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Dee Farrell Speaks on ASTRA's State of the Union

It’s pretty much impossible to pickup a newspaper or browse your newsfeed and not hear the doom and gloom stories about retail. Doom and Gloom. You still hear that Retail is very hard. And those tariffs – we’re all worried about tariffs and the effects they’ll have. And still too often, there’s news of another retailer shuttering its doors. Doom and Gloom - we’ve all heard enough about that.

To prepare for my state of the union, I wanted to look beyond the doom and gloom and see if I could find any GOOD news out there. So, I called many of you, I had some great conversations with fellow ASTRA Board members, and I spent a couple of days in Chicago with a few of the original founding members of ASTRA.

I also did some research outside of our toy world and into the broader area of retail in general. Still wanting to stay focused on finding good stuff, I even googled “Good news for retail in 2019”. And you know, I got 1 billion, 360 million hits on my search results list. So I clicked on one of the first links in the list - an article titled, “Maybe some good news for Retailers” And I learned that if I paid 12.99 and signed up for a yearly subscription to the Wall street journal online, I could maybe find out that good news. I didn’t do it.

But actually by that point didn’t even need to read that article….I’d already found plenty of good news….even better news than what I was hoping for.

Good news #1 – Specialty retail is up.

According to an article in the LA Business Journal, “Playing to Win”, NPD reported that while the US toy market dropped by 2% overall. “Specialty stores saw a 16% jump in sales in the 4th quarter of 2018.” ASTRA was mentioned in that article. A survey of 900 of our members at the end of 2018, reported that business was trending up.” And I heard the same thing when I spoke to Amy Saldanha, ASTRA Board Member and owner of Kiddywampus in Minnesota. Amy, agreed. She said YES, she had seen an increase in sales and YES her business was up. She also told me that quite a few NEW customers were walking in the door. And that leads me right into good news #2.

Good news #2 People are making the effort to seek out and shop in Bricks & Mortar Specialty stores. And that is an opportunity for us!

A key word there is effort. We all know it’s NOT getting harder to shop online –you don’t even need to get out of bed to buy stuff. Francesca Nicasio, a LinkedIn Top Voice contributor, writes about effort and consumers. She says, “Consumers need a reason to make the effort to head into a brick and mortar shop.” If we give them a reason, they will make the effort.”

So what reason did she find will bring them in? Francesca found the number one reason shoppers will get up out of bed and go out, is for the experience they get in the store. Community experiences, Treasure Hunt experiences and Personalization were big draws. I see in my Instagram feed how well you all deliver on the community experience. Story time, birthday parties, sketch artists. I love the posts Ann Kienzle makes of all the strollers lined up outside of Play for story time. I have such wonderful memories of doing things like that when my kids were little.

And Treasure Hunting – this mean merchandising in a way that makes browsing and discovery part of the buying experience. Hunting is generally not something people tell me they like to do online. Usually, you’re on a mission, you know what you want and you wanna get it done fast. Quite the opposite can be true in specialty bricks and mortar stores.

Maya Papaya one of my local children’s clothing and toy stores merchandises in truly creative way, and she’s constantly moving and changing where things are. People just love to come in and browse around, because each time they do it’s a new discovery.

And Personalization… I know many of you now are doing personal shopping, curb side pickup, even assembly with home delivery. Have you tried bundling and creating offers that aren’t available anywhere else? If experiences is what will bring people into the store, ASTRA we have an incredible opportunity here. The experiences we have been providing all along are now becoming more and more valuable for today’s consumer. And that brings me to good news #3

Good news #3 Specialty stores have what it take to win new customers over and hang on to them, for keeps.

I heard a couple of our board members sharing stories about a new customers walking in the door saying, “WOW, this place is amazing. I’m so glad I found it. How long have you been here??” Answers…stammering, “Uhhh about tah-twenty years.” We have been here and we are STILL here.

Nick Stagge, VP marketing at ExpertVoice – a retail sales training company, writes. “People still want to shop in brick and mortar stores,” And the, Retailers that deliver a meaningful human interaction and give consumers confidence in what to buy – those are the retailers that WIN.” Nick says, “That means every person on the sales floor is much more than just a salesperson or a store admin. They’re a product expert, a consultant.” They give customers something they cannot get online - Validation. It feels good to be helped and have confidence that you’re buying the most perfect item possible.

I know I can walk into Children’s Gift Shop in Northfield where I live and say to Karen and Markie, I need a Birthday present, Girl, 6, hates pink. And next think you know I have a selection of five items that are all so amazing, sometimes I buy two or three presents instead of just one. It feels great. When Amy Saldanha mentioned new customers were waling in her door, she said, “I see people are seeking a connection. And when they walk my store, they know they’ve found it.”

And that validation, that connection, that feeling like you just bought the best thing ever – that’s why those new customers will come back. That’s why they’re yours for keeps. And that leads me to Good New #4.

Good news #4 Specialty and boutique retailers are perfectly positioned for what today’s consumers want - because of the size of your stores. Did you ever think being SMALL could be one of your BIGGEST advantages in Retail??

Retail experts Rich Kizer and Georganne Bender write, “Small is the new black. Retail giants will continue to open stores with smaller footprints. Small format stores.” Now I’d heard about this. I knew Target was doing it, Barnes & Noble, Sears just announced its doing it too. I had a great talk with Cynthia Compton, Owner of 4Kids Books in Indiana and she said to me, “I used to think I had to have all the BIG brands to compete with the BIG box. I thought I had to be like them. Now with small format stores, they wish they were more like me. After years and years of waiting in the wings Specialty retailers finally have the microphone and now we can talk about what really matters Play.” Cynthia - that was an epiphany for me.

Larger than life stores that stock countless aisles of merchandize and skus are struggling. It no longer makes sense to do that. But a big box in a small format, does not replicate, will NEVER be able to replicate what WE do.

Linda Hayes, owner of Hopscotch Toys in McMinnville, Oregon said it best, “We are small and nimble. We can change what we’re doing quickly to adapt.”

ASTRA, our stores can be more productive. We can provide those personal, human interactions, those instore experiences,

We can stock specially curated toy assortments,

Our staff are knowledgeable play experts that not only can, wrap, assemble and deliver. They can make the focus on all about play….

And all of that is exactly what consumers today are looking for in bricks and mortar. And ASTRA, that’s good news.

Now I’d like to introduce my friend and fellow board member Kevin McGrath, your Board Treasurer to provide you with an update on the ASTRA Financials.

And now it’s time to for us to give a big thank you to our outgoing ASTRA chair as he finishes his Astra Board Service. I’ve had the pleasure to serve with Erik Quam for the last 5 years. And I am continually amazed and how much accomplishes – not just for the ASTRA Board, but in his day to day life – I get exhausted just thinking about it.

This is Erik by the numbers:

He is an incredible dad to 5 beautiful daughters

He has 32 chickens, 6 ducks, 3 dogs, 2 horses, a parakeet a hedgehog and a bunny.

Not only that, in the last five years while serving on the ASTRA Board, he has had leading roles in 7 plays and musicals. And created over 500 new products for Fat Brain toys…

Erik, you are incredible. And I want to call attention to your legacy.

Erik, you have been a strong passionate voice on the board, advocating for toy industry – inventors. You know first-hand how important it is for our future that we embrace the inventor community. With your guidance, as of this year, we are so proud to include inventors as one of ASTRA’s newest member types.

Erik, thank you for everything you’ve done. All your hard work. You’ve done a fantastic job! Congratulations!

(picture of Dee and Erik at the 2018 TAGIEs)

Now it is my pleasure to introduce to you, your next ASTRA Board Chair. Get ready, cause she’s a firecracker. I love working with her. She’s smart, she energetic, she’s passionate about the industry and she doing to do an amazing job on the board. Please let me introduce to you, Certified Play Expert, and principal of Roberts Blumberg Giacobbe - Christine Blumberg your 2019-2020 ASTRA Board Chair.

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