Milestone: Marvin’s in Barrington

It’s a good indicator a business is thriving when it announces an expansion. All signs look positive, then, for the mother-daughter duo behind Marvin’s Toy Store. They’ve recently opened a second location in downtown Barrington, at 100 E. Station St., Unit 155.

For the past six-and-a-half years, Marvin’s has been reaching families from its home at 64A N. Williams St., in downtown Crystal Lake, and over the past two years with a “Mini Marvin’s” inside Read Between the Lynes, on the Woodstock Square. The new store in Barrington carries on the same values shoppers have come to love about this home-grown toy store.

“Now that we’ve become a solid contributor to the community, we just want to do more,” says Lori McConville, co-owner with her daughter, Kate. “We picked Barrington because of the values here – healthy, environmentally conscious values, and it’s family oriented. Barrington is a community that gives back, and that is what we’re all about.”

The McConvilles landed in Barrington after knowing for some time they wanted to reach a new market, especially one that had a strong and growing downtown business district. They researched at least seven communities over the course of two years before settling on Barrington.

“The citizens of Barrington are involved in their community, and they appreciate exceptional quality and unique products,” Lori says. “The downtown businesses are showing signs of growth in a way that incorporates social awareness, and a business ethic that incorporates environmental sustainability. These are the principles of our business. We want to be in a community that shares similar values.”

Shopping in small, independent stores is an experience, and Kate and Lori enhance the setting with their knowledge of toys store and the companies that produce them. It also helps that Barrington has a high average income level. This gives the McConvilles a chance to introduce higher-end toys from emerging inventors. Such items often come with a higher price tag that attracts a “more adventurous buyer,” says Lori. However, it’s not just the quality of the product, but also the service, that Barrington residents place a premium on.

“Shoppers of small businesses want some extra things to help them get what they want. Presentation is important,” explains Lori. “So, we offer complimentary gift wrapping and call-ahead service for birthdays and gifts.”

Since opening the new store this past December, Lori and Kate find they’ve received an overwhelmingly positive reception, even with the challenges of entering a new market where not many residents know you yet. They’ve seen multiple repeat customers.

“We feel very welcomed,” Lori says. “I’ve started to meet other business owners, and I’ve attended a couple of meetings. I’m getting to know the neighbors, and they’ve been very welcoming.”

It’s the same sort of positive experience Lori and Kate received back in 2013 when they opened their original store in downtown Crystal Lake. Working as a kindergarten teacher, Lori often overheard parents sharing how they wanted toys that were made from more natural materials. It was a message that clicked, because at the time, Kate was a young parent facing her own struggles in finding appropriate toys and games.

“When my son was little, there was no toy store around except for Toys “R” Us and the big-box stores,” says Kate. “I was a young, single mom and didn’t have a lot of money. I wanted him to have good, substantial toys that were high-quality and would last, but that was hard to find.”

Inspired by that original idea, Lori and Kate established nine main criteria for their inventory, all focused on environmental consciousness, social responsibility, active play and responsible manufacturing. Individual brands and products you’ll find in the store typically conform to one or more of these categories. They intentionally look for products made in America – and Illinois, where possible.

“It keeps us defined and keeps us from going crazy into the toy world,” says Lori. “You can get lured into other things that maybe are not as great for children or the environment. Together, we make decisions based on those boundaries.”

As a general rule, they try to avoid toys filled with electronics, instead preferring items that excite and challenge young minds. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by their youngest customers.

“There was a little boy who came in the other day,” Lori says. “He walked through the door and said, ‘Ah, I’m home.’ That made us feel like we have created something special here.”

It’s not unusual for children to share their feelings about what’s inside the store. The McConvilles listen closely for the cues. Periodically, Lori and Kate will host what they call “Toy Testers.” Children are invited to the store to give their opinions on a new product. One time, the group was asked to evaluate an electric circuit-building toy that had flying components and encouraged creative construction.

“The kids just forgot we were there,” Lori says. “They were playing and, without even saying anything, they told us how much they loved the toy. To see kids interact like that and really dive into their imagination, right in front of us, is amazing.”

From time to time, the pair also host fun events that further excite young minds. Activities like rock painting, yoga in the park, race car building and experiences, even a visit from a real-life sloth – these help to personalize the experience and set Marvin’s apart from big-box competitors. Overall, personal attention is a major competitive differentiator, Kate says.

“You come here and you can see what kind of toy it is,” explains Kate. “If you shop on Amazon, you’re clicking a button and it’s delivered quickly. But, you don’t know what you’re getting. If you buy a game here, we can tell you how to play the game. We can show you how to make the art. The kids can come here and touch and feel the blocks, the baby doll or plush animals. It’s a very knowledgeable place to come and shop.”

Further enhancing that experience, Kate says, is the fact that team members aren’t trained on how to sell. Rather, they’re trained to talk about products and help children find things appropriate for their growth, development and interests.

“Why is this game good for your 4-year-old? Maybe you don’t want that game you’re holding,” says Kate. “Maybe it’s not the best choice, and here’s why. It’s more of a discussion we go through, as opposed to just selling. All of our staff know how to do that.”

Knowing where your customers are and how to reach them is just one key to success.

“We want to meet the children where they are in their development, whether it’s a physical, emotional or intellectual need,” says Lori. “We want to have something here for every child. We want to make sure that it is fun and educational. And it has to be fun for us, as well.”