Savvy retailers know that selling toys isn’t for kids. It’s a high-margin category with the potential to impact lives and the bottom line. But selling and merchandising it takes effort and knowhow.

After years of a flagging U.S. economy, the retail forecast for toys is good. Accord- ing to The NPD Group, U.S. retail sales of toys hit $18.08 billion last year, up 4% over 2013. And there’s more good news: According to Send The Light Director of New Market Development Michael Turner, toy customers are already in your store.

“The toy demographic is the identical demographic as Christian retail,” he says. “If stores have a nice presence of fun, educational, creative toys, it would help draw in even more consumers.” To multiply your profits, increase foot traffic, and develop the next generation spiritually, take these six steps to improve your kids’ section.

Know Millennial Moms.

Moms traditionally have been Christian retail’s core customers because they want to help their children grow spiritually using the trusted products Christian stores carry. While their motivation is the same, young mothers today—known as Millenni- al Moms—have purchasing behaviors that retail has never encountered before.

“Moms today live off their smart phones,” explains Leslie Ferrell, president of Big Idea. “A Millennial Mom today does her first pass for what she’s going to shop for online. She brings with her info from nine other millennial moms. They’ve shared recommendations and links to products with each other. It’s all about their online and social circles.” Having a robust online presence isn’t just a good idea for business success—it’s a requirement. If stores don’t maintain an updated and easy-to-navigate site, Millennial Moms quickly will go elsewhere to shop.

This is a huge mistake, Ferrell says, because these moms are critical for Christian retail’s survival. To stay ahead of the curve, she recommends stores study this demographic and how they shop, then adapt to meet their needs. “For example, build pages around specific brands within your website. Amazon has been doing this for years,” she says. “You’ll grow online sales and traffic to your brick and mortar because moms still want to touch and feel the product.”

Create an experience.

 When Millennial Moms enter a store, says Ferrell, they have a new expectation, one that she advises retailers jump on now: a mobile shopping “experience.”“Mom comes in the store after receiving an e-blast or seeing a banner ad for a specific product on her smartphone. In the front of the store, she sees signage for an interactive app related to that product. She snaps the signage with her phone and on her screen comes a fun maze and music, and it instructs her and the children to play while they shop,” she says. “The kids are having fun, and the mom is encouraged. It now becomes a fun experience for them both.”According to Ferrell, all brick-and-mortar stores will have to create an interactive experience for moms and kids and make it available for their mobile devices. “All of retail is doing this now. It’s no longer where you walk around by yourself. Shopping is an enriching experience.”

And what about themed events, once a mainstay for Christian stores that wanted to create an “experience”? Ferrell says events can be used as part of a comprehensive strategy, but only if they’re thought through and have a good hook. “More and more big events aren’t a doorway to Millennial Moms. They just aren’t as interested as moms were in the past.”

Richard Skorman, co-owner of the Poor Richards 8,500-square-foot complex in Colorado Springs, CO, understands the challenges of selling toys. With four unique businesses under one roof—a toy store, a restaurant, a café, and a book and gift store—Poor Richards offers targeted events. “We have birthday parties in the back room often on Saturday morning,” he says. “We also have a birthday club where we send the child a card with a free gift or a discount coupon.”

Heather Adams, owner of The Greatest Gift and Scripture Supply (Pueblo, CO), also wants to do smaller, more hands-on events. “I really have wanted to do a regular story time and a mini-VBS at the store.”

Change up inventory.

To attract more customers interested in buying toys, Turner suggests retailers move beyond a product mix of books, games, and DVDs.

“Educational toys that aren’t necessarily considered ‘Christian’ are big sellers. Not stocking them is a missed opportunity,” he says. “Stores need to stock things that are going to last over time. They need something evergreen that will turn three or four times a year over a five-year period. And those toys are out there.”

He recommends retailers carry toys produced by such companies as Melissa and Doug, Cardinal Games, Jack’s Games, and the up-and-coming Begin Again Toys.

“These companies are creating products specifically for this market,” he says. “They see the benefit of our market. Begin Again Toys is coming out with toys for our marketplace. Jack’s Games has created a Bible card game.”

Let them play.

Letting a child experience a toy means mom and dad are more likely to buy it. Having product available for kids to interact with is important to growing sales for Skorman

“We don’t have the room for a play area in the toy store, but we unwrap as many toys as possible and let the kids play with them before they buy,” he explains. “Often, parents will play with the toys as well. We do have a play area in the back of the restaurant just about 25 feet from the toy store. We have some of our toys back there as well. Children love the toys, obviously, and the fact that they’re encouraged to play.”

Repeatedly voted “Best Toy Store” by readers of The Gazette and the Colorado Springs Independent since it opened in 1995, Little Richard’s specializes in hands-on toys and puppets—“not ones with batteries or computers”—that add an element of nostalgia for parents.

“Many big chain stores have aisle after aisle of toys, but all larger and wrapped,” says Skorman. “We specialize in smaller toys (stocking stuffers and quick gifts), which big stores don’t carry.”

Adams, a CBA board member, does maintain a play area for her youngest customers and has toys open and available.

“The most popular thing about our Kids’ Korner is the fact that we have kid-sized, fun furniture for them to sit and bounce on while they watch a DVD,” she says. “This allows the parents to know their child is engaged in something safe and they can step away for a few minutes if they need to.

“It takes a lot of clean up and re-shelving at times,” she adds, “but it’s worth it to have a fun place for them to be. Plus, we try to notice when a parent does leave a child alone, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for the staff to engage solely with that child.”

Put it together.

Turner emphasizes the importance of having quality toys on display where customers coming in for another item will see them. “My wife can be shopping in a Christian bookstore for a book. It would be nothing for her to pick up a toy, if she saw a quality section of toys displayed attractively.

“The problem I keep seeing is that stores may not realize that it’s not that expensive to set up good toy merchandising,” he says. At the 2015 International Christian Retail Show in June, Turner will lead the Children’s Product Trends Workshop at which he’ll address display concerns (see the sidebar on page 22).

Ferrell emphasizes putting all product related to a specific brand in one display. “Parents come in for a book and then see a tumbler, a backpack, and a puzzle they didn’t know about and buy those, too. Look at what Disney did for products related to Frozen. It was brilliant.”

Don’t recycle.

When Christian stores first opened after WWII, they predominantly were bookstores. When their product selection grew, they tried to repurpose their shelving. “As other media came into vogue, like videos and DVDs, storeowners could still make bookshelves work. However, these fixtures don’t work for toys,” says Ferrell. While it might be costly at first, investing in new displays specifically made for toys will pay off in other ways. “Toys don’t sit as easily on old bookshelves. For example, a plush can fit maybe one deep on a standard bookshelf, which can have all kinds of impact on inventory,” says Ferrell.

She would love to see Christian retail take advantage of new, hot categories for kids, such as apparel, lunch boxes, and backpacks. However, retailers would need to display these products right for them to sell successfully. “T-shirts set out still in polybags won’t work. Touch and feel is important to shoppers,” she says. “Even with existing fixtures, creativity can solve it, such as adding hooks to display the apparel, which is a booming category for preschoolers.”

7 Top Toy Trends

The Toy Industry Association announced the seven top toy trends for 2015 at the North American International Toy Fair in February.

1. Maker Movement. The Maker Movement involves toys that let kids build and create, such as building and construction sets, food-themed toys, and arts and crafts.

2. Open-Ended Playtime. Open-ended toys and games that help promote creativity, resourcefulness, and problem-solving skills are growing in popularity, such as traditional dolls, balls, and blocks.

3. Mini Madness. This trend features toys that come in tiny packages and smaller versions of hot-selling, existing product lines.

4. Smart Play. Educational and academically focused toys that teach science, engineering, and math skills are on the rise as well as classic games and activities that promote cognitive and social skills.

5. Under the Sea. Aquatic themes will be big this year, showing up in dolls, games, collectibles, and outdoor toys.

6. Tech Toys. Many advanced tech toys, such as robotic pets and smart tablets for toddlers, incorporate open-ended and traditional play to keep children fully engaged. Look for them to gain even more traction in 2015.

7. Dinosaurs. With the release of the movie Jurassic World in June, this will be the year of the dinosaur. Expect to see dinothemed toys of all kinds, including plush, licensed and educational toys, and games.

Learn More at ICRS

The Children’s Product Trends Workshop is a perennial favorite at the International Christian Retail Show. Educator Dr. Mary Manz Simon has helped countless retailers understand how toys go hand-in-hand with child development over her 20 years leading the session.

This year’s class will have a different emphasis. With a panel of toy experts led by Michael Turner, director of new market development at Send The Light, the workshop will provide attendees with an opportunity to get a bigger sense of the role toys can play in their businesses. “Retailers can connect in a broad way with toys. This workshop will show them how,” he says.

“One thing some retailers might not understand is how to set up a successful toy section. I want to help educate them on how to do this,” says Turner. “We’ll be setting up different sized toy sections on the convention floor and we’ll show the costs involved.”

The Children’s Product Trends Workshop is 4:30-6:00 p.m., June 29. This ticketed event features suppliers who will provide free product.

-Lora Schrock