What a week! We hit the road last week to visit ASTRA retailers in Kansas and Minnesota. What did we learn about these independent toy stores? They are passionate about play and thinking outside of the box to stay ten steps ahead of the game. Here are some of our takeaways from our time on the road.

31530328_10156315407284233_4539611391595821928_n.jpgIt’s Not Always About the Location
Location, location, location is supposed to be the be all and end all in retail, right? Not for Lark Toys! The store sits almost in the middle of nothing on Highway 61 in southern Minnesota. Rather than location, location, location, Lark Toys focuses on experience, experience, experience. That’s what draws the crowds. What can customers experience when they step into the store? Llamas, wooden toys handmade in the store, a large carousel featuring wooden animals carved and painted in their shop, homemade fudge made on location, and – of course – toys, books and gifts galore.

31819302_10156324924769233_3268642542308032512_n.jpgLocated on the main street of an outskirt Minneapolis suburb, kiddywampus’ signature feature is their “paint wall”.  Posters on their window when we visited announced a community fund-raiser that is raising money to provide beds for kids.  For $10 you can throw paint on the wall for 20 mins!  Kiddywampus has “summer camp” sessions, birthday parties and lots of classes throughout the year.  While kiddywampus is a for-profit business, all after-tax profits from the store go to charities benefiting children and families in their community.

Chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as Bookstore of the Year in 2017, Wild Rumpus Bookstore is a treasure. No only do they have a vast selection of books (mostly children’s books) they also feature activities and two cats and a chicken roaming the store.

Red Balloon Bookstore features storytimes that feature readings and singing Once an ASTRA member and hopefully soon to become one again, this is a St. Paul “institution” located in the very well known “Grand Avenue” shopping neighborhood. We arrived at the tail end of story time and the combination of story reading and singing was magical.

Know Your Audience – and Act Accordingly
In the toy industry, retail slows down in the summer. But ABC Toy Zone recognizes that it’s the prime time when teachers work on their upcoming school year plans and when parents are looking for the products to keep the learning going during the summer. To accommodate these teachers and parents, ABC Toy Zone adjusts their product mix by building up their teacher materials and educational products for summer and focusing on toys for the fall and winter. On top of that, they plan a Santa’s Wonderland – complete with Santa for the holidays – for a year-round experience that customers return to again and again.


31818945_10156321029494233_577875819473403904_n.jpgGet Creative to Connect with Your Customers
First it’s the large K’Nex ferris wheel in the window that draws customers in and inside it’s the product selection of hands-on toys that keep them inside for hours of play. To amp up the fun, Fat Brain Toys incorporates creative out-of-the-box events (picture a truck hauling in sand for a beach party!) and provides an easy way for customers to order right from their online store in the event that they don’t have stock online.

At The Learning Tree, adults must enter through the regular door, but kids can come in through their own entrance through a smaller door and through little house to get into the store.  With regular newsletters promoting their full calendar of events, they’re known in the neighborhood as the gathering place for fun.

31698771_10156321029134233_2005538951711948800_n.jpgFind Your Sweet Spot (and Own It!)
Customers can find anything and everything related to science all in one place at Brookside Toy & Science. Alongside science kits and boxes, this store features chemicals, beakers, microscope and skeletons for customers to take their science learning to the next level. To add on to their product mix, they’ve dedicated additional aisles to toys, games and puzzles.

Now in business for more than 39 years, Hub Hobby is a true hobby store with trains, drones, models to build and paint as well as a full toy store. More than 65,000 items are in their POS system.  Along with a staff that know the intricacies of the model, train and remote-control products they also host gaming groups in a room they have on site that can seat up to 40.


Get the Family Involved
At The Toy Store, customers coming through the historic building’s doors will encounter a family business that spans three generations and continues to keep the passion for the toy industry alive. Three floors (all accessible with an elevator for everyone to enjoy) feature toys, games, puzzles, books and arts and crafts.

31793503_10156321053014233_5035788870399033344_n.jpgHow many times do you hear of a yo-yo-championship-winning son convincing his father to get in the toy business and become a member of ASTRA? That’s what happened with Go Big Skill Toys.  Originally intending to become a Party City franchise, Go Big Skill Toys decided to focus on the toy industry. The store features free skill toy workshops for all ages and focus on developing a community of thinkers and doers that thrive to learn and express themselves.


Let the Passion for Play Motivate
first opened as Pea Pods and did so based on their belief in and passion for natural toys and baby products.  Long before they became trendy, they offered cloth diapers and BPA free products. As the trend grew and their once-specialty market became more mainstream, Mischief reinvented themselves to focus on a new passion: toys and games for older kids and products that
appeal to all ages.  They have a room full of games for anyone to come in and play.

Jax Ltd. was recently purchased by Goliath Games. Cindy Levine and her family have run Jax Ltd. out of their Minneapolis location and have been ASTRA members since 1997.  As they are winding down the Minneapolis office, we wanted to stop and talk with Cindy. The stories she shared of their beginnings and growth show the tenacity of our independently owned businesses and their strong entrepreneurial spirit.  Cindy’s dad – 94 years young – still comes in to the office every day in his suit, white shirt and bowtie.


Collaborate with Colleagues to Make a Bigger Impact IMG_1113
Retailers, manufacturers and sales representatives worked together to organize a Kansas City game night, designed for retailers to bring in their staff to learn games while connecting with others in the industry. As an industry, we are mighty together – and Game Night is a great example of the power of play that happens when we work together.




See more photos over on the ASTRA Facebook page. Many thanks to the retailers, sales representatives and manufacturers who welcomed us so warmly: Lark Toys, ABC Toy Zone, Fat Brain Toys, Brookside Toy & Science, The Learning Tree, The Toy Store of Lawrence, Go Big Skills and Toys, Wild Rumpus Bookstore, Red Balloon Bookstore, Mischief, Hub Hobby, kiddywampus, Jax Ltd, Toy Time, Imagine That Toys, CR Toys, Cowley Distributing, Moon Marble and all of the sales representatives who cover the Midwest!