There are elbows flying in the toy aisle this holiday season, but for once it’s not the parents sparring over the hot gadget of the year. Instead, it’s the retailers who are duking it out, each vying for the former customers of the now-defunct Toys “R” Us.
Before it filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, the iconic big box store accounted for 14 percent of the $27 billion annual sales of toys in North America. But after Toys “R” Us shuttered over 700 stores, including a dozen in Greater Boston, retailers of all sizes scrambled to pick up the slack. Owners of corner toy shops are devising clever ways to compete with Amazon and big box retailers, which are bulking up on Shopkins and Hatchimals.
“Toys ‘R’ Us is gone, but it’s also created a monster,” said Eli Gurock, the co-owner of Magic Beans, a chain of six toy stores in Greater Boston and Connecticut.
Gurock spent two hours last week playing with toys live on Facebook. During his shop’s “virtual toy sale,” he and his employees zoomed on scooters, showed off Lego sets, and fired a table tennis ball at Gurock’s chest as they demonstrated 50 of the hottest toys this season.
“I literally watched QVC for a couple of days straight to see how they display the products, and I created a couple different vignettes,” he said.
Over 5,000 viewers logged on from as far away as Kansas and California to watch the demos and shop the sale, which offered 25 percent off all full-price toys to Facebook viewers. The store also has a YouTube channel with 30,000 subscribers and 10 million views of its review videos of strollers, car seats, and other baby products.
“A lot of the good, well-run independent stores have stepped up and retooled and are reminding the community they’re here,” said Steve Pasierb, the president of the Toy Industry Association. “We think there’s a real opportunity for them as everyone scrambles for market share.”
Both Target and Walmart have expanded their toy selections, adding additional aisles of products this year, he said. Other retailers like Kohl’s, Michaels, and off-price destinations like TJ Maxx are also broadening their offerings.
Even grocery stores such as Kroger and Whole Foods are tucking more trucks and blocks in with their nonperishable goods. Drugstores such as CVS are seizing on toy sales too.
And Amazon has been aggressively promoting its playtime offerings, ramping up the presence of toys on its landing pages, and has taken tentative steps toward selling its own line . Demonstrating its determination to dominate every corner of the market, and gin up excitement for the holiday season, the behemoth released its first print catalog this year, “A Holiday of Play,” a 68-page guide to the Lego sets, Fingerlings, and L.O.L. Surprise dolls that are dominating toy sales online.
The catalog didn’t feature any prices, but instead listed QR “smile codes” that allowed shoppers to scan and purchase their toys within seconds — and that enables Amazon to track everything that shoppers were searching for, even offline.
For independent toy shops whose entire premise is to offer a destination — one that they hope will transport children into a world of play, leaving them awestruck — the aftershocks from the Toys “R” Us bankruptcy have been reverberating through the industry for months.
Gurock said toy manufacturers, scrambling to sell their excess stock, have tried to make small independent retailers commit to larger purchases to help move inventory. He used to be able to purchase $200 or $500 worth of products from certain toymakers, but this year they’ve demanded orders for $1,000 or more, which has forced him to make more strategic decisions about what brands he can afford to stock.
Meanwhile, Gurock’s been shocked to see more toys crop up in stores where he’d never expected them.
“There is definitely a land grab for the toy market and it was very public and very aggressive and offensive. I see toys all over the place,” he said. “Not only are we competing with Amazon and online but we’re competing with pop-ups and general supermarkets and other stores.”
But Pasierb said that while many of the big players have been eager to absorb the Geoffrey Giraffe-shaped void in the market, smaller storefronts are also doing their part to fill in the gaps.
Henry Bear’s Park stores, a small local toy chain, has profited from adding a few more mainstream toys — such as Hot Wheels and dolls — to its mix of educational toys, said Suzanne Robichaud, senior manager of the Brookline store.
“We’re seeing more transactions, more people through the door, and higher sales numbers,” she said. “We’re reaching a larger audience, and trying to expand our sections to accommodate people who went to Toys ‘R’ Us.”
Kim Mitchell, the owner of Boing! Toy Shop, a neighborhood toy store in Jamaica Plain, is also widening her scope. She’s extended the reach of her online ads to people who live within 10 miles of the store, rather than those within the 3-mile range she’d targeted in the past. Online orders have jumped from the 20 she received in the two months before Christmas last year to two or three a day.
She’s also begun offering some of the same services that customers now expect from both Amazon and the big box stores, such as free local delivery and curbside pickup for online orders (a great perk, she notes, for those instances when you have a sleeping child in your car).
“I’m never going to be Amazon, but I’m trying to figure out what are the small things that I can do that help with convenience factor, and make it a little bit more convenient to shop with me,” she said.
For Gurock, videos and Facebook antics are a way to remind customers of the fun that he sees as essential to the experience of shopping for toys.
That, he said, and a reminder that when the window for online shipping closes, his doors will still be open.
“It’s really about that last 10 days before Christmas,” Gurock said.
“I know this season will end extremely strong, the question is how strong,” he added. “But we are ready.”Janelle Nanos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.