They Did It

photo courtesy of ASTRA

Specialty toy professionals met face-to-face (er, mask-to-mask) in Minneapolis for ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy in August. The show presented new products and bestsellers in nearly 300 booths to about 500 enthusiastic buyers who were thrilled to be able to see, touch and order products. Everyone enjoyed meeting and greeting their colleagues and learning from one another in person. As ASTRA President Sue Warfield noted, “It was the best medicine just to be together.” 

Retailer Nick Tarzia from Awesome Toys & Gifts in Connecticut added this: “ASTRA’s show proved that what this world hungers for is human face-to-face connection, friendships new and old, and a sense of community which, as toy-store owners, we provide to our customers. I for one will try to hold this feeling of gratitude and appreciation, and ‘play’ it forward to my employees and my customers. Like air and water, we cannot survive without human connection. It was great seeing everyone, and thank you to all who made it possible.”  

Inventory issues, shipping delays and skyrocketing costs have made getting products in-store particularly challenging this year, and retailers were eager to replenish their shelves. Marketplace gave them a leg up by showcasing products for three important selling seasons: back-to-school, Halloween and the holidays.

“We had a very good show,” reported exhibitor Alan Buff, vice president of Dreams USA. “Even though attendance was probably down due to COVID, we were very pleased with our result. We opened a lot of new accounts – actually a phenomenal number of new accounts for a company our size.”

As an incentive for retailers to place orders, ASTRA held a raffle with a drawing each day for a $500 spending spree in a participating vendor’s booth. Buyers received a raffle ticket from vendors for each order they wrote on the show floor. 

For the first time, all full-conference badge holders including sales reps, manufacturers and affiliates were invited to attend the ever-popular Game & Kit Playtime. Also for the first time, buyers could place orders right at the game/kit tables. Extra-special offers and incentives from manufacturers encouraged them to do so. 

There was lip synching. As a special networking event, it was still being talked about weeks after the show. “I got to experience so much in my second year attending,” wrote Neela Ligenfelter from Timbuk Toys in Denver. “From placing my first-ever, in-person order as a new buyer to performing in my first lip-synch battle which was the best experience EVER … what can I say except thank you ASTRA. Our Timbuk Toys family can’t wait for all the exciting new things to start showing up in our store.”

In 2022, Marketplace & Academy will be held June 12 through 15 in Long Beach, California.

ASTRA’s new board members

ASTRA’s new board chair Jeanie Crone is director of sales at OjO Games, a company that makes problem-solving games and toys based on real world STEM subjects. She has decades of experience in the apparel industry, as a consultant, and in the toy industry with EDC Publishing and Schleich. Jeanie has served on ASTRA’s Finance Committee and the Winter Camp Committee.

She is joined on the ASTRA executive committee by immediate past chair Amy Saldanha from kiddywampus toy store in Minnesota, Betty Skoke Burns from Angellina’s Toy Boutique in Canada, Tom Rushton from Revenew Sales, Corey Funkey from SMART Toys and Games, and Lisa Orman from Kidstuff PR.   

The following new directors began their three-year term in August.

TJ Simmons, Thin Air Brands

TJ has 15 years of experience in the toy industry, including stints as a sales rep with Diverse Marketing, a manufacturer with Kahootz Toys, and as a retailer with Harbor Toy Co. in Michigan, *play in Chicago, and Marbles: The Brain Store locations. 

He has worked on ASTRA’s Membership Committee and helped develop the customer service module of the certified Master Sales Rep program.

Theresa Duncan, Villa Villekulla Toy Store

Theresa owns a neighborhood toy store that serves the community of Fernandina Beach, Florida. A graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program, Theresa was named 2020’s Young Business Leader of the Year by the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce. She discovered the true value of play in her previous career developing out-of-school-time programming for at-risk youth ages 4 to 18.

She’s served on ASTRA’s Editorial Advisory Committee for the past three years. 

Gene Murtha, SCORE Association

The Service Corps of Retired Individuals is a national nonprofit whose members provide free consultation services and advice to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. Gene has 40 years of toy management experience that includes 16 years at Mattel and three years as the president of Gund. He started his own company, Main Street Toys, which developed and marketed products through independent retailers.

Azhelle Wade, The Toy Coach

A designer and inventor, Azhelle worked for Toys “R”Us, Party City and Madame Alexander before launching her consultancy. Her podcast Making It in the Toy Industry and her Toy Creators Academy programs offer step-by-step guidance, industry insights, and resources.

Brice Elvington, CMR, The Toy Shop Florence

With a background in chemical engineering and business, Brice has more than a decade of experience in the toy industry.

He’s served on the ASTRA Innovation Council, contributed regularly to ASTRA Connect discussion topics, and earned his Certified Master Retailer designation. Brice is committed to bringing manufacturers, reps, and retailers together and helping fellow retailers learn what works and what doesn’t work.

Patrick Holland, Learning Express Toys of Chattanooga and Mountain Top Toys

Patrick has served on the ASTRA Exclusives Committee where he helped to inform staff on decisions for the program moving forward. Please see the profile of his business on page 10.

Sari Wiaz, Wize Choice Creations/Baby Paper

The creator of Baby Paper worked in electronics retail, event planning and management, real estate, and ad specialty sales, before joining the toy industry 15 years ago. Sari has served on ASTRA’s Marketplace & Academy Committee, the Education Committee, and the ASTRA Summer Camp Committee.

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