If you’re going to go toe-to-toe with a big box store, you’re likely not going to outslug them on price.
Instead, you’ve got to have something else to offer your customers, something the Toys ‘R’ Us and the Walmarts of the world can’t match.
Shari Bricks Zeiler, owner and manager of Toytown, a boutique store on Avenue Road, believes she’s found the formula for success and longevity: offer better service, knowledgeable sales staff and a unique inventory of hard-to-find toys to distinguish yourself from other toy retailers.
Toytown is a medium-sized neighbourhood store in an area full of small-scaled businesses. The store is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, though the Bricks family has operated it only since 1984.
Visiting the store, you can quickly witness their formula for success.
At the counter, one of the staff demonstrates one of this season’s more popular items, Speed Stacks – stacking cups that have spawned an Olympic-style sport, complete with champions and competitions. Another salesperson, asked about an obscure game of Ligretto Dice – at least one I’d never heard about – describes in detail how the game works.
On the shelves you’ll find imported French craft kits by Djeco and Alex Toys. There’s also Platypus and Alex All Duct Out designer duct tape – Red Green must be kvelling like crazy, although this duct tape is not a handyman’s secret weapon. They are multi-coloured and patterned and useful for making jewelry and belts.
There are zipper bracelets, made from the same material used to construct braces for teeth, and for the boys there are some interesting copy, trace and draw colouring books featuring super heroes like Batman and the Green Arrow.
Of course there are also the standard games like Monopoly, Battleship and Hedbanz, but parents concerned about their children’s over-exposure to mind-numbing computer and video games will be pleased to note the store does not carry any of them.
As a mother of two young girls, Bricks Zeiler has seen the benefits of old-fashioned board games and the negative effects of electronic games, which grab a kid’s attention and won’t let go.
“I think with the advent of electronic devices, parents rely on them more than the kids do to keep them entertained,” she said.
“Computers keep kids out of our hair,” she continued, “but we get a lot of people coming in for a 10-year-old boy who only wants to play with the computer.”
Kids get “grumpy” if they’re constantly playing in front of a screen, but if you give them a chance, they enjoy themselves with board games and other toys.
“If you have an electronics-free day, the dog, the kids, the parents all get attention,” and playing board games is a good way for families to spend time together and for kids to interact with each other, she said.
Plus, many games have a built-in learning component, she added.
When it comes to learning about the business, Bricks Zeiler did it the old fashioned way – on the job.
Her parents, Harry and Andrea, bought the store from the Pollick family in the mid-1980s. The Pollicks founded it in 1952 in another location just down the street on Avenue Road.
The Pollicks were known for matching children with the perfect toy and saw the Bricks as maintaining that tradition.
Ironically, Bricks Zeiler doesn’t recall a plethora of toys in her life as a young girl. Of course, there were dolls and games and a few tchatchke, but shelves full of toys – that was something new, even for her.
As a young girl, she worked in the store on weekends and after school. While at university, where she studied Spanish and linguistics, she put in time on weekends and holidays.
“It was a real part of my formative years. It stayed with me – the work ethic, how to connect with people. I was a real shy kid.
“In retail, you need a lot of positive energy and you always have to have a smile on your face,” she said. “I think this is the kind of business that is in you from the beginning. You have to live it.”
“By trial and error I figured out how to use the accounting system, pay bills on time, pay the staff on time,” she said.
She doesn’t budget for advertising. Instead she relies on her customers to spread the word about the quality of the store.
Toytown is profitable, she said. “It’s not a multimillion-dollar business, it’s a small business…. It’s very hands-on.”
She worked side by side with her father until he suffered a stroke five years ago.
“It’s a labour of love. I love my staff, my customers. I love that my kids see a thriving business that their mother runs, that their mother works hard and still has time for the family.”
Some of the stores’ merchandise is relatively low-margin, but Bricks Zeiler stocks it because “we believe in it.”
Bricks Zeiler is bringing her two girls, aged 10 and seven, into the business, slowly. Not only are they great product testers, but she’s paying them for small jobs so they learn the connection between work and money.
Judging from the bustle in the store one recent weekday, Toytown remains a going concern. Bricks Zeiler acknowledges she’s had offers to expand to a second location, in a mall.
But, “we feel we want to be more of a destination,” she said. “If we open another store it will no longer be a labour of love.”