The Secret Sauce

by Sandy Ruben

A recipe for store success … with insight from retailers and reps

How are toy stores doing in your area?” Dee Farrell, past president of ASTRA, asked me recently.

“Some closed, some have a small increase, and some are doing fantastic,” I replied.

“What makes some of them thrive while others fail?” Dee pressed. “What’s the secret sauce?”

Thinking it was something we’d all like to know, I did my best to come up with answers. Recently I talked to 20 reps and retailers to find the key ingredients of a successful store. Here’s what they told me. 



Success starts at the top

“The owner, and his attitude and energy toward the store, is a big factor in a store’s success,” was a theme repeated frequently. “Owners must have a vision of what they want to do with the store,” said one retailer. “Success comes from having a vision of what your store should be and sticking to it,” said another.

“The storeowner needs to be happy,” someone added. “It trickles down to the employees. They work much better when they are happy.”

I heard that the owner also needs to be present in the store, especially when customers are shopping and the team is working. “It makes a big difference,” commented a rep. “Owners often say that sales go down when they aren’t there.”

I call on many successful businesses whose owners work offsite, so success must come from more than just being there. “The key to a thriving toy store is the owner’s absolute love for the business,” a retailer told me.

“A successful owner has both the drive to succeed and a willingness to be silly,” said another.

I love that, because it illustrates that success isn’t based on hard work alone. Our industry is all about play, so if toy-store owners aren’t adding joy and silliness to their retail environment, no wonder they’re not successful – they’re in the wrong profession. Not every working hour is fun, but the merchandise is all about it. A successful store presents fun to customers and staff.



A happy, hardworking staff is essential

Here’s something not fun, but effective: “Being able to fire employees who are not working out has been one of the many building blocks in the success of my business,” a storeowner told me.

Another said, “The key to my success is creating a happy environment. I had to fire a manager who was pulling everyone down. Since then, everyone is happier and working harder.”

And this one: “You must have a great staff. They need to be friendly and helpful.”

Putting the onus squarely on the storeowner was this comment: “Owners who care about their employees will, in turn, have staff who care about their customers.” I’ve seen that one firsthand. I’ve also seen this: “Owners of successful stores really listen to their team members. It makes friendliness, helpfulness and caring become part of the store’s culture.”


Add warmth

One toy store owner I know sends shoppers to other stores if he doesn’t carry what they’re looking for. Sounds crazy, but his focus is not on the sale, it’s on the customer. Why? So the shopper will remember how helpful he was and walk through his door again.

“I work really hard to remember each of my customers’ names so I can address them directly when they walk in,” a retailer told me, highlighting the connection between personal interaction and retail success.

“When customers walk in, they are greeted with a smile. They are offered assistance. They are asked about the last gift they bought, and how the recipient liked it,” said a storeowner, which leads me to this: “Employees who smile” was named a successful store factor more often than employees’ product knowledge. It may be a game changer in terms of hiring. Could smiling be the number-one trait we look for in a candidate, followed by “happy,” “warm,” and “outgoing”?



Freshness counts

“Store appearance” had the fourth-highest number of comments. “It needs to be clean and visually appealing. Items need to be easy to find.”

There’s more. “Stores that thrive not only look great, they constantly change up their merchandise to make it all look new and different.”

While many folks mentioned cleanliness, neatness, and organization, one owner picked up on something I think is critical: “Items need to demoed and products need to be open and available for customers to play with.”

Remember the mantra “location, location, location”? It was only mentioned once. From a practical standpoint, where a store is located is less important than who owns the building. Very few stores have closed when the owners have owned their own building.

Thinking about the secret sauce for success has been a journey for me. Based on my thoughts and what I heard from the group, this insight from one of the reps sums it all up. “Stores thrive when they have a real business plan, and when they know where they want to be in the future. They plan everything out and focus on staying on course. They have a structure to their business, their employees, and their merchandising.

On the Side

Additional Best Practices

While some considered them “extras” others said they were “must-haves.”

  • A birthday registry and large bins filled with toys – all the ones each birthday child has “registered” for
  • Playing music in the store. “It’s awkward being in a store with no music,” I’m told.
  • Discounts for frequent shoppers
  • A presence on social media. In our industry, where stores run the gamut from no social media participation at all to posting frequently on a variety of platforms, we wonder which ones are most successful. Well, consider this comment from a rep: “I know some may roll their eyes at this, but accounts that are active on Facebook and Instagram seem to be my largest accounts. Posting new products, news about the store, and simply having fun with the products keeps them in front of their customers at all times.”
  • Involvement in your community.
  • Staying open longer in the evening, say to 7 p.m., and staying open on Sundays year-round.
  • Allowing friendly, leashed dogs in your store.


Sandy Ruben is the owner of Sandy Ruben and Associates, a rep group in the Southeast. If you, or someone you know, would like to participate in his bi-monthly survey, email, or call 843-696-4464.

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