Being able to interact regularly with shoppers helps independent toy retailers develop relationships that keep consumers coming back, shop owners said.

At 20-year-old Mumbles and Squeaks, parents who shopped at the store as children now bring their own kids, Williams said. Customers end up helping to shape the store's selection.

"We have a strong, critical nucleus of customers," Williams said. "We get to know them. We get a lot of good feedback from moms. We have a great give-and-take with the customers."

Besides that feedback, Williams and co-owner Frank DiPietro also spend a week each year at an international toy show, "looking at thousands and thousands of vendors and toys," Williams said.

"Every year, there are challenges," he said. "With online shopping … we can compete with price, but we have to collect sales tax, so it's an unfair playing field. Toys "R" Us is not a competitor because they're mass-market, with Mattel and Barbie and things we don't do. What has become the competition is the bookstores. There are now full-blown toy sections copying the specialty toy market," in places such as Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.

The shop, which is spread out over four rooms on two floors on Ellicott City's Main Street, competes by focusing on quality, customer service and "trying to stay cutting-edge," Williams said.

"You depend on some of the very, very reputable companies like Playmobil," he said. "We carry almost the entire line. It's an awesome product, and they continually crank out some of the best [toys]."

Independent toy stores may also be in luck this year, when no single "hot" toy has yet emerged. Instead, one of the fastest-growing categories has been building sets of all types, followed by dolls, said Appell of the toy industry association.

"Obviously, a classic toy is still here, and it's still here to stay," she said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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