Play station: Independent toy store carves out role amid changing landscape
December is a busy month for Toys on the Square.
It has to be: The specialty toy retailer in Hummelstown brings in 80 percent of its annual income in the weeks before Christmas, according to owner Grafton Stine.
And most of it comes in the old-fashioned way.
The Main Street store, with its floor-to-ceiling display windows, is reminiscent of the days when people would stroll past shop windows instead of browsing online.
Inside the store, children admire doll houses, page through books, pick out items for Santa to bring, and shout, “Look at this!” to their parents and grandparents.
The store’s half-dozen sales people zip around, demonstrating toys and games, answering questions about what is age-appropriate and recommending products.
The bustling store can seem chaotic, but for the owner and staff, it’s a passion.
“I work for Santa,” said Stine.
Stine’s father opened Toys on the Square in Manheim Township, Lancaster County in 1985 after retiring from a career owning and managing a carpet store in Connecticut.
Stine’s parents moved to the midstate after retirement because they thought it was a nice, peaceful area, according to Stine. The toy store was a hobby that turned into a job.
“He was just always interested in toys,” Stine said.
Stine entered the business at age 28 after spending time in California. He eventually took the reins in the early 2000s when his father could no longer work. The business operated a number of storefronts over the years in addition to its store in Lancaster -- sometimes simultaneously -- including in Hershey, on Linglestown Road in Susquehanna Township, in the West Shore Farmers Market in Lemoyne, and finally, at its present and only location since 2002, on Main Street in Hummelstown.
The Hummelstown property has 8,000 square feet of merchandising space and an equal amount of storage space on the basement level.
After moving into the new shop in 2002, Stine recognized he had more square footage than he needed and brainstormed ways to capitalize on the extra space.
He decided to open a pottery studio, despite his former spouse telling him he was crazy, as he had no experience in art.
But Stine persisted, and built half-walls and windows at the rear of the store to create a space for a paint-your-own pottery studio, which opened in 2003.
“We have some regulars who come weekly. It’s therapeutic, relaxing to them,” Stine said.
The personal touch
All 16,000 square feet of the toy store are filled to the brim with merchandise, all organized by age level and type of toy. Stine does not use an electronic inventory system, but keeps track of what he has bought and sold by memory alone.
By request, employees will open and demonstrate products that aren’t among the items already on display, allowing customers to touch and play with the products before a purchase. The staff at Toys on the Square also gift wrap any item for free.
One of the regular suppliers for Toys on the Square is Crazy Aarons, a Montgomery County-based maker of Thinking Putty, a stretchy, bouncy putty that comes in over 40 colors and styles. The company’s factory employs about 800 individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.
The company started in 1998 and began its business approach “from the bottom up,” according to Aaron “Crazy Aaron” Muderick, founder and CEO of the company.
“Our foundation is specialty retailers. They believe in the product, they know the product and they give their customers that extra attention,” Muderick said.
Manufacturers and producers have a sort of symbiotic relationship, Muderick said. “No one is going to be as motivated as that business owner. We want it to sell; they recognize it’s a product they love. We both need each other. It’s not like a negotiation with a bigger retailer, where the focus is on financials and shelf space.”
When selling to a bigger retailer, Crazy Aarons focuses on advertising to educate consumers about the product, hoping they pull it from a shelf. Small specialty toy owners, on the other hand, can promote a product to customers when they walk into a store, which is the kind of grassroots promotion that Crazy Aarons relied on in its early years.
Specialty stores also are often more likely to purchase new products, as bigger businesses usually wait until a product has some traction before purchasing a massive quantity.
Crazy Aarons’ business model of employing people with disabilities is often praised by smaller shop owners, Muderick added, and promoted to consumers.
“But it’s not even a variable for a large retailer,” he said.
Crazy Aarons opened its own retail store in early December at its Norristown headquarters, and plans to add more.
The ability to touch and see a toy is important to many parents, said Fred Hurvitz, a marketing instructor with a focus in retail merchandise management for Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. “You still have to go to a retail store to experience that.”
Trends evident at the shop, according to staff members include older customers, especially grandparents, buying toys that have been on the market for decades, like pickup sticks and jacks – a trend sparked by worry that children are spending too much time on screens playing video games.
Not that Toys on the Square is averse to new technology.
Steve Shank manages the store’s Instagram feed, where he posts videos of staff riding scooters and testing products. Recently, he’s been featuring a toy of the day in an Advent calendar to drum up hype for the Christmas season. Toys on the Square also advertises with area media outlets, but says the most effective advertising is word of mouth.
Toys on the Square buys about $200,000 to $300,000 of merchandise annually. About 80 percent of its annual income comes from the month of December.
But in every other month of the year, the shop’s expenses outweigh its profit. It’s a balancing act for Stine, who has to buy enough merchandise to stock his shelves and pottery studio year-round, without securing a profit in 11 out of 12 months of the year.
There isn’t much money to be had as a small toy retailer, Stine said, noting that he and his employees could be making more money at McDonald’s than they do at the toy shop.
But the passion for the industry keeps him and his staff going.
Kimberly Sauerwald, who has worked for Toys on the Square for two years, studied information technology in college but never truly fell in love with the field, saying it was “changing too fast.” Instead, she bounced around in retail and service jobs before coming across the toy store in Hummelstown. She plans to stay for a while.
“I absolutely adore working here,” she said.
Large online and brick-and-mortar retailers sell toys to consumers for a lower price than the price Toys on the Square pays to buy a product from a manufacturer, based on price comparisons done by staff at Toys on the Square. That’s because large retailers buy in bulk and thus can negotiate lower pricing. Large retailers also can afford to sell items at a lower markup.
“They can operate at a lower margin because of their buying power. Walmart and Target to an extent can underprice everyone by the way they do their retailing. So the specialty store can’t compete,” said Hurvitz.
To keep consumers coming to brick-and-mortar stores, owners are under increasing pressure to provide a shopping “experience,” said Hurvitz, the professor at Smeal.
Toys on the Square does so through its store’s aesthetics, with colorful racks of toys organized by age and type, as well as with trial toys set out around the store to be tested and played with. It also offers unusual merchandise that may be difficult to find elsewhere.
“There’s the largest variety of different and hardest-to-find things here,” said Sue Westhafer, a frequent customer from Mechanicsburg.
Stine has noticed in the last few years that Millennial parents have been returning to Toys on the Square as adults because of their memories of going there as children. They want their children to experience the excitement of the toy store that they did years ago, Stine explained.
“They came to the shop as a kid in the 80s or early 90s, and now they’re back with their kids,” Stine said.