Amid closures of Toys ‘R Us stores nationwide, North Shore toy stores like Justin’s Toys and G. Willikers are doing just fine. While not immune to the consumer shift toward Internet retail, which forced the conglomerate’s mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, into retirement, owners of mom-and-pop stores say they’re better insulated from the seismic market shifts.
Five years ago, Justin’s Toys owner Robert Lee, of Glen Cove, saw an opportunity to bring a toy store back to the city after KB Toys shut its doors around 2008. “Knowing that there are so many schools around here,” Lee said, “I just felt like there was a market that needed to be tapped into.”
Before opening Justin’s, residents had to drive out past Northern Boulevard to do their toy shopping at places like Funky Monkey, or even Toys R Us. When he opened the store, Lee — who had prior retail experience — thought he had a pretty good idea of what he was getting himself into. But the toy business ended up being nothing like he expected.
It’s the work that goes on behind the scenes that makes toy retail different. “It’s not like any other retail that exists out there,” he said. Lee compared it to his past experience of working at a liquor store where he dealt with a few different vendors. Now, he works with nearly 150, and says he spends hours a day on research alone.
In some ways, he said, the toy business is like the stock market. “There’s things that hold value that can only increase with time, and toys are one of them.” Once a toy is discontinued, the items end up selling for much more than Lee bought them for. “It’s a long haul,” he said. “If you’re willing to wait five years and sell one a week, eventually your return on that initial purchase will be like 500 percent.”
Down the road in Locust Valley is G. Willikers, a business that has been in the town for over 30 years. Starting as a small corner store it has since expanded, residing in a newer storefront just up the block. Although the store has downsized in recent years, it has left its mark on the community.
Employees say that the store has a “happy” and “whimsical” vibe, and six-year owner Asgeir Asgeirsson says, along with workers’ keen attention to customer service, that both components are key to the business’s success.
“Since the store has been here for thirty years, we have third-generation people coming in, and they always talk about when they came in as a kid and what a great experience it is to shop here, and how the vibe of the store hasn’t changed,” Asgeirsson said.
While Justin’s tends to buy hot, trendy toys, G. Willikers likes to put a focus on buying things that are more “unique.” But despite their differences, they’ve both been challenged by the rise of e-commerce.
The Internet has affected retail as a whole. Lee noted that “what [his] generation knows as retail is not what it was for the generation before. It’s constantly evolving.” Each store has had to find ways to adapt to this change, and find creative ways to bring customers into the store instead of just shopping online. For example, both stores custom wrap purchases at no extra charge, something that many online retailers won’t do.
The stores also offer in-store events to help bring people in. Every Tuesday morning for the rest of the summer G.Willikers is doing different craft activities like slime making and painting. Justin’s does a number of different card trading events, including Pokémon Cards, and has been doing World Cup sticker trade events. In the past they have also hosted craft events like tie-dye. The events bring people into the store, boost their image in the community and, hopefully, boost store profits as well.
The owners also rely on customer service skills to draw customers in. Lee says that it’s important that employees know the products inside and out so that when a customer “explains a kid to [him], [he] can make strategic recommendations for things that a customer never would have thought of.”
Glen Cove resident Kristin Ingegno, who has worked at G. Willikers for six years, says that since the store is “a household name in Locust Valley [they] still have the consistent customers,” as well as a customer base that shops for more “personalized experiences.”
Asgeirsson, agrees. “That’s the store’s advantage in differentiating itself from the internet.” He added that he believes customers are willing to pay a bit more for that extra community value.
Asgeirsson and Lee are also finding ways to use the Internet to their advantage. Willikers advertises with its summer catalog and newly renovated Instagram account, and Justin’s has a Facebook page and a Youtube channel with toy reviews and tutorials that has nearly 300,000 subscribers.
According to Lee, the age at which children shift their focus to digital entertainment has decreased from ten to eight, which has forced him to change his inventory to reflect the younger market.
Asgeirsson said that even though kids are spending a lot of time on computers and other devices, “Toys are toys and kids are kids and that hasn’t changed.”