A Toy Store Story
Who better to tell a toy store story than the man who, with his wife, created Thinker Toys?
Located on the corner of Southwest 35th Avenue and Capitol Highway in Multnomah Village, the 4,000-square-foot toy emporium filled with everything from the traditional to the unexpected has become more than the biggest store in Multnomah Village. It's a destination.
Tye Steinbach, who with his wife Joan opened Thinker Toys in a much smaller location on Capitol Highway in 1994, says that's always been the plan. He recently agreed to tell their store's story to readers of the Southwest Community Connection.
The Origin Story
We had our first child, Kyle, in 1989 and bought a house in Multnomah Village in 1990. Our daughter Ellie was born in 1992. The idea for the store originated with our walks to Multnomah Village and my wife Joan's observation that it would be great if there was a toy shop or similar for all the kids we saw there.
I still remember the time she said instead of 'someone' that 'we' should open a toy store in Multnomah. I thought she was nuts — we were both science teachers at Oregon Episcopal School at the time, and the only background either of us had in retail was some time Joan spent in high school at a clothing store in the mall in Madison, Wisconsin.
We ran through lots of iterations, including "Toys in the Hood" and "The Dino 'n More Store." While we did think of "Thinker Toys" on our own, we soon learned that there were several other toy stores in other states with that name.
The Business Plan
We did write a business plan before we started. It was based on a one-day class at Portland Community College that Joan took, which gave her the template. That plan was probably a little more than a dozen pages and took dozens of hours to complete. It was really valuable in helping us focus on key basics.
I remember we stated one of the key goals of our mission was to become a "destination" for kids and families; I think we've done that, and it feels really good to recognize how we've managed to create and reinforce that sense of community.
The toy business in Portland in 1994
Portland has been something of a safe harbor for independent toy stores. Many if not most of the brick-and-mortar stores that were open back in '94 are still in business today.
The real game-changer across the culture is probably online retail. In 1994, there was a company called "E-Toys," which didn't kill off the independents as was feared at the time. But as we all know now, the amazon.com ecosystem — and it's much more than simply retail sales — has demonstrated how a $200 billion revenue business can "disrupt" companies across various industries, retail included.
Still, we continue to see solid and growing revenue, which I attribute as much to a loyal, local customer base as I do to our continued efforts to run the best store possible.
Old toys. New toys.
Over time, we see more and more electronica and battery-operated toys. Sometimes these are thoroughly suitable and fun. But the thing to remember is that for the most part, the developmental challenges for children haven't really changed. So those wooden train sets that we sold in 1994 are still spot-on purchases for most 3-5-year-olds.
Toys R Us is no more. See that coming?
No! Lucky us. I also think as a "big box" type of retailer, Toys R Us was more susceptible to online competition than mom-and-pop stores like ours. We work hard to create a friendly, hands-on atmosphere and to hire informed and caring staff.
The Great Recession
Things got a little skinny in 2008, but we were only down in our sales for two years, and those dips were in the low single-digits. One of the assumptions built into our business plan was that parents would make personal sacrifices, but they would continue to invest in their kids. We think our sales during the recession validated that.
Location. Location. Location.
This part of Southwest Portland is super family-friendly; we hear of lots of young families who decided to relocate from the inner east side because of the family-friendly feel. It's also easy to reach from downtown, Beaverton, Lake Oswego and other suburbs.
Ever any second thoughts?
Never. It's been a fun ride. As Joan just said, "It's a job that I've never minded going in to. And that's saying something, right?"
The next quarter century
Well, that will have us at 85 if we're both alive. We are just beginning to explore options about the store. We've added a couple of managers recently, which has allowed us to take extended "adventure vacations." Maybe we'll sell the store. We also own the building. So we've got some options.
We've lived in Southwest Portland for 32 years, 29 in the same house. We can get to Thinker Toys on a bike without pedaling from our house! We love the proximity to Multnomah Village and Hillsdale, as well as the less-developed feel to the area. Plus, we've developed strong friendships with our neighbors and others from Southwest Portland — so it's home in so many ways.
When we started, we had a vision for becoming a destination for customers — namely kids and families. While we've never formally revised our business plan from 1994, one thing that has clearly evolved in that mission is our relationship with our employees. Just as we want our store to be welcoming to customers, we want it to be a place where our staff feel welcome, valued and part of a collaborative, cohesive team.
We think we've created a workplace where our employees have the freedom and responsibility to take initiative and "ownership" of the store. Some examples: We committed to a minimum wage of $15/hour over a year ago (without any fanfare, I might point out); we have matching retirement and health benefits for qualifying employees; staff have considerable control over their schedules and substitutes; and our staff tend to stay for years.
We hear repeatedly from our customers how informed and helpful our staff is — and we couldn't agree more. Finding, nourishing, compensating and retaining outstanding employees is critical to operating a small retail business at the highest level. Joan and I absolutely love our present staff — such creative, fun people who represent the store marvelously.
Free gift wrap rocks. We're fast, we're good at it, and customers love it.
Our sales between mid-November and the end of the year comprise about 30 percent of our total. So there's still a big portion of annual sales compressed into several weeks. We opened in November of 1994 and I still think — because we were both still teaching, and we put any profits back into growing the business — the timing of that was really beneficial. Who knows, if we'd opened in February we might not be having this conversation.
Ever Consider A Second Store?
We did. We had a store in Westmoreland in Southeast Portland for three years and change in the late '90's through 2000. The rent increased fairly significantly, but not our sales. So when we bought the building in 2000 that we're currently in, which was more than double the square footage of the Multnomah and Westmoreland stores combined, we decided to simplify our lives and just have one store. No more schlepping merchandise across the Sellwood bridge in a Vanagon!
Lastly, the key to thriving in a neighborhood business district is looking at your business as not simply a profit center, but also as a relationship between the owners, the customers and the employees. We all dance together. No home runs at the expense of your customers, because we want to be here next year and we want you to want us to be here too.
For example: In the week prior to the 2017 eclipse, we made a decision to continue selling the viewing glasses which were typically selling for $15 or more online — for $1.99. You might say we didn't get the memo about supply and demand and price, but while we left a few thousand easy dollars on the table, we're still here and currently having our best year in history.
Thinker Toys is located at 7784 S.W. Capitol Highway. Learn more by calling 503-245-3936 or visitng thinkertoysoregon.com.