Tuchman and Van Epps return to specialty toy retailing
By Staff -- Gifts and Dec, 12/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
New specialty toy stores open up all the time. Many of them are run by experienced business people. Others are labors of love on the part of folks better described as 'creative' than as number crunchers. Few, though, have proprietors with such an impressive combined toy-business pedigree as does Thinka Dinka in Westfield, N.J.
Stop into Thinka Dinka on an average weekday afternoon, and you'll find owners Ronald Tuchman and Connie Van Epps stocking shelves, running the cash wrap and signing for UPS packages like at any other owner-operated independent retailer. What's notable is that the pair has nearly 65 years of collective toy business experience under their belts at the most storied names in the history of toy retailing.
For anyone with a history in the toy business, Tuchman's history nearly goes without saying. He got his start in 1964 at Chicago's Children's Bargain Town, the predecessor to Toys “R” Us, a company he would spend the 25 years helping to build into one of the original big box category killers. He went on to spend time running Child World, which closed in 1992, and then Imaginarium, before that specialty toy chain was purchased by TRU in 1998. He later formed his own investment banking firm and by the early '00s found himself president of toymaker Action Products.
Van Epps, meanwhile, got her start in 1986 at FAO Schwarz, rising to become a key merchant by the time she eventually left in 1997 to work for Tuchman at Imaginarium, shortly after he bought the retailer out of bankruptcy protection. Following the chain's sale to Toys “R” Us, she guided iVillage.com's eccomerce efforts, heading up baby toy and apparel sales, then joined catalog producer Redcats USA.
These days, the pair really are stocking shelves. During a recent visit by PLAYTHINGS, our interview was interrupted so that Tuchman could explain to a young staffer how to sign for packages from the UPS driver. “Don't forget to count the boxes and check to see if any are damaged!” he advised.
“This is stuff I haven't done in 40 years,” Tuchman says with a chuckle. “If I get a call from someone these days, I'll sometimes have to say, 'I can't talk to you right now, I'm opening up cartons…' I thought I was done with that!”
Still a viable market
At 71, Tuchman could easily enough have retired by now, but he's still, after all these years, a firm believer in the idea of a specialty toy chain. After getting “this close” to buying back Imaginarium from TRU and then watching a string of specialty toy chain flame-outs by the likes of Zany Brainy, Noodle Kidoodle, the original FAO Schwarz, Imaginarium and others over the last half dozen years, “we figured there was about $350 million in specialty toy business that went up into the stratosphere just waiting for somewhere to call home.” By last winter, Tuchman and Van Epps were actively looking for a location to start the first in what they intend to be a multi-store specialty chain.
That first Thinka Dinka in Westfield opened officially in mid-September, in a 2,550-square-foot space housing more than 2,700 SKUs—and one block up the street from a KB Toys and one half mile from a brand new Learning Express that started up just weeks after they did, in a location they had previously rejected. Neither is considered a real threat, Tuchman says. “The way we win the game is to pay attention to our own business plan, not to focus on putting anyone else out of business.”
The game Tuchman plans to play is one learned from 42 years in toy retailing. “We know what the mistakes at [Imaginarium, Zany Brainy, etc.] were, and we're trying not to make them,” he says. Those now-defunct specialty retail chains were the victims of several errors, Tuchman says, including overly aggressive expansion in order to provide their investors with a good return on their investments.
“You need to know when you're biting too much off—not knowing when to stop—and knowing that the locations you're opening truly fit the type of demographic of what the specialty toy business needs,” Tuchman says. Having been intimately involved in Imaginarium's successes and failures, for example, gives him deeper insight into the basic parameters of what made the company's most profitable individual stores work, such as the most effective balance of square footage, merchandise and overhead like rent and staffing.
In its opening month, the store was “extremely well received in the community,” says Van Epps. There was demand for specialty toys in the area ever since the local Imaginarium closed, she says. “Everyone who comes in says 'Thank God that you're here! You're doing okay, right? We want you to stay a long time.'”
Despite his decades of experience, those types of comments are new to Tuchman. “That's one of the things I missed out on sitting in the corporate office up in the ivory tower. You don't hear customer feedback directly like that,” he says. “It's amazing what people can feel about a store. I never go into a men's store or a grocery store and say 'I'm so glad you're here; what beautiful vegetables you have!' I'd never heard that kind of stuff. It's wonderful.”
If all goes according to plan, Tuchman and Van Epps will be bringing that experience to at least three new Thinka Dinka locations in 2007. “Our plan was never to open just one store,” he says.
The pair is currently actively seeking out new store locations in upscale, suburban communities in the greater New York metropolitan area.
jennifer mcsweeney - 2008-05-19 08:35:00 EDT
I w as at Thinka Dinka in Westfield last week and was amazed by all of the unique toys. It is such a great store. They also have tons of smaller toys which I am going to use for goody bags at my daughters bday party. I also met one of the owners, Ron. He is such a wonderful man. It was an honor to meet him. We will always shop at Thinka Dinka.
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