Industry Outlook

ASTRA Innovation Council: Addressing the Big Picture in a Time of Accelerating Change

By Kimberly Mosley, ASTRA President

When it comes to business, change is always in the air.

Take the past 18 months. Large national chains have closed hundreds of underperforming bricks-and-mortar stores, leaving malls and shopping districts nationwide with gaping holes. A string of high-profile retail bankruptcies—including Toys “R” Us, a driving force in the toy industry for much of its 60-year history—has left independents, online sellers, and big box stores looking for ways to leverage the resulting opportunities. Amazon bought itself a ready-made physical footprint nationwide with the purchase of Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, 2017 saw retails sales grow by 4.2 percent over the previous year—the largest gain since 2014.

Nimbleness: The Independent Retailer’s Competitive Advantage

Successful retailers who are members of ASTRA have always responded to changing market dynamics and shifts in customer expectations by using their comparatively small size as a competitive advantage. “Small retailers can react much more quickly to market changes than big box chains because we can make quick decisions,” says Michelle Sahr, owner of Off the Wagon in Kent, Ohio. “We don’t have to work through layers of hierarchy to get something done.”

Tackling Big Issues at the Industry Level

As retailers are literally minding the store, ASTRA is doubling down on its mission to support ASTRA is doubling down on its mission to support a membership of independent toy retailers, manufacturers, and sales representatives to advance industry growth. Accelerating change in today’s business environment—characterized by fragmentation, new business models, channel fluidity, experience-driven purchases, constantly-connected consumers, and customer desire for shared culture—led the ASTRA Board of Directors to look for new ways to go beyond its day-to-day suite of member services to tackle big picture industry issues.

It found it in the leadership of specialty toy industry veteran Roger Bildsten, who moderated last year’s ASTRA eco-system member roundtables. The deep-dive initiative led to the formation an internal “think tank” composed of ASTRA members from all three categories (retailer, manufacturer, and sales representative) and experienced business people outside the toy industry who have interests aligned with ASTRA.

Creation of The ASTRA Innovation Council

Named the ASTRA Innovation Council, the group’s charge is to examine the global landscape and recommend specific actions ASTRA can take—both short- and long-term—to help ASTRA members adapt and thrive in the face of accelerating change in and arguably the transformation of the retail sector.

“Starting about a year ago, we could see that change was cascading at warp speed through retail,” says Bildsten, who has led specialty toy manufacturing companies and played an active leadership role in ASTRA over the years. “There are many of us long-time ASTRA members who have always believed in the power of working together and thinking big to keep the specialty side of the industry strong. The already busy ASTRA Board needed a go-to resource to dig into some of [its] biggest challenges, so the Innovation Council was launched.”

The new Innovation Council recruited some of the best and brightest—ASTRA has plenty to pick from—who have knowledge of the toy industry, a pulse on toy industry trends, a willingness to share knowledge, and the ability to transform ideas into actions.

Formed in early 2018, to date, the council has focused on:

  • Identifying and assessing the impact of game-changing developments affecting the ASTRA ecosystem and more specifically, the brick-and-mortar retail channel
  • Defining initial core priorities and forming working groups to explore the details
  • Presenting two position papers for the ASTRA Board’s review during the fall 2018
  • Laying groundwork to develop action plans for the initial priorities
  • Looking outside the toy industry “bubble” for helpful developments

More to Come on the Council’s Work

You’ll hear more about the work of the Innovation Council in the coming months. In the meantime, think nimble, think customer focus, and think of accelerating change as the new normal.

As Anita Demetropoulos, owner of the Island Treasure toy stores in Maine and a member of the Innovation Council says, “When I started the business 16 years ago, I promised myself we wouldn’t get stuck in one way of doing things. Back then, I saw change as a year-to-year thing,” says Demetropoulos. “Now we have to adapt every day to survive.”