Trouble In Toyland

Can a mom-and-daughter shop on New York's Upper West Side compete with a superstore? Fun and games, it isn't

Why isn't life more like the movies? You might remember last year's flick You've Got Mail. An oh-so-fetching Meg Ryan plays the hapless owner of a homey children's book shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side that's threatened by the arrival of a giant chain. Sure, she loses her precious store, after her customers and even her employees flee to the enemy, but in the end, she falls in love with the chain's owner (Tom Hanks), who, it turns out, is not such an evil troll after all.

In the real world, many small retailers have fought--and lost--this brutal battle against the superstores. Yet it's particularly ironic to Alice Bergman, 63, and her daughter Jennifer, 32, that a number of scenes for the movie were shot right around the corner from their charming Amsterdam Avenue toy store, West Side Kids. Now, as the crucial holiday shopping season approaches, Alice and Jennifer are watching with dismay as life imitates art. But as you'll see, they refuse to be passive actors.

On June 9--the same day Alice and Jenny cheerfully opened a second store down the block specializing in kids' accessories and furniture--Noodle Kidoodle, a publicly traded toy chain with 56 outlets and $108 million in sales last year, landed on nearby Broadway like King Kong descending on Manhattan. Nothing has been the same since.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, a little competition never scared Alice, who taught school to inner-city kids in Brooklyn and raised two children of her own before opening West Side Kids in 1981. Even before Noodle Kidoodle's arrival, she competed with more than a half-dozen nearby toy stores. "I've never been in trouble. I've never overbought. I never bought anything just because it was a fad," says Alice. She actually quit selling Beanie Babies shortly after witnessing an adult collector greedily snatch a Beanie from a child's hand.

Evidently, Alice was doing something right. Her store's sales have grown steadily--an average of 20% annually, to about $1.5 million last year. "I'm buying toys for the neighborhood that I live in," she says. "I'm talking to my customers every day."

I'll admit, I frequently shopped at West Side Kids, but I was also among the hordes checking out the competition, which stocks similar creative and learning-oriented toys. "You can fit four elephants inside Noodle Kidoodle," my 7-year-old daughter declares. In adult terms, West Side Kids is about 1,500 square feet--roughly a quarter the size of Noodle Kidoodle.

Since the June arrival of the Syosset, N.Y.,-based chain, monthly sales at West Side Kids have been down, on average, about 25% from last year. The chain's fall catalog lists a number of items for 20% less than West Side Kids--an embarrassment to Jenny, who has a master's degree in art history and joined Alice full-time four years ago. She says she feels a constant pressure to make everything perfect--her staff, her selection, her prices. "You have your days when you want to fight harder, and you have your days when you want to move to Hawaii," she says.

Alice has her shaky days, too, but on this day, at least, she's fighting mad: "I've worked awfully hard to get to where I am, and I'm not going to hand it to them on a silver platter," she says. One day, she and her daughter chased away a recruiter from Noodle Kidoodle who was trying to hire their employees.

Recently, mother and daughter appealed to West Siders by mail. They stressed their superior service and offered to match prices. At first, says Jenny: "I was really, really disappointed in our customers. A store like ours wasn't as important to people as I thought it was. I was pretty angry. Then we mailed the letter, and people responded nicely, and my attitude has really come around."

So far, they've had to match prices about a dozen times, but they certainly can't afford to do it indefinitely. And it's unclear if they'll lure back enough customers just by providing more personalized service or appealing to some higher sense of duty. "If we're here a year from now, we'll be here five years from now," says Alice.

If this were a movie, the violins would swell to a hopeful crescendo about now. In real life, even at Christmas, optimism is harder to come by. This season, Jenny and Alice will discover whether they can make their own happy ending.

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