Janesville resident Linda Monaghan arrived Saturday at the kickoff of Blain’s Farm & Fleet’s annual Toyland holiday toy section before the sunrise had begun to redden the horizon.
It was 6:25 a.m., and a line of about 100 shoppers already had gathered in the Janesville store’s front vestibule. They drank coffee, chatted and looked through the store’s flyer as they waited for the doors to unlock at 6:55 a.m. They’d get first crack at filling their children’s and grandchildren’s holiday gift lists.
Monaghan and her daughter Stacey Starks were the first in line to get in the store. What time did they arrive?
“Ah, no. Not telling you. That’s a trade secret,” Monaghan said, smiling.
It was the 35th year in a row Monaghan camped outside the Farm & Fleet store off Humes Road, waiting for the gates to open on Toyland’s official first day. And it’s the 60th year Farm & Fleet has launched Toyland—a special, company wide retail section in the store that annually opens weeks ahead of many other retailers’ Black Friday and holiday sales push.
Monaghan also camps up outside local retailers in the wee hours after Thanksgiving to get first dips for Black Friday sales. She said such shopping events, including the annual opening of Toyland, once drew larger crowds.
Monaghan remembers the halcyon days of holiday retail sales events of a decade (or more) past: People racing carts into stores at first light, customers tossing toys over the aisles to friends who wanted the make sure they snapped up the last of the latest, red-hot gadgets of that year’s holiday season. Monaghan remembers lining up outside retail stores in the 1980s for annual fights over Cabbage Patch dolls.
In those days, she said, retailers would cache their stock of Cabbage Patch dolls in the rear store room and bring out two sample dolls for those in line to choose from. The strategy was to limit sales to one or two dolls per person, which helped avoid arguments or fisticuffs.
It’s not news the retail game is now different.
“It’s changed. In the earlier years of sales like Toyland, there weren’t the same shopping options in town. The other big thing is there wasn’t Amazon and all the online shopping,” Monaghan said.
“It used to be that you prepared four hours ahead of time on a shopping plan. You rushed to be first to the toy store, and you rushed to get through the first aisle and get what you needed because when you got to the second aisle, you knew the crowds would have cleaned it out,” she said.
Farm & Fleet launches Toyland 10 weeks ahead of Christmas, which makes it among the first retailers locally to vie for holiday spending.
Farm & Fleet in a press release this week said it continues the tradition in began in Janesville in 1957 and has since broadened to all its stores as an effort to spread holiday shopping over a longer period and bring toy deals to its local consumers early, perhaps out front of other retailers.
That’s in addition to pairing it with holiday shopping events, such as a tire sale running in tandem to Toyland’s opening.
It’s one example of a retailer sticking to its guns in the face of stiff and growing competition by online sellers such as Amazon.
Monaghan said she continues to turn out for Toyland’s opening day because the store has often provided some of the hottest prices for toys. But perhaps the leading reason she returns year after year is simpler: tradition.
Stacey Starks remembers her first toy, a baby doll she got when she was 2 years old. The doll, which she named Sari, came from Farm & Fleet’s Toyland. Starks is grown with a family of her own, but she still owns Sari.
And she still joins her mother every year to shop the Toyland kickoff.
Stark’s siblings don’t join in, and she said at least one of them shops for holiday gifts exclusively online.
“This is what I still do, though. I get out of the living room. It’s the experience, the excitement and the tradition of it,” Starks said.
Brick-and-mortar retailers such as Farm & Fleet might hope to continue to bottle the impulses of shoppers such as Starks, and the traditional store strategies of pushing holiday sales through advertised sales events might continue to pay off, even as online sales continue to exert pressure.
The National Retail Federation predicted in a report earlier this month that retail spending could increase 3.6 percent to 4 percent during 2017’s holiday shopping season for a projected national total of $682 billion. The totals exclude restaurant and auto sales.
Retailers are expected to add up to 550,000 new, seasonal jobs, the National Retail Federation estimates.
Meanwhile, online sales are expected to increase 18 percent to 21 percent this holiday season, peaking as high as $114 billion, according to estimates by Deloitte, a retail and wholesale analyst.
The group’s early estimates cite a continued resurgence of consumer confidence and a livelier overall economy.
At Farm & Fleet, about 130 people made up the initial surge when Toyland opened early Saturday, store manager Nicholas Shores said. Shores watched as customers bobbed and weaved through aisles marked with signs of familiar brands such as Hot Wheels and Fischer Price.
They loaded their carts with Lego toy sets, Disney character dolls, toy power tools and other items. One woman had an armload of seven large Marvel Comics superhero figures.
Soon enough, the checkout lines were rolling.
“I need a latte,” a female checkout clerk said.
She was smiling, and the shelves were clearing of toys.