Sometimes spreading the word on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TV ads and I-94 billboards isn’t enough for Jessica Persons.
The owner of Flying Circus Toys — a small, independent store in the Albertville Premium Outlets — said people get to the mall and still can’t find her store.
“I’m not a national chain with a huge sign over the door so they usually call me when they’re at the mall and say, ‘Where are you?’ ” she said.
It’s a conundrum that many small-business retailers face this time of year. They’re fighting for shoppers’ dollars amid big box hustle and bustle and the quiet simplicity of online ordering. One tool they’re using is Small Business Saturday.
Created seven years ago by American Express, it reminds shoppers that shopping for the holidays is more than discounters, department stores and Amazon.
“We’re seeing growing public support for independent businesses in the Twin Cities and other markets,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re noticing a bit of a revival in bookstores, pet stores, fabric stores and neighborhood grocery stores.”
The number of consumers shopping Small Business Saturday rose 8.2 percent last year. And the number of new small businesses surviving into their fifth year of operation rose to 49 percent in 2014, up from 46 percent in 2013.
Persons’ toy store celebrated its third anniversary this year, but she plans to do more than just survive in a world dominated by Toys ‘R’ Us, Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon. She’s very aware of her competition, especially Amazon. Just past the entrance to her store is a double-sided easel with the words, “See it here, Buy it here, Keep us here.”
“I don’t want to be an Amazon showroom,” said Persons, 49. She sees quite a few shoppers checking their phones for a toy’s reviews or prices as they shop. Sometimes they’ll ask if she matches Amazon’s prices.
“I tell them that I will match Amazon’s prices when Amazon sponsors the local football and baseball teams and donates to the local PTO, churches, charities, Bingo nights and the Ronald McDonald House,” she said. “We’re very involved in the local community.”
Tracy Rorman of Big Lake stops by Flying Circus at least once a week with her 2-year-old son, Dominic, who has autism. It’s not as overwhelming to him compared with the abundance of people, noises and packaged toys in big stores.
“They have the toys out for him to play with, they have a play table, and they will take things out of the boxes for him,” she said.
Erik Christenson of St. Michael finds toys at Flying Circus that he doesn’t always see at mass market retailers.
“The kids can find it and play with it and decide if they like it,” he said as he picked up Melissa & Doug puzzles on Black Friday.
Specialty retailers have a multitude of forces challenging them — price competition from mass market retailers, shrinking family budgets and the pressure to find goods not found at mass merchandisers, said Creative Kidstuff Chief Executive Roberta Bonoff. It’s getting harder as many small-batch European toymakers can’t afford to pay for new testing laws required by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.
“That law changed the market,” she said. “Testing products is our number one priority, so we launched a wholesale division for other specialty retailers.”
Creative Kidstuff, which has nine Twin Cities locations and pop-up holiday stores, closed in Maple Grove and Des Moines recently. She thinks the biggest issue facing specialty toy stores is finding the customer. “How do you reach them so they want to hear about you?”
Learning Express in White Bear Lake, Wonderment in Minneapolis, Peapods in St. Paul and Kmitsch Girls in Stillwater have closed, as have multiple locations of Zany Brainy and KB Toys and even Toys ‘R’ Us in Bloomington and Roseville.
Most recently announced was that five of the six Air Traffic locations in the Twin Cities will close by the end of the year. Owner Jim Henry, whose 26-year business is holding a liquidation sale, sees declining mall traffic and new competition as big selling factors.
Former co-owner of Peapods Dan Marshall closed his St. Paul store last year but has since opened Mischief, a toy store for tweens and teens on Grand Avenue.
“Consumers have always had a hard time finding toys for older kids,” he said. When he closed Peapods, he saw trouble in the demographics. Childbearing has fallen steeply since the recession, with birthrates of women in their 20s declining more than 15 percent from 2007 to 2012, the equivalent of more than 400,000 births, according to the Urban Institute.
Persons remains optimistic. In February, she’s moving her 3,000-square-foot store to a larger location now occupied by Kenneth Cole that offers better visibility and signage. With the extra space she plans to add baby and birthday registries and a story-time area.
They will still have free gift wrap and help the person who needs a gift for a 2-year-old child who is deaf or the uncle asking about a 6-year-old niece who loves the outdoors.
“I’d rather help a customer for an hour and point them to an item not in our store than have them buy a toy that they won’t love,” said Persons.