- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2020

Many people might not consider toy stores as “essential” businesses — but to parents working at home while trying to occupy their ornery grade-schoolers, toy stores can be a godsend.

Local toy stores are modifying their business models to offer delivery and curbside pick up, as well as video and phone calls to help parents pick the perfect games for their families.

“It’s kinda debated but some people like to say that toys are essential, especially for children that aren’t going to school,” said Caroline Roane, a store manager at Doodlehopper 4 Kids in Falls Church, Virginia.

Parents can call or email Doodlehopper — which closed to customers on March 27 and began offering curbside pickup — about specific items they are interested in or the age group they are shopping for and store staff will respond with pictures of options from which to choose.

Business isn’t great but it also isn’t horrible, Ms. Roane said, noting that although the store is seeing fewer customers, those who are shopping for toys are stocking up.

Doodlehopper has sold out on all of its higher count puzzles, and other top sellers during the pandemic are board games, outdoor activities, art supplies and educational workbooks.

“I like to help people find what they are really looking for, not something they heard someone else had but something that works best for them,” said Lisa Ripkin, owner of a Fair Day’s Play in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Ms. Ripkin said that is why she spends hours during the day and night to help parents select the right gift, especially during the pandemic.

Doodlehopper has two staff members working in the store at a time, but Ms. Ripkin is working primarily by herself to fulfill the orders for curbside pickup, and in the evenings she has her 16-year-old son help make the deliveries.

Ms. Ripkin recommended the board game Pandemic, published by Z-Man Games, to help kids understand what is happening in the world. She said it helped her own son during the Ebola outbreak.

She noticed that business started to slow in January and February, and fewer people were coming into the store for birthday parties. Noting her property’s high rent, Ms. Ripken said she is scared for her business but hopes the service she’s providing now will attract customers later.

Child’s Play, with stores in the District and Virginia (the Maryland store is closing permanently for reasons unrelated to COVID-19), already was making plans for delivery service before the pandemic — and now that’s all it offers.

“Business is down from what it would be last year, but I think business right now is not a dollars and cents thing,” said Steven Aarons, a buyer for the store. “It’s much more about our community and helping them out with trying to have some normalcy.”

Mr. Aarons said his staff is able to turn orders around in one day for parents who need that last-minute birthday gift for a kid.

Child’s Play already has raised and donated $4,000 worth of toys to food distribution areas at local schools and has raised another $2,000.

In addition to being there for the community, Mr. Aarons said protecting his staff is also a priority.

Only two staff members work in each store at a time. And when they are delivering, they make sure to leave the package on the doorstep or if it’s an apartment building, they call ahead to set up the pickup, Mr. Aarons said.

Child’s Play stores closed a week before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the closure of non-essential businesses.

“I am extremely cautious about this,” Mr. Aarons said, adding that the only way to do that is to make hard choices.

• Sophie Kaplan can be reached at skaplan@washingtontimes.com.

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