Since the demise of Noodle Kidoodle and Zany Brainy in the early 2000s, specialty “book-and-toy” stores have maintained a low profile. Yet a number of retailers, from the 130-unit Learning Express chain to mom-and-pop stores, are still serving their communities with a mix of toys and books.
At Learning Express, books rank among the top five most popular categories (in spite of making up a relatively small portion of overall sales), and sales have held steady over the past few years. “Books are a vital part of who we are,” said Lisa Visco, v-p of buying. “Most of our customers are coming in to buy toys and not specifically [to buy] books. But if their children see books and want them, they never say no. They feel differently about books than when their children want more trucks or dinosaurs.”
The chain works with 20–25 book vendors, the primary one being Usborne/EDC, with 10 vendors accounting for 80%– 90% of category sales. Successful formats include board books (always strong), American Girl, and nontraditional titles such as Workman’s Unlikely Loves and Unlikely Friendships and Perigee’s Wreck This Journal. Learning Express also does well with books tied to products it carries, such as DK’s Sophie la Girafe and DK’s and Klutz’s Lego books. In 2013, its top-selling title was The Loomatic’s Interactive Guide to the Rainbow Loom by Suzanne M. Peterson, who owns the Learning Express store in Reno, Nev.
Unlike a store’s toy department, where a key item can drive sales year after year, the book section requires more variety and turnover. “Books are SKU intensive,” Visco explained, “so you need to have someone in the store who knows what he or she is doing.”
The percentage of overall sales accounted for by books is in the low double digits—up from almost nothing five years ago—at Brentwood, Tenn.–based Brilliant Sky Toys and Books, a 15-store chain operating in eight states in the Midwest and Southeast. “It’s growing significantly for us,” president Baxter Lee said of the category. Each Brilliant Sky outlet features a unique mix of books. “We’re testing it all,” reported Lee. He looks for print books that can either lead to a special parent-child moment or create an experience to help close the sale. “We’re looking for that perfect book that just can’t be digitized,” he explained. Even though Brilliant Sky has been selling books aggressively for five years, they continue to represent a challenge for the mostly toy retailer. “The number of [book] titles is overwhelming,” Lee said. “We want to be fair to the product and figure out the best way to merchandise it in store.”
The nine stores operated by Cowley Distribution’s Book & Toy of Mid-Missouri chain skew more toward books than toys. “Books are the reason all of us work here,” said Sandra Diamond, bookstore regional manager. “But the sidelines, the toys and magazines, are an integral part of the mix.” Each of the chain’s general bookstores operates under its own name, with sizes ranging from 2,000 to more than 10,000 sq. ft. Many outlets are in smaller towns; the largest, Shawnee Books & Toys, is in suburban Kansas City, Kans., and is particularly strong in children’s and YA. The percentage of inventory dedicated to toys at the stores varies from nearly none in some locations to about a third in Jefferson City’s Downtown Books. Overall, business has been steady over the past few years. “E-books have hurt us, but all our managers agree that we’re not hearing as much about e-books as a few years ago,” Diamond said.
The three-store Boston chain Henry Bear’s Park relies on a good mix of classic backlist books and a smaller assortment of new titles, centered on formats for ages up to eight. “Our customers primarily come to us for toys,” said owner Kas Sharma, who purchased the business from founder Sally Lesser last November. “They’re not expecting the full frontlist from all the publishers.” About a quarter of revenues are attributable to books. “A big chunk of the business came from toys, which made the decision [to purchase the company] a little more comfortable,” Sharma said. “If it was only books, the analysis would’ve been very different.”