Designer toy store and art gallery Rotofugi began as a small local shop in Chicago’s sleepy Ukrainian Village nearly 20 years ago. Now it’s a “must visit” spot in the city’s bustling Lincoln Park neighborhood, drawing collectors and toy enthusiasts and regarded among the greatest toy stores in the world.
The 3,000-square-foot toy haven sells toys designed by artists and independent toymakers, and there is something for everyone in its expansive inventory—ranging from dumpster fire vinyls to mini-marshmallow figurines.
“We get new stuff in every week, and the stock is always changing,” said Rotofugi manager DC Cathro.
This has helped the store garner an ever-growing fan base so devoted that two Rotofugi superfans even tattooed the store’s Pirate Abe mascot on their forearms.
“One of the great things about working here is seeing the joy on people’s faces when they come in and find something that is just perfect,” Cathro explained. “We have a lot of stuff in here that people just really light up for … [and] you’re really not going to find anywhere else.”
Adapting for the holidays
The holiday season is typically the busiest and most successful time of the year for Rotofugi, and the store is usually packed with shoppers from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And like at other places with things that are fuzzy, unique or loaded with bells and whistles, people have often liked to touch the goods before buying.
But the holiday season will look a lot different this year amid the pandemic. Shoppers’ grins are now shielded by face masks. Aisles that used to be overrun with children or adults embracing their inner child are dotted with hand sanitizing stations. Foot traffic has greatly diminished, and many in-store events that were normally key sales drivers for Rotofugi - like exhibit openings and toy launches - have been canceled.
“There has been a real big shift with the pandemic,” said Cathro, who oversees the store. “We still have the customers, [but] they’re just not coming in as much, or as often. So, that’s been a little bit of a struggle, but we’re hanging in there,” he said.
To help counter this, Cathro is working closely with the store’s owner, Kirby Kerr, to introduce new and innovative toys, tools and strategies to help give Rotofugi a leg up and spread some much-needed holiday magic this season, despite the unusual circumstances. One collector’s item that has been a crowd favorite during these stressful and unpredictable times is the store’s blind box series. Fans choose a mystery package and are rewarded with one of many special figurines. “It’s kind of like playing the lottery with toys,” Cathro explained.
One of the best parts of the collection? If shoppers don’t like their surprise item, they can trade it in for another toy on display. The store is also offering special, festive, holiday-inspired blind box collectibles.
“People need an escape,” said Cathro, and “we want to keep the store running … and have people come in as long as we’re able [to]” do so.
Assuaging customers’ concerns about making safe payments is part of that. With help from PayPal, the store has been able to modernize its payment system and offer a quick and simple touch-free payment option through a PayPal QR code. “It’s convenient, cheap, [and] easy,” Cathro said. You “scan it with your phone [and] type it in,” and “don’t have to touch anything,” he said. The technology allows the store’s customers more ease and flexibility. It’s “one less thing to worry about.”
Rotofugi has also thought about how to reach customers who prefer not to enter the store or who’d rather shop from home. As an added convenience to them, the staff is offering curbside pickup as a temporary solution. “You can order it online, we’ll take it out to your car, and you don’t have to touch anything,” Cathro explained. The store has also been gradually expanding its e-commerce strategy and growing its online inventory.
It’s a necessary pivot in these times. PayPal’s own data reveals that global sales of toys, hobbies and games increased by 26% in 2020 compared to the previous year. Yet retail experts worry that this holiday season will exacerbate the ever-growing gap between large chains and small stores as increasingly homebound consumers turn to big-box shopping and shipping.
“Brick and mortar stores are having a rough time, and the pandemic has made everything a hundred times harder,” Cathro said. “It’s a really trying time for everybody, and we just want to make sure that we can do as much as possible to make people happy and satisfy all of our customers.”
Looking ahead at 2021, and beyond
To strengthen its business strategy for the holiday and beyond, the shop has been able to steadily shift the bulk of its business online and grow its mail order options. There’s no question that the bestselling Lil’ Dumpster Fire vinyl – a mini, smiling cartoon dumpster engulfed in flames designed by 100% Soft– will spark joy for many people whether they order online or get it in person.
“It’s sort of been the perfect toy for 2020,” Cathro said. “We’ve sold out three times. We’ve got more coming in in December, and I’m sure they’re going to sell out immediately.” Thanks to its widespread popularity, this unofficial mascot of 2020 has been reproduced as a pin, key chain, hat and even an LED night light. Another very on-brand and beloved keepsake to commemorate 2020 is the cartoon COVID figurine by Vincent Scala, which depicts a colorful gem in a cozy bathrobe and fuzzy slippers – a wardrobe many have embraced while in isolation.
Rotofugi recently began showing exhibits in its gallery space again, with attendees required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing measures. The store is currently showing a new exhibit from Massachusetts-based illustrator and print-maker Daniel Danger.
Looking beyond the holidays, Cathro is hopeful the shop will keep discovering new and inventive ways to appeal to audiences during and long after the pandemic. “We just have to weather the storm. It’s been a rough ride … [and] everybody’s struggling, but we’re going to hope that the holiday season kind of comes through for us,” he said. “We have to [continue to] do as much as we can to keep our clients coming in and keep people happy.”