Podcast Episode 104: Roberta Bonoff | Everything Is Just A Conversation

Roberta Bonoff | Everything Is Just A Conversation

Roberta Bonoff, CEO of Creative Kidstuff in Minneapolis shares her experiences of being in retail for 30 years, why tasks often get priority over selling, how they started their own TV show, what customers care about and more.


Tell me something good about retail

Roberta Bonoff: Everything Is Just A Conversation



Three Key Takeaways:

    • Practice doesn't make something perfect, it makes it permanent
    • Giving personal feedback, not just performance feedback is key to creating great teams
    • Brick and mortar retailers are judged if they provide a better experience than a phone.


Roberta: I am president of Creative Kidstuff. And I've been doing this retail thing for...let's see. I think I'm going on 30 years so I might know something about it...

Bob: That's impossible. You look so young.

Roberta: Yeah. Hardly.

Bob: Well, that's great. How did you start out, 30 years? My goodness.

Roberta: You know, I started out like I think every good retailer starts out, on the sales floor. I was selling bridesmaid's dresses. Wow. Long, long time ago.

Bob: [crosstalk 00:00:28]

Roberta: I did. I sold... I worked for something called Milton's Barber Bridals [SP] and the joke is and what's hysterical to me to this day is they almost fired me because I wasn't aggressive enough.

Bob: Wait, wait, who are we talking about? Hold on a second.

Roberta: I know. Exactly Bob.

Bob: You weren't aggressive enough?

Roberta: I wasn't, but I had this fabulous coach who was the manager of the store and she taught me everything she knew and more. And I give her a lot of credit for who I am today because she really taught me what it is to sell and the importance of sales because bottom line, I believe, at the end of the day that's what we all do. We sell all day long.

Bob: Well, that's so true. It's so funny you say that because I remember my first job in college was at a department store and I had this one woman and she was tough. She was tough. The customer's the most important person. You drop everything and make their day. And I think back that I was lucky to have this blue haired woman who was a legacy from probably the '30s. And really taught me that combination of customer service means nothing unless they buy it but they won't buy it unless you give them customer service.

Roberta: Exactly. And not only that, it's, you know, and then I went on. I spent quite a years. I put myself through college working retail and my best job I got was retail plus commission which really helped put yourself through college.

Bob: So true. 

Roberta: But I learned that wow, I was not gonna make that commission if I didn't pay attention to the customer. So all those merchandising things I had to do, all the displays I had to do, you know, they always came second because at the end of the day we're in business. We're retailers because we're there to sell something.

Bob: That's a great point because I think people let employees get away with doing displays and moving merchandise and never teach them that.

Roberta: Well, of course because tasks are easy. Right? Tasks like, here's this wall, take it apart, put it back together and make it look good, make the displays look good. So, yeah, you have to be shoppable. I'm not gonna say that the stores don't have to be shoppable. In fact, you know, we pride ourselves at Creative Kidstuff about that. But at the end of the day, no. That customer is more important. You know, you will think something in the store for them. So that's why we're there. That's our job actually.

Bob: Nice. Well, how did you get into the toy business? Because we've been through wedding dresses and then what was your second one?

Roberta: Oh, I did wedding dresses, I did high end women's ready to wear. I've worked at a [inaudible 00:03:16]. I've worked since I was 16 years old, so I was always working, you know, grew up in such a way that I had to pay for myself and make sure my entire life that I could take care of myself. So something my mother taught me. She said, "You know, honey, whatever it is in life, you always have to be able to take care of yourself." And I've always taken that to heart. So,yes. So now, how did I get in this crazy toy industry? Well...

Bob: Wait. Let's back up one second, because I know Creative Kidstuff. But what about the brand? What can you tell us about the brand before you tell us how you got into it? 

Roberta: Well Creative Kidstuff is...we've been in business for 35 years and we are a specialty toy retailer, who has six stores in the Twin Cities, six airport stores around the country. We have a television show called "The Happi House," we have a wholesale division called KidSource. We have a website at creativekidstuff.com and we sell on Amazon. So we are a toy retailer.

Bob: And so how did you get be this toy maven as you're known as just this ball of energy in the toy business.

Roberta: Well, this ball of energy actually started at Tonka toys and I created a retail service program for Tonka. And that is how I got my foot in the door into the toy industry. So I've always either been on the manufacturing side or the retail side of the toy industry for quite a few years. And Tonka was a great, great, great training ground and doing retail service was fabulous because I actually created a program that I had people across the country who worked for me. Because at the time...get this, we know this time, it still happens. When you can't get the product out of the back room onto the floor, you can't generate sales.

So Tonka as a manufacturer was frustrated that they weren't doing more business with their major accounts and they found that most of the time the goods were in the back room. So my staff all over the country would go into retail stores, fix displays, pull product out of backrooms. It was a great way for the manufacturer to be able to build their business and a great service. And it was just one more opportunity for the sales person to get more data to get in front of the buyer again, going in with a sales team in front of the buyers, which then landed me in my next job. The President of Tonka left Tonka and started a company called Toy Soldiers. And then in that startup he hired me as vice president of sales for half the country because by that time I had been in most of the national accounts across the country and I had created my own relationships.

But I always ended back up in retail and then again ended backup and retail and here I am at Creative Kidstuff which was fascinating because I was calling on them to try to sell them product. And I called on nationals, but I just wanted to see the product in my own backyard. So I called on Creative Kidstuff, had a great meeting with the merchandise manager. Her name was Abby. She introduced me to the president of the company. I thought, "Oh, this is really going well. I'll get an order." And not only did I get an order I got a call saying [inaudible 00:06:07] company and here I am 20 years later.

Bob: Well, 20 years later and what a success story. I mean, you are looked up by so many people as an icon in the business. I mean, that just because of your approach, your whole...you know, the thing I like about you, Roberta, is you just have this whole open heart way with the world, which is something I espouse too. And it's kind of interesting though you took over a company. The founder had been there for 15 or 20 years. What was the challenge you would have had from moving from the founder to kind of making your own company?

Roberta: You know, that's fascinating. You know, I think what people actually look for, founder or not, is leadership. And so...Cynthia was, I love her to this day, we're great friends but she was done. She was just kind of done, right? She didn't want to run a company anymore. And I think when you don't want to run a company anymore, your staff senses that. So they were just ready, you know. Yeah, there were challenges. We do things the way we've always done them and you know retail keeps evolving. In fact, just had a conversation yesterday with my staff about, are we being innovative? Are we being iterative? Like how do you break through in this crazy retail world? So we've had lots of challenges and unfortunately at that time when I joined the company, Cynthia had also started a national catalog business without the appropriate funding. So I walked in the door and actually had a company in crisis. So had to...

Bob: That's why it was so easy for them to call you up and like, "She's got the ticket."

Roberta: "Right. Let's do this." So, you know, it's been a journey. So getting the company turned around and back on track and through every up and down in our retail world and it's always how do you be innovative, not iterative and we're in that again, I believe.

Bob: I would love to chat about "Happi House" because I know Happi and she does such a fabulous job but I'm afraid I won't have enough time to do a few segments on a local TV show and then build this whole show around Happi, who is again, much like you, very focused on sales and helping and being a brand ambassador.

Roberta: Right. Well, the whole idea behind the television show was, you know, I can't afford national advertising and I felt like there wasn't good programming out there for moms and kids. And you know I was very grateful that my parent company owned TV and radio stations here in the Twin Cities. And so finally one day I begged enough and he says, "Okay. Go do your television show." And never did I think, when he said, "Go do your television show would we have an international television show that's watched all over the world. And I've learned a whole another industry that I still don't understand. But it's great and what it allowed us to do is put the products that we wholesale, create commercials, run those on TV, get more national awareness. It's let us take some of the products that we distribute now on our wholesale side and again get that out in front of the public and distribute. I don't know how much longer the television show is gonna go, we're actually going into our fourth season, which I think is unbelievable.

Bob: And you are going into your fourth season I think with "The Happi House." Yes?

Roberta: We are going into our fourth season which I think is just a miracle. I am so grateful and, you know, the good news is, is that they keep creating relationships and doing beautiful things all over the world. And you know we are actually even nominated for an Emmy, which really took my breath away, for our segment because we did a segment for a sister company, The Greater Good, on a school they have in Haiti and it was a beautiful segment. So we're hoping to, you know, continue to do what we like to do is to help families play.

Bob: Well, and I think that's what you embody is that spirit and mission statement in how you treat your employees, how you treat your customers and then also putting that out into the world as a content provider. So, you know, again, there's just so many reasons why you are such a great representation of things that are going well in retail. And I'm gonna ask you, and I'm sure you have several but what do you think the best advice you ever received was?

Roberta: There's two pieces. One is, everything is just a conversation. And it'll have the meaning that you bring to it. So when you hear that, "No," or, "It can't be done," that's just a conversation. You can bring whatever meaning you want to that, it's probably not so. And so that's really helped me. It helps me every day of my life is to not bring meaning that doesn't exist to conversations, so that I can keep moving things forward because otherwise you would get stopped dead in your tracks someday.

Bob: Absolutely. You'd be going backwards down, you'd repack it, unpack it, what do they mean? Bad acting. Right? You'd have to [inaudible 00:11:05] scenario you created which is non-existent to begin with, but you went down the wrong path. Gotcha.

Roberta: Exactly. Because our brains are very powerful and they like to play with us. So, you know, I think that's probably one of the strongest pieces of advice or things I've ever learned is don't bring meaning where there isn't meaning and just keep moving forward.

Bob: Excellent. I like that.

Roberta: Actually. And the other part is that people are really all that counts. So, you know, we could have stores loaded with product but if you don't have great people taking care of great people, you don't have a store. So, you know, the people that you employ, the people that you work with, the people that you take care of, are really all that counts. And so I think everybody just needs to have people as they're focused.

Bob: You got it. And I would look at the brands crumbling left and right. And the reason why they are is they really are just warehouses of product and they thought that just having enough product made the difference. But you know, to your point, as you said earlier in this discussion, you know. Yeah, you could have somebody that store has to be shoppable. But even if it isn't, you know that your employee can go and find something for that person, right? That's the most important thing.

Roberta: Exactly. And, you know, we call them small delights. You know, what delight are you gonna give somebody today when they walk in that store? What smile are you going to have them leave with? Because there's too many other things going on in the world that probably don't get people to smile, but we're a toy store for gosh sakes. We're supposed to sell joy and happiness. So that is what we should be doing. Yes, it's stressful, you know. People always say, "Oh, you work in the toy industry. It's so much fun." I'm like, it is a cutthroat industry, are you kidding? The reality is we still have a lot of fun and the day that we lose our fun, the day that we forget that those sweet little faces that come in the door with their crumply wet dollar bills and their bags full of coins have been saving for that toy they've wanted, right? And if we don't [inaudible 00:13:05] that a special moment, then we've lost it. So you know that's...

Bob: That's an excellent point. I love that idea. That, you know, the backside may not be so joyous right? So there's cutthroat, there's a lot of problems. Let's face it, Toys R Us went out. Everyone's asking you, like, "Oh, does that mean you're next?" And you have to deal with all the publicity and all that kind of stuff. But ultimately, you have to insulate your customers from that.

Roberta: Exactly.

Bob: They didn't come to you to hear that.

Roberta: No. They don't care. They don't care how hard it is to get all of your product out of the back room. They don't care how many counts we need to have you do right now. That's not their thing. Right? They don't want that. They want you to... It's toys. They want to be joyful, they came in here to have a happy experience and find something special for their child.

Bob: Lovely, lovely.

Roberta: So that is what we do.

Bob: So I want you to picture you got a good friend of yours, who says, "Oh, I, wanna meet with you, Roberta." And you guys are off there at Starbucks there at the Galleria and you're having a nice conversation and they drop it on you. "I'm gonna open a retail store. I've been thinking about this for years." So what are you gonna tell that friend?

Roberta: Oh, I'm gonna tell that friend to, one, make sure they have a differentiation like what are you gonna do, truly that's going to make yourself different and, you know what, you're going to work really, really, really hard. You have to stay innovative and if you're not going to run the store, you better find people who are as passionate as you are to run that store and who care about customers like you do. That's what I tell them, and I would tell them to have about two years of operating capital behind them.

Bob: That's a great point to have the operating capital behind them because too many people I think open a store and think, "I'll be profitable and taking money out in five months, and I'll be able to still have my Lexus and I'll be able to go out, and eat like fancy places," and it just doesn't come that quick especially now. You've got [inaudible 00:15:15].

Roberta: No. You know they say that it's, you know, basically whenever you start anything it's at least three years. You know, that's always been the typical advice that I've given people. So, and I say it's anywhere between three and five years. Yeah, you'll start making some money in your first year, but really to get your concept down, to understand what you're doing, it takes time. It takes time for the consumer to find you, get to you, trust you, and there's a lot of clutter and a lot of conversation out there so breaking through is absolutely takes longer than it's ever taken.

Bob: Yeah. Good point. And how has the way you thought about retail changed in the past few years?

Roberta: Wow. So retail is where the consumer wants to get the product and they're gonna chose. So it used to be I believe that retailers said, "Here. You can get the product here and I'm going to have best and you can have it when I'm going to tell you how you can get it." And I'm telling you now the consumer walks with their feet and their fingertips, and they're gonna get it however they want to get it, whenever they want to get it and you aren't in control. So it makes doing business just that much more challenging because you have to be available where they want you. And that means in a lot of...I mean, we don't do Amazon, our own website, retail stores, we don't do all of that because it's not hard work. It's hard work but it's where the consumer wants to reach us.

Bob: That's an excellent point. 

Roberta: [inaudible 00:16:44] really changed.

Bob: And people say, "Oh, you know, I wouldn't be part of the Amazon Marketplace." It's like you're putting your head in the sand and saying, "I can't." You're always looking at new opportunities. I wouldn't be surprised if you're not looking at holograms or something on "The Happi House" or something. But, you know, because you're just that person it's like, "Well, let's go, it's just a conversation. Let's find out." Right?

Roberta: Exactly. And, you know, the reality is, people always say, "Oh, Amazon's killing us." I'm like, "Yeah, well either get in the game or just have one store and, you know, be the neighborhood store." But you know it's like, it's the devil you know or the devil you don't know and you probably need to be in the world's largest marketplace. Because that's what they are and I don't, you know, I don't see them changing that. In fact, you know, you've got Walmart stepping up behind them. You've got Target trying to run after Walmart. So yeah, the mass market is doing what they're doing, but they're putting every product that we sell out there also, because the vendors, you know, the sad part about Toys R Us going out of business is now the vendors need a marketplace to make their MOQs, right?

Bob: Absolutely.

Roberta: So it's a challenge. And so then you have to go, "Okay, if I can't...I can't sit there and go, "Waa, waa, waa. I gotta figure out how I'm gonna stay in the game."

Bob: Well, I think that's the key. And I think that's what impressed me when we met, whatever, 10-some years ago, you're just kind of always looking at, "Well, where's the next thing? Where do I want to be?" In fact I was finding myself thinking, "I'm speaking so much, I'm doing so much for sales, or actually I'm doing so much with consulting, oh, I got to pull back." And as soon as I heard myself say this like, "Where do I need to go? Podcast." And that's how I actually got to this place because people were saying, "You know, it's just finding other ways to consume you when I'm on the treadmill." Or, "I get your worldview. I just want to hear other people who are like you." And so that's what led us to have this conversation today so you know you never want to pull back. I think that's the key.

Roberta: You don't want to pull back, you know, you need to figure out where people are and they're everywhere. I mean, I got up this morning took a friend to the airport at 5 a.m. and I convinced myself I had to go work out. Right? And got there and I listen to books when I work out. Because quite frankly, when I get home I'm really tired and I start reading a book and I fall asleep while it's light. Well, I mean, I love Audible. I was listening to my book and thoroughly enjoying my workout and the time flew by because I get bored when I work out.

Bob: Yeah, I'm totally with you. Of course we're similar personality styles. We're both drivers. So I think that's...

Roberta: We are.

Bob: ...we need a point, if we're going to be doing something, what's the point of this?

Roberta: I know, exactly. Exactly, like, I'm driving going, "Do I want to wake up my husband and go out for breakfast? Or do I want to work out?" And I go, "You want to work out. You really do."

Bob: That's right. That's right. I love that. Well, when you feel overwhelmed or unfocused or maybe you lost your focus temporarily, I mean, what do you do or what questions do you ask yourself? You know. You're in a stressful position and I'm sure it's not always wonderful. What's your way to take care of yourself?

Roberta: I love to garden. I love to cook. I need quiet space to regenerate. So, you know, I'm an extrovert driver. But this extrovert driver needs to go internal. So I'll really pull back and I will spend hours in my gardens and I'll cook fabulous meals and entertain because it makes me get out of my head. Again that you have to always remember that head is a powerful thing. And then I also will just seek out you know there are a few like I love going to GlobalShop. It's one of my favorite places to go because I can hear other people who are really out there doing different things. I'm an information, I just suck it in. You know, whether it's a newspaper, a magazine, whether I'm walking other retail stores. I just have to be out and about. I have to see what's going on.

Bob: That makes a great point that everyone listening to. We're almost to the end. And of course, the one statement I always have to have in my podcast is, tell me something good about retail, Roberta.

Roberta: People are shopping. So quit listening to the internet is taking over the world, it's not. It's sharing the world. And people are still gonna walk into your brick and mortar stores, but you better be there ready to take care of them. Because actually, when they do, that's what they want.

Bob: Yeah, actually, and then ultimately you get to have that vicarious thrill of buying with them instead of feeling like you're doing something to them, you're actually selling with them. And I think that's what makes it wonderful.

Roberta: Exactly.

Bob: Well, you've been wonderful to share your time with us today and how can we find out more about Creative Kidstuff?

Roberta: You can go to creativekidstuff.com or you can watch "The Happi House." H-A-P-P-I H-O-U-S. You can find the blog out there and watch some fabulous episodes. So there's lots of way to reach out to Creative Kidstuff.

Bob: Of course, because you have to be everywhere where your consumers are.

Roberta: Exactly.

Bob: So thanks for your time.

Roberta: Thank you, Bob. Big hugs.


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