The Subject is Change

by Phil Wrzesinski

Before I started my full-time career in the toy industry, I worked for a YMCA camp. Storer Camps is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I’ve been a part of the camp for 35 of those years as a camper, camp counselor, support staff, program director, volunteer, and parent of campers.

The camp’s infrastructure has changed over the years. Back in 1918, the first campers stayed in canvas tents. A decade later, small cabins were built. Upgrades to those were made a few decades later. Free-standing bathrooms were built to replace the old outhouses and today, each lodge has its own bathrooms and air conditioning. Many peers from my camper and counselor days in the ’70s and ’80s lament how camp isn’t camp anymore.

I don’t lament it at all.

Retailer Ann Kienzle, past chair of ASTRA’s board of directors, said it best during her address at Marketplace & Academy last year: “I’ve heard from some longtime ASTRA members that ASTRA doesn’t look the same as it did 15 years ago. You should be proud of that fact. If it looked the same as it did 15 years ago, then you should be disappointed.”

The key is knowing what to change.

DON’T change your mission or core values

I wrote an essay for the camp to help the alumni understand the positive aspects of all the changes. I had a unique perspective because I got to go back and teach sailing there last summer. While the infrastructure has changed, the mission of the camp has not. The mission to promote a healthy mind, body, and spirit remains.

For ASTRA, the mission has also remained the same: to promote a healthy specialty toy retailing industry.

Your business is all about your core values and mission. Those should remain constant. My core values are fun, helpful, education, and nostalgia. They are my North Star, the guiding light, the sword in the stone, the never-changing foundation of the business. Everything I did as a retailer at Toy House and everything I do now revolves around those values.

Every service you offer, every product you sell, every person you hire should be consistent with the values that drive you and your business.

One more thing you should never change is putting the customer first. Everything you do should be about the customer first and your business second. That never goes out of style.

Yes, change all of these

Here is how to look at everything else and decide what to change.


You should be changing your product mix by at least 20 percent each year. Keep your bestsellers and must-haves but figure out the bottom 20 percent of your product mix, dump it, and try something completely new. Look for new categories; new versions of older products isn’t really change.

Not only does changing your product mix keep your store fresh and cutting-edge, it helps you find new, better, more profitable merchandise that might quickly become bestsellers.

Did you know that Mattel changes more than 75 percent of its Barbie lineup every year? A classic toy like Barbie goes through a major makeover every single year.


Every year you should evaluate the services you offer your customers. Are they still valid and important? Are they customer-centric? Do they put the customer’s needs above your own? Can they be improved?

Part of your goal for customer service is to figure out what your customer expects and then exceed those expectations. That is what causes surprise and delight. That is what gets customers to brag about your business to their friends and bring those friends with them on their next visit. The services you’ve been offering for several years are now part of the expectation. What can you do extra that wasn’t expected?


Move things around. Shake them up. To keep your store fresh and exciting, you need to change the layout, change the fixtures, and highlight different products all the time.

Your moves don’t have to be major. Simply redoing all your endcaps each month can be enough of a change to get customers wanting to shop more frequently to see what’s new.

Changing your displays helps you find the dead zones in your merchandising plan; the one endcap or area where product goes to die. The more you change your merchandising, the quicker you’ll spot those areas. You can change the traffic flow to drive more customers there, adjust the lighting so that new elements are highlighted, or simply stock the space with your most-requested items and direct everyone there when they ask.

I know a store that paints one wall a new color every quarter and then selects merchandise to display there that matches the color. You think people notice? Of course they do!

Take down every sign that has been up for more than a year. No one is reading it anymore. Make new signs to replace the worn and faded ones.

Change your window displays regularly. Make them fascinatingly attractive.

Staff training

Your team gets bored with your meetings just as quickly as your customers get bored with your displays. If you’ve been following the same format for their training and meetings for the last several years, your team is already tuning out.

Here are some ways to shake things up.


We hosted several guests over the years including representatives from our Chamber of Commerce who trained us to be ambassadors for the city. A local art teacher taught us how to draw animal doodles on helium balloons. Several sales reps showed us new toys.


Hold a contest to see who can find the most items with missing price tags. Have one employee stand at the register and see how many other employees can hide in plain sight without having to bend over – a great way to find the blind spots on your sales floor where shoplifters might go. Build a “body” out of toys by having the staff find different toys that through their play represent the different parts of the body (soccer ball for feet, baby doll for heart, etc.).


Not just any food. Cater a meeting with food from the new place in town, or serve something unexpected. I served ice cream at a morning meeting to talk about when and how to “break the rules” when serving customers. I came in early and cooked breakfest, and talked about how leaders lead best by serving (and also about comfort food and the importance of making people feel comfortable).


Once a year we would meet off-site. Sometimes it was at my house to play games. Once it was at a movie theater to watch “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.” Once it was in a restaurant that had the friendliest wait staff – something we could all learn from.

As long as your core values remain the same and are apparent in all you do, your customers will love all the other changes.

It makes them want to come back more often because your store is the exciting, hip, new, cool, cutting-edge store that makes them feel good. It makes them want to come back more often because they want to be surprised and delighted. It makes them want to come back just to see what crazy new things you’ll do next.

That’s what you want –shoppers coming back, again and again.

Phil Wrzesinski is the former owner of Toy House and Baby Too in Jackson, Michigan. Today, he is using the lessons he learned in a lifetime of retail to help other independent retailers and small businesses find success. You can learn more about Phil at

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