by Alyssa LaFaro
“Love what you do, and if you don’t love it, don’t do it,” recommends specialty toy retailer Nerice Kendter. “I think the key to surviving the past six, tough, years has been that I genuinely love this industry.”
Inspired by a toy store she visited in Belgium, Nerice opened Busy Bee Toys in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 2006. Parents and kids in the area embraced the store and made it their own. “I am really lucky that a large portion of the community truly values what I am doing,” she says. “People continue to tell me they shop here because they want to see me stay open.”
Close attention to price points
A stay-at-home mom with a background in social work, Nerice and her family shopped for toys in Europe eight years ago. “The company my husband worked for sent him to Belgium regularly,” she explains. “My son and I would go and wander around. One day, we stumbled across this beautiful specialty toy store, Krokodil, part of a small chain of stores in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
“We started bringing beautiful European toys home to the states,” she continues. “Eventually, when we stopped traveling there, I lamented the loss of these wonderful toys. Then, all of a sudden, a light bulb went off in my head. I decided to open a toy store.”
Her first inventory focused on wooden toys and other play items from Europe. “I quickly learned I couldn’t only carry European toys,” she says. “Not every family in our community could afford them. Not every family wanted them.”
A lot of shoppers there look for “made in the USA” toys and are willing to pay higher prices for them, compared to similar toys made in Asia.
Doylestown, located 27 miles north of Philadelphia, is perceived as an upscale community. In reality, it’s a town like any other with people of all economic levels and a lot of working moms, says Nerice. The Busy Bee is one of two toy stores in town, and she doesn’t want it to be known as “the expensive toy store.”
“I work hard to find items I can sell for a $5 price point, and $10 and $15,” she says. “I also carry some items that are $50 or higher. I try to have a broad range of price points within the confines of a smaller store.
“Every year, I adjust what I’ve brought in and look very carefully at price points,” she adds. “I may see items at Toy Fair that I absolutely love, but if the pricing is not where it needs to be, I pass.”
Birthday gifts are a staple of her business. “People come in Friday evenings and Saturday mornings before a birthday party to pick up a gift,” Nerice notes. “They know they can get it wrapped for free and be on their way. If I didn’t have consistent birthday party traffic every week, my business would not be viable.”
In addition to the games and puzzles, infant/preschool items, outdoor toys and more that she carries, Nerice is seeing a renewed interest in gag gifts. “Everything from the fake poop to stick-on mustaches to magic kits seems to be coming back. More companies are carrying them, and what’s great is that they appeal to everyone – children, tweens, teens and adults.”
Room to play, and a great opportunity
While she tweaked the store’s product mix, she stayed true to her vision of its atmosphere. “The beauty of that European store we visited was the demoing and the playing, so I always keep a wide range of toys open to be played with. I have play tables and a big, classic toy demo area,” she says.
On Wednesday mornings, she opens the area to the public – not just shoppers – for open play time. “Doylestown has a vibrant homeschool community, and many homeschooled families come then. I’ve also hosted private play groups for moms who have requested it,” says Nerice. “I’m getting ready to do a game night in a local elementary school. It’s a really fun way to get families together to try out new games and expose them to my store.”
About a year ago, Nerice was contacted by the Bucks County Children’s Museum about 20 minutes away in New Hope. “The executive director invited me to open a second store in the small retail area that exists in the museum,” she says. “I pay a set fee every month to utilize the 120-square-foot space, and provide all the goods and enter the inventory into the computer. The museum pays their staff to run it.”
Since visiting families have already paid admission to the museum, they are looking for inexpensive items. Nerice stocks the store with toys priced $15 or less. If something isn’t selling well there, she can swap it out for other items from her Doylestown location. “What’s also great,” she notes, “is that people who know my original store but live closer to this one stop here for quick birthday gifts.”
She loves the second store’s small size because it doesn’t overextend her reach. “It allows me to still focus on my main shop. It was the perfect mini-step to having a second store.”
Aggressive local marketing
Earlier this year, the borough of Doylestown was approached by local marketing company Fig Media, who pitched a unique promotional program that promised “a hyper-local, super-social communications package that reflects the soul of a city.” A contract between the town and Fig was recently signed, a step that Nerice feels is very positive for area businesses.
“Fig offers this beautiful, multi-tiered program for small towns like Doylestown,” she explains. “They will promote our small businesses year-round using social media and Facebook.”
As part of the program, local bloggers write about Doylestown on its designated website figdoylestown.com. The site also includes a community events calendar, maps, business pages and an interactive portal that allows users “around the world to become part of the Fig community.”
The package is accompanied by a quarterly printed publication. “Each new issue features new businesses coming to town and people doing innovative things in their city, with special attention paid to those who give back and make a difference,” says the Fig website.
“Doylestown’s small businesses couldn’t afford this on their own,” says Nerice, who doesn’t do much advertising outside of Facebook and her website. “The whole town is really excited about it.”
To grandmother’s house we go
While the reality is that Nerice’s customers can purchase everything her store offers from someone else online, they make purchases at Busy Bee Toys because they like her, her store and its products. “I care about my customers,” she notes. “They know that, and come here because they know my staff and I will guide them through the store. It’s the whole shopping experience that makes a difference.”
Because the business is so personally gratifying, she can envision herself operating it for as long as she can. “I can see myself being this grandmotherly toy store owner,” she laughs. “I enjoy the families and that contact immensely.”
1. Doylestown (27 miles North of Philadelphia), 1,800 square feet, 2006
2. New Hope (20 minutes northeast of Doylestown), 120 square feet, 2012
Number of employees: “I am the only full-timer, and I’m here a lot. We are open seven days a week,” says Nerice. “I have five part-time employees right now, and I tell them, ‘I can’t pay you big bucks, but I can give you a lot of flexibility.’”
Core customers: Locals who come into the store specifically to purchase gifts for birthday parties. “We are walk-able from nearby neighborhoods, and we offer free gift wrap year-round,” she points out. “That’s something that really speaks to my customers.”
There is also tourist traffic, thanks to the store’s downtown location in “a sweet historic district,” and to its proximity to New Hope, a former artist community known today for its vibrant restaurants, shops and night life.
Biggest season: Certainly Christmas. “Summers can be hit or miss. As tourists are coming in to visit, townspeople are exiting for vacation.”
Current product recommendation: Lottie Dolls from British company Arklu. “These dolls are sweet, with a body more like an 8-year-old girl. The styling is appropriate for a child.”
Troubling trend: A downward shift in the sales of board games. “It’s been interesting. Construction toys are selling great, puzzles have been slow but steady, but our games have not been selling well. I blame it on cell phones, and how they’ve changed everyone’s attention span.”
Community outreach: “I’m willing to do special events for any school,” says Nerice. The store hosts free playtimes on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.; private play groups for moms are hosted upon request. Each first Friday of the month features fun activities.
Biggest competitor: The Internet. “There is another toy store nearby, but I don’t view him as my competition,” says Nerice. “We refer customers to each other. I honestly believe each toy store is a little different, and there is room for all of us.”
1. Doylestown: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
2. New Hope: Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays