Gwen Ottenberg, owner of Imagine That Toys in Kansas, gives a fascinating perspective on the Stateside toy scene
What’s your background?
Before owning my store, I was the gift shop buyer for a children’s museum. Even in high school I knew I didn’t want a corporate job, so I had jobs that were fun. I worked in the games department of an amusement park as well as in a family fun centre.
My husband actually convinced me that we could open a toy store and do it successfully. We also figured that if we did it when we were young and we messed up, we had lots of time to fix it! We opened in 2007, just before my 25th birthday. It was very interesting to see how people treated me as a new owner because of my age. Many thought we purchased the business from someone else or were working for our parents. When they knew it was ours, they were shocked.
Tell us about your business.
Imagine That Toys has about 5,000sq ft of selling space and is located in Wichita [the largest city in the US state of Kansas]. My goal is always to get the right toy in the right hands at the right time. This mindset involves talking with customers to find out where the person they’re buying for is at, so they can have the best play experience possible.
“This year has been more challenging than ever before. All parts of the toy ecosystem are stressed”
Are you a member of any trade associations?
I’m a member of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association known as ASTRA [a non-profit association that provides education, networking, product sourcing and discounts, and consumer public relations to grow the US specialty toy industry].
I’m also a member of The Good Toy Group [a member-owned co-operative venture of 100-plus independently-owned toy stores in more than 175 locations across the US, which produces a holiday catalogue each year in addition to three seasonal catalogues]. I sit on the product selection team for The Good Toy Group, deciding which products to feature in the catalogues that we print.
What do you offer that other toy shops don’t?
I’m in business for the long haul. I want to sell customers something that will be played with, and I want them to come back in the future. If I don’t think a toy is right, we will tell the customer and not try to just make the sale for that day. We work to develop relationships with our customers, so in the end the child wins! In our services, we offer free gift wrap, wish lists, and shipping all over the world.
How do you attract new customers and maintain the interest of existing ones?
We have a very strong presence on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. We showcase new toys and fun items as well as provide some humour.
Our best advertising is normally word of mouth – we jokingly ask customers: ‘Please don’t keep us a secret’. When a customer talks about you and says how thrilled they are with the toy or game that they purchased, that’s better than any advertising could ever pay for. We try to engage our customers, and when they think toys, we want them to think of us.
“If I don’t think a toy is right, we will tell the customer and not try to just make the sale for that day. We work to develop relationships with our customers, so in the end the child wins!”
How would you describe the range?
We really start at birth all the way through to things that I want to play with! We are a LEGO Gold Standard store, which means we have items for a LEGO collector (who is typically an adult) to purchase. LEGO is our biggest brand and vendor. We also carry lots of Fat Brain toys, Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, Jellycat plush and Thames & Kosmos science kits.
How do you source new products?
Because of my affiliations with The Good Toy Group and ASTRA, manufacturers come to me to showcase new products. I also have amazing sales reps that keep me informed. In the past 18 months, we’ve got very creative on finding and sharing information. I have many friends [in the toy business] and we trade information all the time on what’s selling or what isn’t, or a new line that someone has shown us. Since we are all across the country, we’re getting very different information. In a normal year, I attend the Dallas Gift Show, Toy Fair New York in February, ASTRA Marketplace in June, and Toy Fair Dallas in October.
What’s your selection criteria?
I want the best, whatever that means. I want things that I understand: what they do, how they work, and how they can be used. A good product is a good product.
What lines have you started stocking recently?
It seems like just about everything fidgets! But a new company that has been doing extremely well is Gel Blaster. It reminds me of a safer paintball gun that doesn’t make a big mess.
U.S. Toy out of Kansas City has really focused on specialty toy retailers recently and I’ve found some toys with excellent margins that I can get in my store quickly. Being able to get products has become a very large issue, so knowing which company you can rely on to get your products and communicate with has changed some of my buying habits.
What are you most excited about for the upcoming season?
I think this season will be the year when specialty retailers are more able to help customers because of our nimbleness. I think price will not be the issue and availability will be king.
What are your predictions for what will be popular for Christmas?
I think customers want children to have a great experience with toys and use them over and over. People will think about play value over quantity.
What’s been the Covid situation in the US?
The US has been all over the place based on location. Being in the middle of the country, I’ve not had the ‘low lows’ that many of my friends have experienced.
I have good friends in large cities in New York and California that have had many more lockdowns and rules placed on them.
When we did close our doors, we went kerbside [equivalent to the UK’s click and collect, with parcels brought out to the customer’s car] and online with a vengeance. Since we didn’t have other restrictions and are in the middle of the country, we were able to ship all over the US in a relatively fast manner.
Getting back to ‘normal’ still seems months and months away but only time will tell. My store is now open for business, and we are still doing kerbside online and telephone orders.
What opportunities has the pandemic created for you?
I have been in the online game for at least 10 years, but not nearly at the level that has been opened up for me. When we had to start closing, I put considerably more effort into my online sales. The online animal is just different to the in-store customer.
Where are you taking your product offering next?
At this moment I’m very much focused on Christmas and the holiday season. I believe supply chain issues, shipping issues, and forecasting issues will cause hurdles.
I’m working to be nimble and make decisions quickly, as well as leverage resources for the best possible season.
This year it’s all about the game face.
What’s planned for Imagine That Toys in the future?
More toys, more playing, and focusing on fun.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Having a child come in after Christmas and tell me what Santa brought them and how amazing it is – and knowing I had a small part in that joy.
And the most challenging?
This year has been more challenging than ever before. All parts of the toy ecosystem are stressed. Retailers, sales reps, and manufacturers appear to be selling lots more inventory to consumers, and sales are up! We are all trying to work faster than ever before. To me that means lots more mistakes are getting through. At least 50% of my shipments are missing boxes, or the incorrect product was pulled or damaged. This just makes for extra work on everyone’s part.
Where do you perceive the biggest opportunities?
Small companies that are able to ship product immediately will be able to take the place of some larger vendors on shelves. This will give them a huge growth opportunity.
The challenges are definitely going to be for vendors who are unable to ship and lose that shelf space. I can change one arts & crafts company for another arts & crafts company with relatively little pushback from my customers, so it’s just being informed enough to know who is shipping and when.
What’s your favourite toy or game?
I actually think that the best toy is a toy that a child can use in many ways and use for many years. I think giving children something like wooden blocks is the most amazing thing for them and their imagination. When you can spark a child, and you see it, it’s just incredible.
What are your five best sellers?
Our current top items are The Gel Blaster Surge [which shoots biodegradable, non-toxic, water-based Gellets ‘with just enough sting to make it exciting’. They explode on contact and immediately begin to evaporate, leaving no mess and no clean up] from Gel Blaster; The LEGO Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina; SpinAgain [a stacking toy with a spin] from Fat Brain Toys; the Simple Dimple keychain from Fat Brain Toys, and the Mega Fun Doh Ball [a stretchy and shapeable ball filled with dough] from U.S. Toy.