With the demise of a big-box giant, three Upstate toy stores face both challenges and opportunities

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Elephant's Trunk owner Cathy Stone acknowledges that with display space already tight inside her festive-looking, 2,000-square-foot shop, there are only so many units of a product she can buy, so she must choose carefully. Will Crooks/Upstate Business Journal

By Neil Cotiaux

Heather Williams of Simpsonville was one of just a handful of shoppers browsing the shelves of the Greenville Toys R Us at 1025 Woodruff Road one recent Wednesday.

It may have been her last trip to the store, which closes June 30.

Saddled with billions in debt that made it difficult to invest in operations and technology to better compete against Amazon, Walmart, and Target, Toys R Us declared bankruptcy last September and is shuttering all of its U.S. stores.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Williams said, her 5-year-old daughter in tow. “I’d say… Amazon?”

But then, she called up the names of three independent toy stores a short drive away: The Elephant’s Trunk, Hollipops, and O.P. Taylor’s.

“They have specialties there,” Williams said. “We do shop at those toy stores when we want something different and not so mass-produced.”

Now, all three stores have a watershed opportunity to win over shoppers like Williams, but they’ve also drawn some bright lines regarding how far they’ll go to pursue them.

Tim Hall, a former senior vice president at toy maker Hasbro and current CEO of Simporter, an Atlanta-based sales analytics firm, believes independent toy stores are just one market segment that Hasbro, Mattel, and other manufacturers will probe as they try to recover some of the financial losses they’re experiencing with the demise of Toys R Us.

“Their concentration of volume at the big three — Walmart, Amazon, and Target — will undoubtedly increase in 2018,” Hall said in a research paper. But they also will “likely push further into alternate channels like dollar stores, grocery, drug, and independent toy shops,” he believes, giving the area’s three indie stores more competition.

WHAT TO STOCK?

With 32 years of experience running a toy store, owner Cathy Stone of The Elephant’s Trunk in Greenville’s Augusta Commons knows what her customers want, and she’s only willing to expand her offerings so far to snag former Toys R Us shoppers.

It’s been “a good balance” between the chain’s offerings and what’s on her shelves at 2222 Augusta St., she said. “We can’t be everything to everybody.”

But she’s recently introduced Lego kits and Barbie dolls, both evergreens in the industry. As for what else she might pick up, “We will let our customers dictate that.”

Kelly Boone and Cathy Stone of The Elephant’s Trunk. Will Crooks/Upstate Business Journal

Stone acknowledges that with display space already tight inside her festive-looking, 2,000-square-foot shop, there are only so many units of a product she can buy, so she must choose carefully. A below-ground storeroom, also 2,000 square feet, holds additional inventory.

The Elephant’s Trunk caters to girls and boys, infant to 10 years, along with female teens. Male teens, Stone noted, favor lots of video games and other electronics readily available in big-box stores.

Stone, who holds a graduate degree in early childhood education from Clemson University, prefers that young people “get away from those screens” and engage in more traditional learning- and imagination-based play.

PRICING

In the big-box era, conventional wisdom says the price is the primary driver of consumer purchasing.

But shoppers may be operating under a false assumption, independent store owners suggest.

The Elephant’s Trunk, Hollipops at 2531 Woodruff Road in Simpsonville, and O.P. Taylor’s at 117 N. Main St. in Greenville have all used “mystery shoppers” to keep a watchful eye on Toys R Us, and what they found was surprising.

“If they had a sale on a toy, their price was usually your price,” said Caroline Robertson, manager at O.P. Taylor’s, with non-sale pricing also often in line with the trio.

At Simporter, which performs machine learning on social media and sales data to help retailers anticipate trends, Hall found that convenience — not pricing — is the key driver of toy-buying at chains because “… the consumer feels they have to make their way into a mass merchant at least once a week anyway, so buying a toy there is convenient,” his report states.

Similarly, people shop Amazon out of convenience, Stone believes. “I don’t think it’s price. It’s just easy to push that button,” she said.

Emily Daniel, the owner of Hollipops, is paying special attention to Target.

“I would consider Target to be my biggest competitor,” she said. “They have the biggest crossover with the specialty line.”

But to add to her own mix of merchandise, Daniel has lately been pressed to pay top dollar.

In December, shortly after Toys R Us declared bankruptcy, Daniel received a letter from Mattel. The toy manufacturer demanded a $10,000 minimum order each year instead of the $250 per order she used to pay, an offer she dismissed.

“It’s going to backfire,” she predicted.

IN-STORE EXPERIENCES

In the end, owners and analysts say, the best way for independents to grow their business is to foster and promote an even greater sense of family.

“It’s about the bonding between the parent or grandparent and child as they shop the location. … There is much more going on there than a transaction,” Hall wrote.

At O.P. Taylor’s, that wholesome environment translates into tots gathering around mascot characters and participating in hands-on play days; at The Elephant’s Trunk, children’s author Clay Rice cutting paper silhouettes of youngster’s profiles; and at Hollipops, two boys scooting among the shelves in toy cars and imitating engine sounds.

The shops also assist parents by offering services like call-ahead staff selection of gifts and repairing merchandise that gets broken at home.

They have also increased their commitment to Facebook and email marketing, and Daniel has accelerated her annual advertising as Toys R Us goes dark. “I plan to do a wider sweep and let people know we’re down here,” she said.

“We just have to work harder to make the experience in our store as pleasant as it can possibly be,” Stone summed up for the group.

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