There has been a discussion this past weekend on various bookselling listservs about ways to protect merchandise in our stores, not from theft, but from curious children and families. Every store has its own policy regarding how kids can play with toys, books or puppets in the store before they purchase them. Most small stores don’t have demos of things to play with, or a budget line item for damages, so we have to get creative.
I notice that summertime seems to be the time when I face this issue more. I attribute this to visitors who might be used to a Borders or Barnes and Noble where it’s seemingly okay to scatter merchandise throughout the store. It’s always a struggle for me to redirect a charming tot from happily destroying a toy that they’ve fallen in love with. Most parents are very good about policing their children without any input from me. Although several years ago I heard the unmistakable sound of a book jacket being ripped in half, and when I went to investigate, I saw the parent shoving the ripped jacket under the bookcase as if nothing at all had happened. They left without buying anything. This is not the norm by any means.
Usually, I have sheepish parents buying board books their toddlers have gnawed on. Often a parent will buy a toy because their child broke it. But how can a bookseller preempt the destruction without sounding harsh or preachy? There are some tricks I’ve learned over the years to make the store more user friendly.
The most obvious thing to do is keep things out of children’s reach that might break or get dirty. We actually have three stuffed dragons that someone donated to the store. These are out all the time on the floor of the picture book section. Kids can play with these for hours and no one will ask them not to. Keep some games and toys out that they can play with. If kids feel like the store is a minefield and they’ll get yelled for touching things, they won’t want to come back.
Things we’re worried about breaking live near the front counter. This way we can keep an eye on things. It’s also helpful to help explain how some toys work. Gentle guidance about how a wind-up toy works can go a long way toward everyone having a good experience.
I find what gives me fits are the toys, pens, and doo-dads that make noise. There is something about a pen with a cow’s head that moos and lights up when you push its head that’s adorable, but team that with oinking pig pen, the baaing sheep all going off together that make me a little crazy. When I’ve had enough of the farmyard symphony I try to find creative ways to get things quiet again. I usually say something like, “Two more oinks then you need to put the pig down to save the battery for another child.” Every once in a while I can just raise an eyebrow to a kid I know and they’ll put the noisy toy down with a sweet smile.
Most children are really quite good about listening and often they are very amenable to the old distract and delay tactic. Distract them with something they can actually play with and/or delay their desire to play with a certain toy until they leave the store with it.
And lastly, the best piece of advice I can offer: don’t buy toys so noisy that you can’t hear yourself think.