Guided by a vision to sell meaningful, long-lasting toys that truly encourage a child’s development, this mother-daughter duo have staked a strong position in a rapidly changing marketplace.
Five years ago, Lori McConville took a huge leap of faith. She left the education field and ventured into the business world, opening Marvin’s Toy Store at 64A N. Williams St., in downtown Crystal Lake.
Opening a new business wasn’t the scary part. “My interest was in education, but I had a significant business background,” she says.
The challenge was finding a place in the competitive toy store world – carving a specialized niche. It was from listening to peers and colleagues that she found that niche: a specialized toy store that marries a unique inventory with a unique shopping experience. And five years later, it has grown to the point where McConville and her daughter Kate – who serve as co-owners and operators – are into plans for expansion.
“It is much more than we ever expected,” Lori says. “It’s become a special place in the community. The response has been overwhelming. We’ve grown faster than we ever expected, and we’re having trouble keeping up. But we’re up for the challenge, because it’s really enjoyable to spend our days with kids and families.
“Right now, we’re hoping to increase the size of the store so we can be ready for the Christmas season,” she adds.
The McConvilles believe their success was born from their understanding of what parents and children alike want in a toy – and more specifically, a quality toy.
“Parents want something good for their kids to play with,” Lori says. “They want a toy that promotes imaginative play and contributes to healthy development.”
That’s what Lori and Kate wanted, too. But that was only the start. There are plenty of toys on the shelves of big-box stores, but how many challenge their thinking? The McConvilles have chosen to look deeper into every item they put on their shelves.
“We’re looking at social awareness,” Lori says. “We want to do business with companies that are sensitive to the environment and care about their employees. We want to make sure the people making the product are treated well.”
That social conscience led to a list of criteria that the mother-daughter duo stick to when evaluating whether a new toy will find a home on their shelves.
The first item is “Play Value,” meaning how much enjoyment or education a child will get from playing with the toy.
Second is durability and whether it can stand the test of time.
And third is how the toy fits within nine categories:
1. Is it planet-friendly: Crafted by companies that teach sustainability, reduce our environmental footprint and/or are certified eco-friendly?
2. Is it built by companies that practice socially responsible labor/manufacturing practices?
3. Is it made with certified organic material?
4. Does it follow the Fair Trade guidelines for equal opportunity manufacturing and trade?
5. Is it designed for active up-and-moving play either indoors or outdoors?
6. Is there recycled or reused material in the toy or the packaging?
7. Is it crafted or founded by parents or companies that are family-owned/operated?
8. Is it made in the United States?
9. Is it made with all-natural materials?
“We do research on all of this, which makes us unique,” says Lori, who adds that 80 percent of Marvin’s inventory falls under one or more of the nine categories. “Sometimes, when we go to trade shows and other places to look at new toys, we’re the only ones in the room asking these types of questions.”
This type of daily research is very time-consuming. Kate found that out early.
“It had initially started out that I was just going to help my mom,” says Kate, who originally had a full-time government job working in a county program that promoted nutrition for babies, moms and children. “But as I was helping, I realized that it was taking up all of my time. I decided either I do it 100 percent or not do it at all.”
So she left her job and dove headfirst into the business.
It wasn’t just about helping her mom. Kate had a young son at home, and she was equally hungry for more quality toys he could play with. The people she knew and worked with felt the same.
“I was working with other young moms, and no matter where they slotted economically or socially, they all wanted the same thing: toys that were good for their kids,” she says.
Two examples of the more unique toys at Marvin’s are Lux Blox and Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty.
Lux Blox falls into the building category. Not quite like a Lego block, this product looks more like plastic molecules that interconnect, combining to form things that can bend, fold and roll, truly challenging a child’s imagination and laying a foundation for engineering.
“It hits everything we’re trying to do,” Lori says.
Crazy Aaron’s is a collection of different putties, including one that glows in the dark, one that has translucent colors, one that is magnetic and one that changes colors with the temperature.
But while the vast majority of toys found at Marvin’s are unique, there are some familiar items, too.
“We have recognizable names like Rubik’s Cube, Simon and Spyrograph,” Lori says.
Even those more-common toys follow the Marvin’s theme of getting kids to develop skills and use their own imagination to learn and create.
“With these toys, they’re not just pushing buttons on a screen or a video game controller,” Kate says. “They are creating things and expressing themselves.
“We don’t deny that technology is a big part of what kids need to grow up, but it’s not the only part,” she adds. “They need to get back to playing on the floor with blocks, and dolls and science experiments.”
And that has been another secret to Marvin’s success: allowing customers to get on the floor and test the toys before purchasing them.
“We have lots of areas in the store with things like trains and blocks,” Kate says. “And we can open just about anything so parents can see what’s in the box and feel the quality. Ninety percent of what’s in the store we can show parents, including game demos.”
Employees are encouraged to play with games and other toys in the store, to help them promote products and share with customers.
“We know a lot about our products and we can make personal recommendations,” says Kate. “We can tell you where they come from and how they fit into your child’s development.”
Adds Lori: “When people come here, they are also looking for an experience.”
While the McConvilles are looking to expand their current store, they’ve already branched out with Mini Marvin’s, located inside Read Between the Lynes, in the Woodstock Square.
“It’s a smaller version with a smaller selection,” Lori says. “At Mini Marvin’s it’s mostly games and crafts, with some novelty things. It’s not a duplicate of the main store, but it’s certainly part of our selection.”
And it’s also a part of the underlying theme that founded the five-year success of Marvin’s Toys.
“It’s our job as grownups to show kids the options in life,” Lori says, “and the best thing we can do is go outside and play catch, play a game or make something with them. Just spend time together.”