A Clue For The Toy Department

Last Christmas I bought some toys online. The service was horrible because the site wasn’t properly connected to the warehouse.

That wasn’t the case for friends who, unlike me, had enough of a Clue to go to eToys.com, “the Amazon.com of the toy business.” They were happy with their service.

That was last year. This year, the giants of the toy business have decided they won’t be fooled again. (Well, most of them have. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest toy retailer, is still working off its central site.)

Let’s look at what the giants have been up to. Toys R Us gave its online account to advertising giant Leo Burnett & Co., Chicago, which is expected to hand it off to its Giant Step unit. Then KBToys agreed to take 80 percent of Brainplay.com and re-brand it with its own name.

In a statement given CNNfn on the deal, the head of KB’s parent company said the winners combine brick-and-mortar stability with the “entrepreneurial” spin of Internet start-ups. (That’s not a Clue, it’s just a trend.)

In both these cases you have merchandising giants admitting they are Clueless, which is actually a good first step (as any alcoholic will tell you). The next step is natural, too — hire an expert (Giant Step) or buy a lagging competitor and give them financial heft (Brainplay). But neither giant is out of the woods — far from it. That’s because there’s an assumption here that the store is the problem. This is like the giant in the fairy tale thinking Jack is his problem when it is, in fact, the beanstalk that’s his problem.

The beanstalk in this case is the link with kids (and their parents). I happen to know where these people are hanging, however, so let me introduce the industry to their new gatekeepers — they’re here, here and here. To reach the market, you’ve got to offer them something compelling in these locations.

So here’s a Clue. Organize a “Rugrats Birthday Club” (and/or a “PowerPuff Girls’ Birthday Club,” etc). This is a database, into which kids can input their list of what they want for their birthday. The URL (and further instructions) can then be handed out to friends (and even far-off relatives in the form of email from Tommy or Blossom), linked back to the store site, and completed as you would a bridal registry. When a present is bought, it comes off the list. Delivery is both automatic and timed to the event. This scales up, of course, for Santa Claus.

The key, however, is to win the kids’ loyalty, with a deal based on giving the gatekeeping site a percentage of the gross. You’ll also need an extensive database and back-end fulfillment system. But it can, in fact it will, work. All it takes is some creative negotiating (plus a willingness to sell anything a kid wants and not just your stuff, Mr. Eisner), and a little technical magic in the back room. Ideas like this are why I’m worth the big money.

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