Just Kidding Around

Written by Neal Sandin


The increasing prominence of online retail, coupled with slow economic growth and sustained unemployment has significantly changed consumer behavior and placed unique challenges on boutique mom-and-pop stores.  Just Kidding Around, a family-owned toy store in Montclair, NJ, has been occupying a familiar spot at 507 Bloomfield Ave for the past 11 years, and Manager Nissa Murphy has seen first-hand the effects online retailers have on customer behavior.   (**Note: I interviewed Mrs. Murphy in December 2013)

Online retailers focus on their costs, allowing customers to become increasingly price sensitive. “A lot of people obviously shop at Amazon,” Mrs. Murphy notes, “so we do get a lot of those people that come in and say, ‘Well, Amazon has it for much cheaper than you have it.’”

Some engage in the increasingly common practice of “showroom-ing.”  Mrs. Murphy explains, “People come into our store to buy table and chairs (and we have them up on our shelves and [they] actually have us take them down).  The kids will try it, and then they will say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to get it at Amazon because it is cheaper.’”

In light of these pressures, some small businesses feel that the only way to compete and survive against online retailers is to discount their prices.  However, this strategy is exactly what many business and branding professionals advocate against.  Liore Arussy, President of Strativity, writes in an article aptly titled, Companies Beware: Discounting=Death, “But in reality, discounts make products available to a customer segment that does not appreciate the products at their original price. These are unprofitable customers and when they are allowed to join the existing loyal customer pool, they poison it.”

Instead of discounting, Just Kidding Around focuses on what online retailers cannot: a unique in-store customer experience.  “When you are buying something online,” Mrs. Murphy notes, “it is not an experience, it is a couple of clicks.”    On the other hand, Just Kidding Around’s interior is designed to look like a children’s playhouse.  “It is a bit of an old timey toy store, it is not like a Toys-R-Us,” she says. “So many people walk in and say, ‘Oh my god, it is just like when I was growing up.’  It has that feel.”

The management also uses its roughly 1500 square feet and mom-and-pop budget to its advantage, creating a distinctive selection in the shelves.  “We try to pick stuff that is not everyday Toys-r-us-y, cheap-y plastic.  We try to buy Made in America or France or Germany.  We try to do things a little differently.  We try to pick the more unique items.”

This complements their individualized customer service.   “[Customers] ask us, ‘Can you help me with this?’ and we all know it.”  In addition, Just Kidding Around educates their more price-sensitive customers, providing transparency on the business environment.  “Amazon is a big company that can buy things in bulk,” she often explains to customers.   The economic realities hit home, making “showroom-ing” less attractive.  “Something clicks in their brain and ‘Maybe I should stay local.’”

Moving outside the store, Just Kidding Around refers others to neighboring small businesses, becoming an information source for their customers. “We are always sending people to other places. ‘You’re looking for girls clothes, try this one [store].’”  The stores return the favor, creating a network and strengthening Montclair’s brand as a shopping destination.  These efforts dovetail with the campaigns of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, which sends out a calendar with scheduled events at local stores for Fridays or Saturdays.

The focus on the customer experience over discounting seems to be working.   Compared to last year, she says, “We are doing much better this year, noticeably better.”

When asked how she would like her customers to describe the store, she pauses for a moment.  “Of course I want it described as ‘The best toy store in the world,’” she laughs, “but we’ve heard out of people’s mouths (I mean, it is a small town so we hear) people are constantly saying, ‘Oh, we love them,’ which is great.”