A New Level of Play
Aric Klar was a playful entrepreneur at the ripe age of 12 years old. His parents owned pharmacies and let him put a toy aisle in one of their stores to satiate his interest in contributing to the business. “Eventually at the age of 18, I had a full boutique inside one of their stores,” says the now-CEO of Michigan-based Toyology.
Toyology is a multi-location toy store that focuses on carrying experiential learning products for children of all ages. Aric says his customers are anyone who loves a kid. “My target consumer is someone who wants their kid to thrive now and in the future.”
You can’t compare Aric’s stores to Toys”R”Us or any other big box retailer. “We don’t carry Batman dolls or Crayola crayons,” he says. His products inspire constant engagement and open ended play such as 3D printing pens, robotics kits, and the Makey Makey, an energy conduction set.
As for the inspiration behind the business idea, Aric says it’s because of his personality. “I’m a kid who learned hands on,” he says.
He believes that toys have the power to influence the future direction of his end users, kids. Instead of building things that are standard and set, Ari suggests that kids can make things move with lego-fitted solar panels he sells in his stores. “Ten years down the road when they are in college, maybe they remember the toy they had as a kid, and use that memory to do something good for the world.”
Aric says the products he sells, while far more advanced than what you might find on a standard toy store shelf, don’t come at a cost barrier to his customers. “Let’s say you have a two year old niece who wants blocks,” he says. Aric explains the choice the caregiver of such child has in purchasing a set of $15 cardboard blocks versus $20 wooden blocks. “If she spills water on cardboard blocks, they are ruined. I’d rather sell you the wooden blocks, so you can reuse them and reuse them,” he says.
Aric’s employees are part-time toy testers. Nothing goes out (or stays out) on the shelves that hasn’t been heavily vetted. The requirements are that a product has both education and play value and will stay relevant. “I don’t need 5,000 products. I need a handful of great products that I know will benefit my customers.”
You might compare Aric’s employees to learning consultants. They work closely with parents who come into the store not looking for a particular product but looking to solve a particular problem. Whether their child needs help with math or has a learning disability, Aric’s store is where they can find a playful solution.
“Our employees will downsell,” Aric says. “If someone is trying to buy something that we don’t think will help their kid, we might talk to them about a different product, whether it’s more expensive or less expensive.”
Aric says his regular customers are “obsessed” with his store. “I get people who drive to my store and pass 10-15 other options,” he says. “I’m the toy option people are craving.”
The market seems to recognize it. Aric has received 150 franchise inquiries over the past 6 months. “This is something people want and can’t find anywhere.”
Aric’s philosophy on leadership is that there can’t just be one. He has a short checklist for those he brings onto his team. “I won’t hire anyone who eventually doesn’t strive to be a leader.” He treats them like leaders too.
“I hire people who can bring something to my business as much as I can bring to their lives. If they come up with an idea that will generate more revenue business for me, then I want them to know it will do the same for them,” says Aric. “You work, you are rewarded.” Aric’s only had one employee leave since he opened his doors in 2011.
This strict view on engaged employees all comes back to the customer. “I care so much about my customers leaving my stores with smiling faces, feeling satisfied and wanting to come back,” Aric explains. “I need my employees to feel that way as well.”
Aric shares the story of a part-time employee who received a book representative in the store one day. “She had been wanting to take on more responsibility,” he says. “I made sure I set up the meeting for when she was available and let her take care of the entire book order.”
Another employee had an idea for a stuffed animal toy that had a unique story attached to it. “She wanted to teach kids about karma,” he says. Aric funded this employee to create her own toy and now carries it in his stores.
A Fresh Face for a Fun Industry
Aric says he’s been going to the International Toy Fair since he was 10 years old. “It’s been the same people, the same brands, the same retailer,” he says. “The same old white guys in their old suits, writing orders down on paper, carrying around binders and paper and pen.”
Aric says the toy business is stuck in the 80s and is suffering because of it. Three Toys”R”Us stores in his region are closing. “I’d like to think I’ve put them out of business,” he says. “There’s a lack of vision.”
“These companies aren’t reaching out to kids or their parents and finding out what they want,” he says. “I don’t advertise in daily magazines or on the radio. I go into schools. I host game nights. We’re engaged with our local community.”
Aric doesn’t understand the concept of spending money on ads when he can go have lunch with his customers. “They know me as Aric, the toy guy.”
Aric’s full of anecdotes. One of his favorite stories is a time a child came in with his grandmother. They were from a wealthy area and celebrating the child’s half birthday. “He was turning seven and could pick our seven things,” says Aric. All the child chose were Legos. “He came to the counter, and I asked him are you sure you don’t want other building tools?” Aric pointed him towards the largest section of the store, where he housed robotics kit, wheels for cars, solar panels, and other products. “At the end of about 15 minutes, the seven Legos turned into five science products and only two Legos,” says Aric.
As the two were checking out of Aric’s store, the child looked at his grandma, and said: “You know what, I want to be an engineer.”
“Have i changed that kid’s life? I don’t know.” In another dozen years or so, Aric hopes to find out.