Two Shops Take on the Box Stores One Toy at a Time

By Beacon Staff

You won’t find Barbie dolls, plastic superhero accessories, or “Pirates of the Caribbean” action figures in two Flathead Valley toy stores. But you will find quality. As lead paint scares plague parents, niche toy shops like Imagination Station sail above the box stores. While discount outlets recently yanked Mattel and Fisher-Price recalls from their shelves, the locally-owned toy shops continued to ring the cash register.

“There are a lot of cheap plastic toys out there, not the quality we would carry to make us happy,” says Mary Witbrod, co-owner of Imagination Station with Denise Magstadt. The pair carved their niche in the Flathead Valley toy market 12 years ago when they opened their first store in downtown Whitefish. With no intention of competing with the box stores, they target reputable companies – local to international –to fill their shelves with high quality toys. While discount houses order toys by container loads allowing them to whittle down prices, Imagination Station builds up a broad color-filled inventory based on excellence rather than fad. Parents and grandparents may pay a couple more dollars for the quality, but in return receive personal service that box stores lack.

At a quick glance, both Imagination Station stores in Whitefish and downtown Kalispell strike shoppers as different. Instead of combat weapons, television and movie spinoffs, pre-teen trash dolls, and plastic fast food brand fries for kitchen play, the shops send a different message. They stock shelves with unique toys, such as Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and other classics.

The image toys send to kids is important to Witbrod and Magstadt, both mothers. You’ll find Pretend and Play’s Healthy Breakfast Play Food Set, containing plastic yogurt, fruits, egg, English muffin and orange juice. Their play armaments, for instance, are selective – old west rifles, wooden rubberband guns, and water pistols. They shun overly sexual dolls, selling instead a popular line of wild-colored, loveable Groovy Girls.

While Imagination Station carries some toys also found in discount stores, mostly the shelves line with classy products from European and American manufacturers. Witbrod estimates that 20 percent of their stock comes from European companies – well-known names such as Ravensburger, Brio, Haba, Hape, and Selectica. This year, the shop bought even more European toys. “People are just antsy about the China recalls,” says Witbrod.

American companies make up the rest of the inventory. Folkmanis puppets and Lauri puzzles, for instance, are staples. A few local toymakers from Bozeman, Somers, Hamilton, and Whitefish supply specialties from beads and leather cowboy vests to wooden logging trucks. “We go for good learning, good graphics, intellectual stimulation, and plain goofy fun,” explains Magstadt. “Often they’re toys we loved as kids.”

The niche philosophy has paid off. With the exception of one year, sales have increased around 10 percent annually. As the Canadian dollar strengthened, so have sales to northern visitors. Still, most of the market is local, perhaps 70 percent, Witbrod estimates. “Look at this,” she says, holding up a birthday registration card. Imagination Station sends out more than 200 birthday cards each month to kids registered at the shops.

When planning each year’s inventory, Magstadt and Witbrod tour the box stores. They compare toys, trends, and prices. When they carry identical products, they drop their margin. “We try to stay close in dollars,” notes Magstadt. But the pair also has no qualms about going for class that costs. Halloween costumes in their shops attest to the fact. Ranging from $25 to $60, the costumes are durable, timeless, and inclined to broaden the creative imagination. There are cowboys and cowgirls, princess tiaras, Nasa commanders, and kings. A Dorothy/Glinda reversible apron dress not only allows the wearer to change characters by flipping from blue cotton to pink satin, but with Velcro straps the dress grows with the child. “These things will be in your dress up box for years,” laughs Witbrod.

While customers may spend more for these toys, they also rely on extras not found in box store toy aisles. Advice and showing how toys work are free for shoppers not attuned to the kid world. “We’ll take you around to show you what kids really like that is unique and age appropriate,” says Magstadt. The shops place special orders and gift wrap, too. They’ve been wrapping holiday packages already this year since early September.

In Kalispell, Imagination Station targets a particular market – teachers and home schoolers. The upstairs is devoted to educational resources to enhance math, science, or history studies. Witbrod notes that the Flathead’s large home school community relies on the shop for learning tools.

One success of Magstadt and Witbrod’s philosophy revealed itself in the wake of recent toy recalls. Imagination Station toys have seen minimal recalls. Even without recalls, the pair appreciates customers returning poor quality. “We can’t try all the toys. If it doesn’t work right, we want to know,” Witbrod says.

Imagination Station’s success is based on its personal service with solid, hearty toys. Magstadt agrees, “They’re all tested by local kids.”

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