Bethany Hughes | Photographer
While everyone knows that much of the fever over gift buying in December focuses on children, families are increasingly taking their kids' opinion into account when they open up the wallet all year long.
Research shows a growing trend in parents considering their children’s input about what to buy. About two-thirds of parents say they consult their children on purchases for the whole family, and one-third even consult their children on purchases for themselves. Kids influence choices about vacations, clothes and food. They even participate in online shopping.
Local businesses marketing to children say that, while selling to families has changed over time, the rewards have stayed the same. Working in business geared toward children is fun and carries the reward of making a difference in the lives of our most impressionable consumers.
TK talked to three Topeka businesses about the challenges and rewards of having a business that appeals to kids.
When Joe Tongish decided to bring the Going Bonkers franchise to Topeka in 2011, he had never owned a child-oriented business before. He had retired and was volunteering at the YMCA when he realized the family fun center business model could have a place in Topeka.
“It was something Topeka didn’t have, but appeared to be needed,” Tongish said. “I could differentiate Going Bonkers from anything else.”
The business model was sound; giving kids a place where they could burn up calories and work up a good sweat was an added bonus.
Bringing in Visitors
Topekans responded quickly. In the first year, more than 100,000 people walked through the doors. Considering the total population of Topeka is just about 127,000, it was a result that well surpassed Tongish’s expectations.
Going into a child-oriented business was a big change for Tongish. While he had owned businesses before, Tongish had never been in the food business nor had part-time employees. The biggest change though was the atmosphere. It was fun.
“It was 180 degrees different from anything I’ve ever done in the past,” Tongish said. “They (the kids) are going 100-miles an hour and sometimes it’s kind of crazy. People who came in are having fun. They were smiling, and it was pleasant. Having kids there, it was always fun. I got a lot of personal enjoyment out of it.”
Making Business Fun
Fun also became part of the business plan. When Tongish worked with his young, part-time employees he emphasized three things he wanted customers to take away from a visit.
1. The thought, “That was fun”
2. The feeling that the people who worked at Going Bonkers were friendly
3. The idea, “Let’s go back again”
Family interaction plays a huge part in the success at Going Bonkers. The center has a large play structure that is big enough for full-sized people to enjoy with their children.
“We love to see people up in the playground and playing with the kids getting good exercise themselves,” Tongish said.
Tongish sold the Topeka Location to the Going Bonkers corporate office earlier this year. The corporate owners have not made many changes to Going Bonkers, and Tongish is still working with the company. Visitors may see some fresh paint and new menu items, and birthday parties are going to have an overhaul, but the same family fun is still there.
Nearly every day The Toy Store owner Margaret Warner gets to meet someone who loves a child and is trying to make a special memory with that child. An aunt comes in looking for an activity that would give her niece and nephew a take-away to remember an upcoming visit—she finds a potholder maker and a paint craft. The young parent or grandparent seeks a way to have fun with their child and get out of the house—enter story time and drum circle. It is not uncommon to see the sidewalk in front covered with chalk drawings, or a fire truck in front of the store—not for an emergency, but for fun.
The Toy Store in Topeka has seen generations of kids, parents and grandparents walk through the door.
Warner has been in the toy business for nearly 40 years (owner for the last 30), and says working with children is the only thing she has ever done or wanted to do. Her mother owned the store before she took it over.
“I love it. I say, ‘It is in my blood.’ I knew as a junior in high school. I said I wanted to own toy stores in the yearbook. I love what I do,” Warner said.
Providing Childhood’s Best Tools
Warner says her goal is to provide the best, most creative, open-ended toys to the public. While some of the store’s mission, which includes providing what Warner calls, “the best tools for childhood,” has always stayed the same, the approach has changed a bit, particularly in the last few years.
“It seems like there is less time for play. So the time they [children] do have is precious and special,” Warner said. “I have seen that families have a lot more time constraints. So, customers want to come in and get their needs met quickly and get on with their day.”
Creating an Experience
In order to persuade people to linger, The Toy Store has greatly expanded its in-store activity opportunities in the last year. Whereas the store used to host an event once a month, it now has an activity at least once a day and sometimes two or three times a day. Among the regular activities are Story Time, Mad Scientist, Kids Drum Circle and a Skill Toy Club.
Warner says they try hard to create an in-store environment in which the toys can be played with and touched. They have 25 different play spaces throughout the store where children can have the chance to explore what is on the shelf.
“The toys we put out, we find out if they really love it or really don’t. Parents will head for what they see the child playing with and enjoying. It makes for a much more fun shopping experience and a much better buying value because you know you are buying something the child will use. You know it is age appropriate and level appropriate,” Warner said.
Getting parents into the store also helps fight the increasing competition from online purchases. While the Toy Store does offer its own online catalogue, those in-store experiences give customers a reason to walk in the door.
Stepping It Up a Notch
Warner says the store not-only provides a hands-on experience, but also offers toys parents cannot buy anywhere else.
“The expectation is higher today; everything has had to go up a notch,” Warner said.
In the last couple of years, they have also revamped the inside of the store, repainting with bright colors and investing in roll-able shelving that allows them to move the merchandise in order to have floor space for all of those activities.
The National Retail Federation reports that retail businesses on average make about 20 percent of their total sales during the holidays. For The Toy Store the holidays are truly “harvest” season; 70 percent of its business occurs during the last eight weeks of the year.
Warner says what she loves best about working in a child-oriented business is the opportunity to grow something larger than herself.
“It is something that will last after I’m gone—the tools to help form a child in those formative years. That’s the most important work there is,” Warner said.
Since 2002 CAGE Gymnastics has been offering classes for children—from toddlers to teenagers. They have programs at all levels, from beginners for fun to serious competitive gymnastics. Owner Triny Lindsay started working in a child-oriented business because of her own background in the sport.
“I couldn’t stay away from gymnastics. I got into coaching and then went from coaching in Olathe to owning a gym in Topeka,” Lindsay said.
While the gym has been there since 1987, Lindsay purchased the facility in 1999. It became known as CAGE in 2002. The gym currently serves about 500 children a month in regular programs that teach artistic gymnastics including vault, bars, balance beam and floor exercise. The foam pits and tumble tracks are two of their main features.
Lindsay said the biggest challenge of working in her industry is keeping up to date on the changes in techniques and health and fitness news. In the 15 years since she purchased the gym, what parents want has also changed a bit.
“Years ago, parents just wanted their kids to have fun. Now, parents are leaning toward wanting to see results and tangible improvements,” Lindsay said.
Another change is that people are focused more than they used to be on getting more than one thing out of a sports experience. When students come to gymnastics they are learning motor skills, hopping, leaping, jumping, bending and stretching, but they are also working out their minds. Lindsay says parents don’t just want a babysitter, they want to make sure their children are also getting a learning experience that includes things like, facing fears, sportsmanship, how to work with a partner and problem solving.
Offering More Options
An important part of the CAGE business plan is to offer a lot of community opportunities. They have open gym times, birthday parties, private lessons, field trips for scout groups, parents’ night out events and even a New Year’s Eve Overnighter.
All of these events give people who are not taking classes the opportunity to get inside the gym and experience it.
“It helps get folks in, and get comfortable with the facility and get to know it and see what we’re about,” Lindsay said.
Developing the “Aha” Moment
Lindsay says she loves working with children and feels like she learns a lot from the experience.
“The kids are so curious and they are little sponges and sometimes they will do something that is completely surprising to both them and the coach,” Lindsay said. “You cry with them; you laugh with them; you get frustrated with them; you feel the joy and the pain and heartache.”
When a child has that kind of “aha” moment it is rewarding to be able to be a part of the experience. Lindsay says children and parents are equally her customers. If both sides are not happy with the experience at CAGE, it will not work for anyone.