Independent Toy Stores Hope Service, Expertise Will Keep Them Busy

March 26, 2018
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Hobbymasters in Red Bank is in its 43rd year of operation, and the shop’s owner plans to adapt to the closing of Toys ‘R’ Us by upgrading his inventory.

By Chris Rotolo |

For Hobbymasters owner Lou Torisi, the announcement that Toys ‘R’ Us had filed for bankruptcy and would be liquidating its 800 stores around United States produced mixed emotions.

Though he does expect the closure of four Monmouth County stores – including locations in Hazlet, Shrewsbury, Tinton Falls and Freehold – to provide his shop with new business, Torisi can’t help but think about the impending termination of 33,000 employees across the country, some of whose pensions have been placed in jeopardy.

“We never want to hear that any toy or hobby store is closing their doors, and most importantly because of the employees and the families that this going to effect,” Torisi said. “But from a business aspect this is a double-edged sword.”

Torisi believes the local closures will certainly send new customers to his hobby shop – which is in its 43rd year of operation on White Street in Red Bank – but he also understands that the referrals Hobbymasters used to receive from the big box retail outlets will no longer be in play.

“We carry some items that a Toys ‘R’ Us won’t necessarily have, which, in the past, would send new customers to us. We just hope the community understands that we’re still here to help them and to make sure they get what they need,” he said.

Torisi expects this new landscape of toy sales in the Two River area will cause him to re-evaluate his inventory, forcing Hobby Masters to expand its offerings in hopes of meeting the more diverse needs of the local customer base, especially after his shop’s former neighbor Toymasters closed in November.

“When Denise (Zappoli) announced that she was retiring after 33 years to focus on her health and that Toymasters would be closing, we took a hit right before holidays because customers assumed Hobbymasters was closed too. But that’s not the case. We are open. And we want to be able to serve families in our community who won’t have Toys ‘R’ Us as an option anymore.”

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Fair Haven retailer Distinctive Toys, located at 595 River Road, is another local shop expected to see an impact in the wake of Toys ‘R’ Us closings. But vice president and buyer Margaret Spicer said she will be focused on maintaining and developing the business model that helped make her store flourish, rather than revamping its stock.

“When we opened the store we knew we were going to be a birthday gift destination. We’ve never tried to deviate from that. We’ve never tried to compete with Toys ‘R’ Us or anybody else,” Spicer said. “I think now that Toys ‘R’ Us is going to close, my customers are going to wish I carried Lego and brands of that nature. But that type of acquisition wouldn’t make sense for our model.”

According to Spicer, the model Distinctive Toys is built upon is one that places customer service as its top priority, which means having a knowledgeable staff able to assemble and gift wrap all in-stock items, leaving little or no work for the gift giver beyond the shopping.

“There are specific services that we, and stores like us, are able to provide to customers that you just won’t get at the big box stores,” Spicer added. “And we’ve been able to succeed because of those services. You’re going to get a particular experience and be able to work with experts in the field when you come to see us.”

The Toy Gallery of Union Square Shopping Center – located at 420 Route 35 in Middletown – boasts a similar sort of customer attention, but a different base of industry knowledge.

Distinctive Toys in Fair Haven specialize in birthday party gifts, from model cars, to board games and stuffed animals

Toy Gallery manager Anita Kleinman and her husband Perry have been area residents for many years, but first entered the retail toy industry in New York City, operating various Hallmark stores around Manhattan, including a location inside the World Trade Center.

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Following the events of 9/11, the Kleinman’s continued to manage several New York locations, but three years ago decided to turn their attention closer to home.

“We’ve always operated with a customer-first approach. And we ensure everyone that we hire is able to put customers first, even before we talk about the other necessary qualifications for the job,” Kleinman said. “We want the experience you have with us to be different than Toys ‘R’ Us. We want it to be more personalized.”

Kleinman offers customers and their children the opportunity to open up the boxes of their extensive inventory and play with the products before purchasing, a policy aimed to ensure buyer satisfaction.

“We pride ourselves on being able to find exactly what you need. With Toys ‘R’ Us closing, customers are going to look elsewhere, and we’ll have to adapt. For instance, we’ve never carried action figures before, but it’s not a hard change to make and we’re happy to do it for our customers. Success is about the customer experience and your willingness to adapt and we have both.”

Though an official closing date has not yet been finalized, Toys ‘R’ Us stores are expected to shut down within the next two months, as the company – which has its headquarters based in Wayne, New Jersey – will be paying employees for the next 60 days (beginning on March 16), as is required by federal law.

Babies ‘R’ Us stores are also closing across the nation due to the liquidation. Registries will remain online.


This article was first published in the March 22-29, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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