| 2013 Winter | story by EMILY MULLIGAN | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
When the calendar turns to December, more than just the lights on the trees begin to sparkle. Cash registers come alive as shoppers search for the perfect gift for their loved ones. That perfect gift, more often than not, is for a son or niece or grandchild. Lawrence retailers specializing in children’s items are ready for the business.
Few people know more about getting products into the hands of kids than Margaret Warner. First in Topeka, Warner has owned and operated toy stores for nearly 40 years.
“There is nothing else I’d rather be doing,” Warner says convincingly. “I have the best job in the world.”
Warner began working for The Toy Store in Topeka 38 years ago. She soon took over the operations and 16 years ago opened The Toy Store on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence. Warner has built the stores into two of the largest
independently -owned specialty toy stores in the world.
“We inspire creativity, individual thinking and community awareness through play and reading,” Warner says. “Our Toyologists help you choose the perfect toys. We offer a selection of quality playthings and expert advice that only a local, family-owned business can provide.”
Warner says the business of marketing toys really isn’t all that difficult. Her experience has shown her that providing a consistent, reliable selection of products is more effective than predicting the next trend in toys. Books, she says, are the top selling product at The Toy Store.
“We put a lot of pride in our book selection,” Warner says. “We work very hard to maintain our supply and selection. When someone comes in looking for a book, we do everything we can to make sure they leave with one.”
Book sales have been so consistent that the store was able to dedicate the entire 3rd floor of their building to books. The newest floor opened at the end of November.
Though books are the store’s top-selling product, Warner lists educational toys as a close second.
“We really consider almost everything we sell to be educational,” Warner says. “We try to fill our store with sustainable, educational toys that will last. The quality of the products we offer is very important. We want the toys we sell to last.”
Kris Bailey, owner of children’s boutique Blue Dandelion, has found her niche in the kids market by finding those unique items new moms need.
“When my partners and I opened, we were primarily a furniture store,” Bailey says. “We thought we would sell higher-end cribs and baby furniture. It didn’t take long to see that Lawrence didn’t have the market for that. We quickly started to concentrate on clothing and smaller items. At that time Baby Gap had just closed, so we knew there was an opening in the market.”
Bailey has operated the boutique on Massachusetts Street for 8 years. At this point, she knows what products sell consistently and has a good idea of what new products her customers will buy.
“Cloth diapers have always been a big seller for us,” she says. “We’re not the only place in town you can buy what you need to use cloth diapers, but I know we have the best selection and the highest quality product in town.”
Muslin swaddling blankets are also, with diapers, the shop’s biggest selling items. The soft blankets are made of breathable bamboo or cotton to prevent overheating and can be used in multiple ways. Bailey says the quantity of blankets sold is surprising.
“After a new mom gets one, they almost always come in and get more,” Bailey says.
Both Bailey and Warner agree that December is their most busy time of the year, but neither says the holidays make or break their bottom line.
“Sure we see a very nice increase in business in December,” Warner says. “But kids have birthdays all year long. They have parties all year long and read books all year long. We look forward to the 4th quarter, but we do well all year.”
Bailey agrees, saying they do see an increase in business in December, but traffic is fairly consistent throughout the year.
“People don’t just have babies in December,” Bailey says with a laugh. “And kids using cloth diapers don’t just poop in December.”
Unlike the local boutique shops, Target banks on the 4th quarter to bring in the bucks. In fact, Target publishes annual kids’ catalog features more than 400 specially priced products for kids of all ages.
“We continue to differentiate with kids’ gifts that can only be found at Target,” says Kristy Welker of Target Public Relations. “Whether it’s Target owned brands like Circo® and Our Generation® or exclusive licensed products merchandise from brands like Disney and Transformers.
Throughout the season, guests will find kids’ gifts on sale, beginning in earnest in early November when guests receive the catalog. There will be 23 coupons with promo codes in the kids’ November gift catalog and 18 coupons in the kids’ December gift catalog.”
Welker says the 4th quarter is a huge time for Target, especially the toy department.
“We do tremendous business during the holiday season,” she says. “We work very hard to meet our customers’ expectations and provide great customer support.”
While Target deals in volumes beyond anything a locally owned shop can match, customer service is where the little guys can gain some points.
“We try to make it an experience,” Warner says of shopping in The Toy Store. “We call our employees Toyologists and we mean it. They really know the toys and they can help you find that perfect gift for whomever you are shopping.”
Lawanna Huslig-Hanks thinks that perfect gift doesn’t have to come shrink-wrapped in plastic. Her store, Doodlebugs, specialized in reselling gently used kids clothing and toys. The shop on Massachussetts Street has been open almost 18 months, and Huslig-Hanks has been surprised with the consistent success.
“Our sales have been very good,” Huslig-Hanks says. “We’ve been very happy with business each month we’ve been open.”
Though Doodlebugs does experience waves of business throughout the year, Huslig-Hanks says the weather is biggest factor in traffic.
“I’m always surprised by how much the weather affects sales,” she says. “Maybe it’s just me, but if I need something for my kids or my family, a little snow or the cold isn’t going to keep me from getting it. Poor weather is really something that can hurt a week of sales.”
Doodlebug’s sales are split between clothes, toys and furniture, but the majority of profit is from clothes. Huslig-Hanks inspects every item brought into the shop and will only sell that which she approves.
“We have high quality things here,” Huslig-Hanks says. “One of our biggest challenges is getting people past the barrier of buying used. Just because someone else once owned it, that doesn’t mean the quality still isn’t there. We sell some really nice things here. The benefit to buying used is in the price.”
Lawrence businesses focused on kids are seeing steady sales throughout the year. By focusing on quality products and strong customer service, kid retailers are keeping customers in tow, forming bonds and growing along with local families they serve.
The idea of shopping as an experience has served Rod Smith of White Chocolate well. The quiet, calm Smith has owned the skateboard shop in Downtown Lawrence since 2005 (he also owns a shop in Hays, Kansas). He doesn’t try to compete with Wal-Mart and Target. He says he doesn’t have to.
“I know the quality of our product is so much higher,” Smith says with his signature thoughtful tone. “Some of the brands we sell are available in those box stores, but I know our quality is as good as we can get. Also, we know what we are selling. We know why one board or shoe might serve you better than another.”
Smith says the authenticity of getting a board or shoes or a t-shirt at his shop, as opposed to Wal-Mart, is a by-product of staying true to his business beliefs.
“We don’t try to fool anyone and move as much product as possible,” Smith says. “We sell stuff we like to people who are interested in it. Kids seem to like what we are doing, and I think they tell their parents to get the gear here. Also, a lot of our business comes from parents that skate, buying things for their own kids. So if a parent shops here, we can get the kids to get into what we’re doing.” ■