June ASTRA Marketplace & Academy

ASTRAIndependent Retailer recently spoke with Kathleen McHugh, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), the largest non-profit association providing leadership and resources to grow the specialty toy industry. The more than 1600 members of ASTRA include locally-owned independent toy and children’s products retailers, book stores, school supply stores and gift stores that build their businesses around specialty toys, designed with a focus on what the child can do rather than what the toy can do.

ASTRA was founded in 1992 to strengthen the segment of the toy industry that is committed to providing children with healthy, quality play materials that have high play value, as well as to bring members of the specialty toy industry together to help each other succeed. McHugh discussed the association’s 2014 Marketplace & Academy, their Best Toys For Kids list, and the power of social media.

IR: When is ASTRA’s 2014 Marketplace & Academy, and why should retailers attend?

ASTRAMcHugh: ASTRA’s 2014 Marketplace & Academy will be held June 8 -11, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. It is designed to bring together everything an independent retailer needs for a successful fourth quarter, including the best new products, ideas to take your business to the next level, fourth quarter deals and steals, and unforgettable sessions and speakers. The event is known for its productive but relaxing atmosphere, and all the one-on-one relationship building time with toy manufacturers that is hard to get at other industry events. You will leave with the year’s best deals and ready-to-use retail strategies for building your business in 2014.

IR: How is the Best Toys For Kids list compiled?

McHugh: The Best Toys for Kids Award list features toys that stretch a child’s imagination, invite discovery and exploration, get little ones moving, helps kids build creativity, fascinate and delight babies, and even toys that will help preteens unplug from electronic games and rediscover the joy of play. The Best Toys for Kids program was created by ASTRA to help our retailer members attract media coverage, attract customers to their stores during the all-important fourth quarter, and is one more way to differentiate the outstanding value of specialty toys. 

ASTRA’s Best Toys for Kids award winning toys are selected by play experts.  Instead of being financed by the companies that make the toys, ASTRA’s list is chosen by a community of people who care deeply about quality toys. Winners are selected by neighborhood toy store owners around the country who watch kids play in their store all day long, and talk with parents about which toys sustain their child’s attention and become beloved additions to their toy box.

IR: We’ve heard that parent bloggers are fans of your “Best Toys For Kids” list. How do bloggers influence the toy market?

McHugh: Today’s moms get information from many sources, and many have some special sources they trust for information about toys. For example, blogger Liz Gumbinner has a strong following among mothers of young children, and has won several awards for her mom-oriented blog. ASTRA developed a relationship with her because we felt she is a good fit with ASTRA’s brand. She gives voice to many values shared by specialty toy customers.  She is one of several who can recommend a new toy— and it gets noticed!

IR: How can retailers use the power of social media when selling toys?

ASTRAMcHugh: ASTRA members have found so many ways to use social media. 90 percent of mothers of young children are active in social media, and 60 percent have used information they got from a social networking site like Facebook or a blog to make a purchase. A study commissioned by Child’s Play Communications found that moms who buy based on recommendations they get from social media do so, on average, five times per year. ASTRA retailers use it to introduce new toys on Facebook, connect moms, promote in-store events, offer sales promotions, run contests, announce Best Toys for Kids award winning toys, and so much more.

IR: When selling children’s toys, how can retailers distinguish themselves from the big box stores?

McHugh: Specialty toy retailers compete on value and service.  The toys they carry are the kind of toys that endure. They don’t end up in the bottom of the toy box after the novelty wears off hours after they are opened. All children in the family find joy from them, and often so do children in the next generation. Beyond the unique and innovative products, specialty toy retailers provide service that their big box competitors cannot match—from product knowledge and extensive expertise about healthy play to free gift-wrapping and other services.  Children are welcome in specialty toy stores, and families can often enjoy special events like crafts or story time.

Also, an increasing amount of families are reconsidering not just what they spend, but also where they spend it. Moms, dads, grandparents and other toy buyers are facing a choice of where to buy. Profit goes back into the community if customers buy at the charming toy store in the community where they can browse, touch, handle, and play with quality toys. By spending their toy dollar here, the community is better from it.

IR: How can retailers benefit from being an ASTRA member?

McHugh: ASTRA provides a range of services and events that help locally-owned retailers keep up with cutting-edge business ideas and learn new skills. We provide education about specialty toys for public officials, lead national industry events like ASTRA’s Neighborhood Toy Store Day, create tools and publications to help make members’ businesses more profitable, and connect members to each other so they can share experiences and help each other solve business challenges.  We also host events like Share the Fair at the annual Toy Fair in New York, so members can make most efficient use of their time, while trying to find just the right products for their store; and of course we host the year’s largest gathering of the specialty toy industry: our annual Marketplace & Academy.

For more information on ASTRA, visit www.astratoy.org.