Business

Here’s how Teaching Toys and Books outlasted Toys R Us

Teaching Toys keeps the tradition of neighborhood stores alive

Tacoma's Teaching Toys & Books in the Proctor neighborhood offers unique and educational toys, along with one-on-one personal service.
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Tacoma's Teaching Toys & Books in the Proctor neighborhood offers unique and educational toys, along with one-on-one personal service.

Toys R Us has been going through quite the headline-making implosion.

As Target, Aldi and Big Lots swoop in as the possible next tenants at some of that chain’s locations (Tacoma’s store isn’t on the current list), a Tacoma toy store has quietly sat on the sidelines, its owners watching it all unfold.

Valla Wagner and Melissa Tennille are interested in this upheaval in their industry. But they're not overly worried about the future of their store, Teaching Toys and Books, 2624 N. Proctor St.

For one thing, they've got a lot of past to lean on. The store - one of the last independent toy retailers in the area - has operated in the Proctor District since 1981, and enjoys a loyal customer base that spans generations.

Wagner and Tennille have been keeping an eye on the issues surrounding Toys R Us for awhile.

“We’ve seen the handwriting on the wall and reports coming through the toy store world about the challenges they were facing and fixes they were trying," Wagner said.

The fixes didn’t work.

Toys R Us, which filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, had a rough holiday season last year and started liquidation sales at the end of March.

So how has a small local toy store managed to avoid the fate of a national giant?

SMALLER STORE, COMPETITIVE INVENTORY

When comparing the stores, Teaching Toys does not have a Toys R Us vibe with bright lights and a loud pop soundtrack.

Instead, the corner toy shop has quiet music playing in the background and toys arranged by interest instead of brand.

Wagner is soft-spoken and calm, as much as for the atmosphere of the store as for the children and their parents browsing inside.

She recently talked to The News Tribune about her store and the drama unfolding for Toys R Us.

For starters, she noted, don’t be fooled by Teaching Toys' size in comparison to Toys R Us.

“We have tens of thousands of unique items in here,” she noted. “If you can describe the child’s interest, we can usually find more than one choice.”

“Toys R Us had huge buying power and focused on movie releases and product that was the in thing at the moment," Wagner said. “Independent toy stores like us don’t tend to do the flash-in-the pan things very often.”

Though noting the differences in business models, she’s not gloating over the Toys R Us saga.

“We were sad in a way," she said, "because even though they had a very different business model, they were a specialty store selling only toys.”

Selling only toys isn’t an easy business. Stores with modest toy sections, such as Target, can spread the losses, and gains, around.

Teaching Toys caters to a range of people, including parents buying for their newborns or college students and adults who want strategy board games or outdoor games.

“We don’t just go to a company and say, ‘Send us your best sellers.’ We pick things for a reason," Wagner said. "We have a particular child in mind, or particular developmental need in mind. We try to have something that will meet the needs and interest level of anyone who walks in.”

OFFLINE AND OFFERING PLAY VALUE

This philosophy holds true for the Proctor store and its companion in Gig Harbor, Teaching Toys, Too. It opened in spring 2009, after shoppers told clerks in Proctor that the only stores they came across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to visit were the toy store and Trader Joe’s.

And, like Trader Joe’s, Teaching Toys doesn't have an online store.

“We value the face-to-face relationship," Wagner said. "We have people who grew up as children who now bring their children. We build relationships with families, celebrate the birthdays with them and also shed tears during the sad times.”

She’s passionate about play value.

“If it’s not a good play value," Wagner said, "then you wouldn’t feel good talking a customer into buying that toy.”

That value is a notable part of the store's buying strategy, Wagner said.

“When we go shopping and decide whether to bring something new in, we think about how much this will cost the customer and how many hours of play dollars or cents per hour it’s costing the customer to buy this," she said. "Some toys look like a good deal, but if a child only plays with it 10 to 15 minutes, what did you pay per hour for that, versus something they will play with for hours and hours and pass it down.”

That doesn’t mean Wagner never checks on what the competition, including Toys R Us, is up to. Gaining that insight typically would involve a trip before the holiday shopping season.

“We don’t do a lot of licensed products," she said, "but we need to know where to send people if we can’t fulfill a need, and not send people on a wild goose chase. So we go to Fred Meyer, Target, Toys R Us to see what they have.

“It’s just another form of providing customer service.”

The Proctor store used to sell only toys, but eventually expanded into books.

“It’s rewarding to us to connect a child to a book and then they come back and tell us how they liked it,” Wagner said.

She thinks it will be interesting to see what happens in a world after Toys R Us, and she feels for customers sentimental about that loss.

“How do we reach those people who are very sad that the toy store they are used to shopping at is closing?” she asked.

She has an answer.

“No matter where they are in the country," Wagner said, "there’s an independent toy store near them that can do for them what Toys R Us did ... and do a lot more.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell
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