Tips for Buying When the Line Is Blurry

by Tina Manzer


The line. It’s been there for years. On one side of it is the specialty toy industry: single, small(er) stores with independent ownership, free giftwrap and great service. TV-advertised tech toys, guns and licensed toys are hard to find on their shelves. Unique European board games, puzzles and wooden toys are more the norm.

On the line’s other side is “mass” – big box stores in multiple locations owned by huge corporations. Their shelves feature an abundance of mega-advertised toys, including tech toys, video games and – especially during the past holiday season – licensed product.

“Did you walk the aisles of Walmart during the holiday season?” Steve Starobinsky asked me recently, as we discussed the upcoming buying season. “If you did, you would have been surprised. They did a really good job chasing some unique licenses. And Target? It totally reinforced the perception that it carries a low-price mix of high-end product and European-looking goods.

“By no means am I saying that specialty toy stores should buy all the things carried at Walmart and Target,” he adds. “But the idea that some products are only for mass and others are only for specialty is really antiquated. It’s something we, as an industry, have to throw away now. Today’s mom doesn’t say, ‘I don’t want you to play with licensed products, I want you to play with educational toys.’ It’s not an either/or. In the 1990s, maybe, more parents were against pop-culture licenses. At that time, the line was very clear. Today it’s a different story. That line has blurred in a big way.”

We should consider it a boon.

“I think it’s an exciting time to be a specialty toy retailer,” Steve observed. “We just have to work significantly harder to take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of us.” As vice president of marketing and “product discovery” at rep group Diverse Marketing, he makes it a priority to know what sells where (and when and why).

Specialty toy retailers should re-examine their tradeshow strategy now, he suggests. The biggest toy tradeshows in the world take place in the first eight weeks of the year.

Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair, January 9 through 12

The London Toy Fair, January 24 through 26

Spielwarenmesse in Nürnberg,
February 1 through 6

The New York International Toy Fair, February 18 through 21

“At whatever shows they attend, specialty toy retailers should go to every booth they’ve never been to in the past three years,” says Steve. “You’re there to see ‘new’ so balance the time you spend at the booths of vendors you see all the time with the time you spend with new vendors.”

A nine-year veteran of multiple, annual toy trade shows, Steve has developed a strategy that helps him not miss a trick. Here are some of its finer points.

Walk to spot trends and new products

During Toy Fair in the Javits Center, Steve blocks off the morning of the first day and heads directly to the Launch Pad in the left-hand corner of Hall 1C to see the small and emerging vendors. Last year, there were about 25 who set up tabletop displays. “What I see there can shift the entire show for me,”
he says.

Focus on Level1

“You may not find anything, but go there with a hunter mentality,” he says. “I carry my tablet, and when I see an idea – maybe it’s ornately old-fashioned product packaging – I record it. I keep walking, and if I see the same idea three times I consider it a trend. I keep track of the micro ideas and trend clusters to get the big picture. They are bricks in the foundation of something bigger.”

Measure each product purchase against your store’s brand

Instead of thinking of your store as “specialty” in general, consider its specific identity, brand and unique personality, and then support it with your product selection. Choose each product based on its own merit. “You’ll have to work more and harder,” says Steve. “It sounds horrible because you already work so hard, but it’s really just shifting the way you approach buying.”

Remain engaged in purchasing throughout the year

“Specialty retailers must buy ‘timely-er’ than they have in the past,” says Steve. “They really need to surprise their guests with timely product every time they walk in.”

Keeping stores fresh is a monthly reset, “at least in the feature space,” he explains. While 60 percent of merchandise should consist of core goods, 40 percent has to change every four to six weeks “and that’s the key,” he says. “It’s the unique opportunity specialty has to beat others in the channel. They should get educated on all the licenses coming up, and work with their reps and suppliers to create programs that are timely.”

Planning for the “Troll” trend is an example. “Orders should have been written so that the products arrived six weeks before the movie launch, and – even better – sold out 10 weeks later. That’s the cycle.

“Part of me says it’s just balance – don’t overbuy, and know that you’re going to have to mark down a small amount of merchandise in the end,” Steve adds. “It’s a risk you take, but if you do it right, you can become really good at managing your buy.”

There’s always another next big thing

Buy enough of a trending product by making constant and aggressive buys, but “don’t get greedy,” warns Steve. “You may have hoped to make $1,000 profit on a product, but if you made $800, good! Another way to say this is, ‘Stop selling something before it stops itself.’”

Diverse Marketing reps gifts, too, Steve tells me, and explains that there are about 15,000 good, independently-owned gift stores across the country, compared to about 1,500 specialty toy stores. “In our showrooms, I have the luxury of seeing the buying patterns of both. A toy store owner will come in and say, ‘This sold great, I guess I’ll reorder.’ A gift store owner will say, ‘This sold great. What’s next?’ Respect your reps and other trend experts who are telling you about the new stuff. Give something new a chance over something that could totally fall with your next re-order.”

In addition to tradeshow purchasing tips, Steve named some companies to watch this year. He had the advantage of seeing a lot of their products already, at the 2016 Fall Toy Preview.

“Every retailer should be buying from a company called Funko. You’d be surprised at how many don’t know who they are. If you’re at Toy Fair, go see them [booth 5305].

“It’s always exciting to go into the Spin Master booth [739]. They have recommitted themselves to the specialty toy industry, and doubled the size of their Toy Fair booth to welcome specialty toy retailers in there.

“Fat Brain Toys [booth 6171] has fantastic product; just different enough.

“I will be looking for vendors who are thinking about construction toys in a new way,” he concludes. “LEGO’s stranglehold on that category has loosened just enough for some new introductions into that super-category.”

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