Independent toy stores in Utah flourishing with or without Toys R Us

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hoppy Taws, for sale at Hammond Toys, which has been in business since 1954. Thursday, March 22, 2018.

Independent Utah toy-store owners aren’t preparing for any customer stampedes.

But if they can pick up any extra business from the demise of Toys R Us, you can bet they’re going to try.

“It’s hard to know how many of those customers will gravitate over to us,” said Bill Sartain, who opened The Tutoring Toy in Foothill Village in 1988 with his wife, Diane. “There’s a whole different mentality involved. People who shop in mass-market stores are different than the people we get here.”

That’s how David Castillo sees it, too, at Red Balloon in Millcreek.

“Most people who shopped at Toys R Us did so for deals and low prices. I don’t know that we can pick up that customer,” said Castillo, vice president of the company that also has stores in Sandy, Logan and Provo. “But it is a good opportunity to start evaluating whether there’s a way to capture some.”

Hammond Toys, Hobbies and Dolls may be the best positioned of these three Salt Lake County toy-store mainstays to take advantage of Toys R Us going out of business, a victim of tough online competition and a heavy debt load.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Owner Paul Hammond of Hammond Toys, which has been in business since 1954.

Owner Paul Hammond said he’s hoping to snare some of the big-box retailer’s online traffic, having shifted his business model several years ago toward the internet, even though he still maintains three stores — in Holladay, West Valley City and Sandy.

“Online accounts for more [revenue] than all of our stores put together,” said Hammond, whose father, Gale, started the company in 1954. “Unless the right deal came along at this point, we’re not interested in opening more stores. … But we are hoping we can pick up some more online business” with Toys R Us out of the picture.

As liquidation sales proceed at Toys R Us stores in Murray, Layton and Orem, all three independents figure that most of the bankrupt retailer’s customers will turn to the toy departments at giant retail stores or, even more likely, to Amazon and other online merchandisers to pick out the toys they want.

“You just have to look for little niches” among the rest of the customer base, said Hammond, whose interest in online sales accelerated roughly 15 years ago, about the time the Cottonwood Mall closed and his two toy stores there were forced to consolidate and move to a new location across Murray-Holladay Road.

After months setting up the online-sales system, “we finally got it to work and uploaded 300 items before we left work that night. When we came back the next day, we had 170 orders. We thought to ourselves, ‘Holy crap, let’s get everything on.’ We fell into it by luck and some work.”

Hammond’s inventory of goods is broad, featuring scores of games, puzzles and hobby items (radio-controlled vehicles, train sets, all kinds of things people build) as well as toys.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Owner Paul Hammond arranges games on the shelf of Hammond Toys.

The niches pursued by Red Balloon and Tutoring Toy center on more educationally oriented customers.

“We’re more likely to get the parent who typically takes ownership of a child’s [educational] development and doesn’t wait until they enter the public school system. Our message and brand resonates with them,” said Castillo, adding that his top priority now is to beef up Red Balloon’s presence on the web.

Over at Tutoring Toy, the Sartains have established a snug little store that has all sorts of toys, arranged by age groups and displayed on numerous racks rising from floor to ceiling. There are boxes and boxes of LEGO, a consistently big seller, not far from a wall offering everything from beginning biology and chemistry lab kits to perfume science.

Simple stuff abounds, too, such as placemats featuring maps of the United States or the solar system.

“Our overall philosophy is that everything you put in the hands of a child is educational. A bucket of mud can be educational,” Sartain said, noting that toddlers derive tactile benefits from simply feeling the mud whereas an 8-year-old’s imagination can be stimulated by using it in an art project.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill Sartain with his son, Casey, wife, Diane, and granddaughter Rosie, at the The Tutoring Toy in Salt Lake City.

And at a small store like Tutoring Toy, he added, the staff has time to talk to customers and answer their questions.

“We can take more time saying hello and helping our customers understand how a bucket of mud will help their child,” Sartain said. “That’s where we have a one-up. And there’s another difference. We have folks on staff who have raised children and have educations in child development. That’s a little different experience than dealing with a high schooler who is [just] checking you out at Toys R Us.”

As he said that, toy-store employee Sue McGill finished helping Salt Lake City resident Lisa Harrison wrap up some shopping with her daughter, Max, who is going on 2 and full of energy. Today, they bought bath toys, including a special shark. Harrison has been coming to Tutoring Toy ever since her teenagers were her toddler’s age.

“It’s friendly and family-owned and I like to support local businesses,” Harrison said, emphasizing that she buys all her books at The King’s English Bookshop. “This place has good toys that are educational. It’s not just junk. It’s thoughtful.”

Endorsements like that resonate with Sartain.

“We don’t have a $10 million advertising budget so we rely heavily on customer loyalty,” he said, convinced that his business model, stressing personal service over saving a few pennies, worked well before Toys R Us went by the wayside and will continue to do so.

“I’d love to compare my sales per foot to anyone else’s,” Sartain said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hoppy Taws, for sale at Hammond Toys, which has been in business since 1954.