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Toy stores no longer corner market on child's play

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 12:00 AM

At the Barnes & Noble in Tysons Corner Center, one aisle has a peculiar new configuration.

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On one side, new current events books about America and its troubles and promise. On the other side, toys: Cook and Play Potsy, My Pal Scout, Ernie Fire Engine.

"I had no idea this was here," said Charles Davis, an Alexandria resident shopping with his companion, Sabina Sauer.

They had stumbled upon the intriguing new world of toy retailing, in which Barnes & Noble, Borders and retailers even less associated with products for little kids - Whole Foods Market, The Vitamin Shoppe - are angling for parental wallets with high-end, mostly educational toys, often with a green component.

The new toy hawkers know that children's wares have been an easy path to parents' wallets for eons, particularly during recessions. Older shoppers may recall that the original department stores placed children's items in the very back, so moms had to traverse the entire store, much as many supermarkets stock milk in the rear corner of the store.

But in many ways, the latest shift in the $21 billion toy industry represents yet another reordering of the brick-and-mortar world brought on by the digital revolution.

The trend toward adding unrelated product lines may seem to fly in the face of the niche marketing that has flourished in the Internet era, but retailers say going broader may be an answer to their woes.

The specialty toy industry has contracted significantly in the past decade as big toy chains swallowed smaller independents in a bid to stave off threats from Wal-Mart, Target and Costco. Popular chains such as Zany Brainy and Imaginarium are history. The only standalone toy store at Tysons Corner Center is Lego.

Toy industry executives say that contraction, along with the heavy influence of Amazon.com - which has shown that a business can establish itself by selling one thing (books) and then add many other products - has given nontraditional toy sellers confidence that putting puzzles, games and other delights on their shelves will not turn off consumers.

In fact, the surprise of finding an unexpected toy might be pleasant. About 40 percent of toy purchases aren't planned, according to the NPD Group. That's helped Green Toys Inc. sell lots of tugboats made from recycled plastic at Whole Foods. The company's jump-ropes and tool sets are also sold through EcoShoppe, a green-oriented line of stores operated by The Vitamin Shoppe.

"This is really an extension of what Amazon brought the world," said Robert von Goeben, who started Green Toys, based in San Francisco, in 2008. "They moved laterally, and they were very successful at that. Their shoppers got used to finding other items. We now know the Internet is one large buy-everything place, and the bricks and mortars now realize that there are successful lateral moves they can make."

Whole Foods sells puzzles and games by several speciality toymakers in the middle of its supermarkets, in the vitamins and healthy-body section. The toys are eco-friendly and mainly educational, and executives say they are thrilled by the response.


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