May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Girl and Boy Land

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For instance, Step2’s web site uses 3-D video demos to give shoppers a better sense of a product’s quality and how children can use the toy. “It’s the equivalent of a salesperson in a store saying, ‘See, this is what this does,’” McKay says. That might seem like just trying to catch up with the experience a shopper has in a store, but often it exceeds it, says McKay, “because sometimes these products aren’t in the store.”

EToys.com’s spokeswoman adds that the video demos help customers in their shopping decisions. “Customers get a sense of how the product works,” she explains. “It’s cool to be able to see a child interacting with the toy you might be interested in. And you have the benefit of not having to drive all over town looking for a specific item.”

Niche thinking

Retailers can use their online presence in other ways, too. Because a web site can aggregate demand from across the entire country-and even the world-online retailers can offer specialty toys that might have too small a market appeal for the biggest retail outlets to carry and that traditional toyshops don’t sell because they lack the space. Some online retailers stock unique products from smaller toy makers that appeal to more affluent shoppers in search of quality and distinctive toys. And shoppers can find these out-of-the-mainstream products more easily online than by having to visit toy stores. “There are such big players that it forces online players to be niche in their thinking,” Okamura says.

The specialty of Big Toy Express Inc. is implied by its name. The company concentrates on large items like playhouses, swing sets and children’s furniture. Because its items are so large, most customers cannot just walk into a store and drive home with them. But they can order online from Big Toy Express and know from the outset how much the shipping will be. The cost of shipping is included in the price, regardless of whether the item is shipped 200 miles or 2,000.

“We take a hit at times on this, but it’s easier for the customer,” says Marshall C. Murdough, who owns the company with his brother, Jody. “Any time we can make it easier for the customer, they’re going to want to come back.”

Even for toy retailers who have stores, the web has proven a boon. PlayMattersToys.com, for instance, operates five stores in Cleveland. Owner Michael Ziegenhagen added a web site a few years ago with the intent of serving his local customer base. What he discovered was new shoppers from beyond Cleveland who found his site on the Internet while looking for toys. “The number of people who come from all over the place amazes me,” Ziegenhagen says.

Spontaneous global sales

If the Internet extends toy retailers’ reach nationwide, it also extends their reach worldwide. And, in fact, it’s an easier international expansion than chain retailers can undertake. Simpson says 12% of his company’s sales originate from outside the United States. “The products we sell are appealing around the world,” he explains. “The online environment is especially intriguing for a company like ours because we can use it to connect all these points around the globe.”

What’s interesting, and what demonstrates the power of the Internet in selling products like toys, is that Ty’s never actively went after the global customers that have helped boost its sales. “It just happened,” says Simpson. “We do no marketing to these other countries. They’re finding us.”

Louis Berney is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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