Sue Built

Eastview Mall is within a 90-minute drive of more than 3 million people. When a storefront became vacant there in 2016, mall owners reached out to Hobby House Toys.
by Tina Manzer

Twenty years ago, Sue O’Neil opened the first Hobby House Toy store in a suburban mall near Rochester, New York. Despite two recessions, the growth of Amazon, and the infamous failures of several mall toy-store chains, Sue’s business grew. Today, there are four Hobby House Toy stores; three are in malls or lifestyle centers.

By 1998, consumers were already showing signs of being tired of mall shopping. “Beginning in the late 1990s, the culture that once fed the American mall started to change,” explained Smithsonian Magazine in 2014. “Increasingly rundown and redundant, malls started turning into ghost towns – first losing shoppers and then losing stores.”

But not all of them. “Strong malls will continue to prosper,” wrote retail anthropologist Paco Underhill in 2004. “If a mall is in the right spot, it will almost surely thrive. It lives by the axiom that guides all real estate: location, location, location.”

That may be one of the secrets to the success of Sue’s malls, but her stores have more going for them than just busy locales. Each one provides a welcoming and homey atmosphere, family-friendly experiences and a wide selection of unique toys for kids of every age. Sue loves people and it shows. Here’s her story.

edplay: Why a toy store?

Sue O’Neil: I was a stay-at-home mom ready to do something outside my home. Nearby, The Village Toy Shoppe in a big old house provided inspiration. I shopped there for years with my three kids. By the time my oldest became a teenager, he had outgrown all the products there. I thought that was a shame.
Our idea was for a family store, one where people ages 2 months to 90 could find something to play with. I had no background in retail. Thank God my husband John gets the math part of it. He just retired from his day job so he’s helping me more. His insight is invaluable.

Why the mall?

I could walk to work! My son could take the car!

Perinton Square Mall is part strip center/part indoor shopping center. It’s been in this community, which is loaded with families, since the early 1970s. Hobby House became the neighborhood’s toy store.
It’s about 2,500 square feet, and packed with products.

It’s one of our four stores, and I try to get to each of them at least once a week to check in and do restocks. They are within a 10-mile radius, except for one that’s 70 miles away in downtown Skaneateles, New York.

Why Skaneateles?

My husband and I grew up around there so we have family connections. When I go there I can visit my mother. She is 96. My sister-in-law, who is in real estate, said it would be a great place for my store. She was right. We opened on its main street in 2011.

The village is quaint, historic and on a lake. It hosts many summer vacationers, some of them are famous. The Clintons had a home there, and the Baldwin boys shop at my store when they visit their mother in Syracuse. Locals shop at Hobby House Toys year-round, so we have both a strong tourist season and holiday season.

At 1,000 square feet, it’s small but really cute.

At Eastview Mall, the store is about 1,500 square feet, and at Pittsford Plaza it’s about 2,500 square feet. In total, we employ between 10 and 20 people. Some have been with us since the beginning, and a few have actually left and come back.

Do all your stores carry the same mix?

Yes, for the most part. We take advantage of volume discounts. Skaneateles carries more impulse and beach toys. Perinton stocks a larger selection of rockets because the students there study rockets. We constantly shift merchandise from one store to another. We try to tailor our products to the needs of each store’s customers.

Looks like your idea of a “family store” is working.

Yes, even more so today as people look for activities that encourage talking and playing together.

Our mix is all over the place, from Bruder Trucks to Calico Critters. One of our bestselling categories is puzzles, especially ones that families can do together. Our “large-format” jigsaw puzzles are also popular.

They have adult images with bigger, easier-to-see pieces. We carry Ravensburger and White Mountain (made in America). I consider them the Cadillac of puzzles.

Games are also big sellers, and crafts. We see that family game nights are coming back. Bestsellers include classics like Sorry and Parcheesi.

Plush is selling well right now, and I think sensory products will be hot through Christmas. Everyone has discovered the benefits of touch and feel. My grandson’s first-grade classroom has a sensory corner for kids who are upset. They can go there and pick up a fidget to settle themselves down.

But our role in the community is bigger than selling toys. When kids come in, I talk to them. At first they’re shy, they look at the floor. But the more they come in, the more they feel comfortable talking to me. I just love that. They give me their money when they make a purchase – it’s mostly change – and we count it out. I thank them for the coins, and explain that they’ve saved me a trip to the bank.

Shopping is a great learning experience, and local retailers can be great teachers. It’s an important part of the relationship. We and our customers try to support each other. It helps all of us become family.

Compared to 20 years ago, my customers today really understand the importance of shopping local. They want their money to stay here in the tax base, and they ask for items made in the U.S.A. Everyone seems concerned about the health of independent local businesses. They don’t want them to go away. My customers check in with me all the time and ask, “Are you doing okay? We love coming here.”

What do you like about malls?

The security is great. We just feel safe.

The owners of Eastview Mall came to us and asked us to move in two years ago. They also own Pittsford Plaza, where we have been for nine years. They knew we were good tenants.

Before we opened in Pittsford, we briefly operated stores in two other Rochester-area malls. In one, we were only there during the holidays and then the mall closed. In every case, our landlords have been very good to us; accommodating and fair.

The days are long at mall stores. We’re open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday, when our hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. We have to employ more people to cover all the hours. In Skaneateles, we’re open ’til 6 p.m.

In general, what has been your biggest challenge?

Convincing people that we don’t have boutique prices just because we’re not a big-box store. We show shoppers that they can find a $2 item here that will make them happy, or a $100 item. We run the gamut.

What’s next?

Who knows? People ask us all the time to consider the suburbs north and west of Rochester. We’ll see.

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