Coronado Geppetto’s Toy Store Celebrates First Anniversary - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Home And Business

Coronado Geppetto’s Toy Store Celebrates First Anniversary

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Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2019 10:34 am

If you are walking in the immediate vicinity of 1146 Orange Avenue and want to experience a fun place to spend several minutes, pop into the Geppetto’s Toy store, which celebrates its first anniversary this weekend. The Coronado location is Geppetto’s owner and President Brian Miller’s 10th store, all located in San Diego County. And as we’ll soon discover, the chain has historic links to Coronado.

As a disclaimer, my wife Sharon Axelson, often referred to as ‘The Better Half’ when we collaborate on restaurant reviews for this publication, is the manager of Geppetto’s Coronado location.

Miller was born in Toledo, Ohio and moved with his family to the San Diego area at the age of 11. The son of Hadley and Carol Miller, Brian graduated from Patrick Henry High School, in the era when the high school was one of the largest in San Diego County. “We had 1,000 students per grade,” Miller recalled. “I won the Donald Giddings Leadership Award, which is presented to one male and one female student each year. I was a good student in high school and earned several scholarships and lots of community service awards.”

After graduation, Miller matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania with a clear goal in mind. “I wanted to study business at the Wharton School, and there aren’t that many undergraduate business programs. I was lucky to get in and it was a great experience.” Miller graduated with a BS in Economics and Marketing, with his field of study including business management, marketing and related support services.

That in turn led to a two-year stint with Urban Outfitters, headquartered in Philadelphia. “I worked with them before they went public and they had 11 stores,” Miller explained. “I traveled around the East Coast, from Philadelphia to Boston and New York. I worked in store operations and oversight and I was in charge of policies and procedures, plus I helped them do store openings. I was there when the first Anthropologie store opened. They believed in slow growth and they opened maybe three to five stores in that period. It was a fantastic company to work for.”

Hadley and Carol Miller owned a few retail shops through the years, in and around San Diego, and had two stores in the Hotel Del Coronado, when Hadley died unexpectedly. Brian took a leave of absence from Urban Outfitters and returned to San Diego to help with the family business, which included Victorian Corner, an antiques and gift store and Children’s World a small toy store. Brian Miller said, “I liked being back here so much, I decided to stay. Urban Outfitters said I could come back within six months and still be welcome.”

Retail sales was ingrained in Brian from an early age. “As a child, I worked in my parent’s antique stores. I just thought I would work for a larger company. In 1992 when I came back, Children’s World was a 300 square foot store and it wasn’t doing well. I helped turn it around and in the first six months we doubled sales and we doubled sales again in a year. I thought, ‘This could be something.’ I decide to open a second store. The funny thing was there was Geppetto’s Toy Store in Old Town, which was owned by our next door neighbor when I was a child. I took it over and increased the sales pretty dramatically. After that, every two or three years we would open another store and there are 10 stores now. We have a combination of new locations we have opened and other locations we have purchased. And we have signed a lease for an 11th store, which will open in The Watermark in Scripps Ranch, which is being developed by Sudberry Properties. It’s breaking ground in 60 days and should be open in 2020.”

So what is the secret to Miller’s retail success, which has created the nation’s largest regional toy store chain? “My management style is very hands-on,” Miller explained. “I visit every story every week and the other part is the merchandise. I curate the assortment and touch every piece and play with every toy before we bring it into the stores. I want to do the customer’s work first and find the best of the best toys for kids. I interview every employee we hire, and I know the names of all of our 100 employees.”

Miller estimates that over the course of one year, he will work with 300 different vendors. “Some are big like Lego and there are some where I will literally buy one great toy. I go to the New York International Toy Fair in February each year, which is held at the Javits Center. In New York you see everything from the latest Barbie to something unique or a one-off toy that a company is bringing to market. It’s hard work. It’s a five-day event which includes 10 hours each day of looking and touching toys. In addition I go to six other shows. Some of the shows are specialized, with baby products and some are gift oriented. Three of the shows are specifically for toys. You have to narrow down the assortment of toys for quality and the size of our stores.”

Miller’s method of toy testing carries over to the Geppetto’s locations for customers. “Being in our stores is a fun experience. We want people to touch and pick up toys. One thing I would never do is order a stuffed animal out of a catalogue. There is no such thing as a sealed box in our stores. We’ll open the box and show you the toy. We have lots of things for people to experience.”

Perhaps the greatest marketing touch at Geppetto’s is free gift wrapping, making a visit to the store a complete experience. While acknowledging the popularity of the free gift wrapping, Miller said, “It’s funny, I can’t take credit for that. My parents did that in all of their stores, always. The gift wrapping definitely distinguishes us from other stores. If you are on your way to a party, you can pick up a gift and go. I can’t take credit for it, but we definitely capitalize on it.”

Miller explained his return to the Coronado market. “I always loved Coronado and I never would have left the Hotel Del if there hadn’t been management changes. I always wanted to come back, but I wanted the perfect location. Mary Ann Berta had a store in our current location, and she made the introduction to the landlord. The block is well-traveled, and I just wish the store was bigger. Coronado is our smallest store by square footage. All of our staff are from Coronado, all local people who are known in the community. The building itself is historic, which is neat. The challenge is, it’s a small store. As an example, our Del Mar store is three to four times the size of Coronado. I have to really pick out the best of the best toys to have in our Coronado store.”

When asked what surprised him about the Coronado location in its first year of operation, Miller responded, “I knew it was a wonderful neighborhood. What I didn’t anticipate was how often our frequent shoppers would come to the store. They come very, very frequently, often once or twice a week. Some of our stores are in neighborhoods and some are in malls. Coronado is such a tight community and it is different than our other neighborhood stores.”

Miller’s eyes light up when he discusses toys, and he discussed some favorite items plus his overall philosophy. “Our biggest seller in Coronado now is the Jelly Cat, which is an English design brand of plush toys and the bunnies are incredible. That’s currently our best seller, but that will change after Easter. Unicorns are still big, and sloths are creeping up. There is always one stuffed animal that is the animal of the year. There has been an age compression in the toy buying market. Before the advent of electronic toys, traditional toys played well into kids’ teens. There needs to be a balance with screen (electronic) toys and traditional toys. That does make us unique, you can’t buy a video game at Geppetto’s. That’s not our niche.”

Miller and his wife Danielle have two sons, with the elder son Nathan a freshman at Brandeis University majoring in business, and son Jared a freshman at High Tech High in Point Loma. Danielle works in Geppetto’s home office in La Jolla, handling payroll and other administrative functions for the family-owned firm. Asked if there is a chance either or both of their sons would join the company Miller said, “From my side, I would love it. They both have worked quite a bit in the stores. My dream would be for them to come work with me, but we’ll see if that happens down the road.”

Geppetto’s and Miller are heavily involved in charitable work, including support of Rady Children’s Hospital. “We try to support many different non-profits. I have been on the board of several. We have partnered with the Coronado Rady’s Auxiliary chapter on many different events. We had a fun event with Rady’s in May, when we had a child push a grocery cart through the store and fill it with toys. We donate to groups which assist with kids and education. I was on the board of the Words Alive literacy group and we donate toys to hundreds of schools and non-profits, as long as they focus on children.”

Miller is obviously happy with his return to Coronado and there seems to be a reciprocal feeling among locals. “Coronado has given us a great reception. Even when we were remodeling the store, people would stop in and say how great it is that the store is back. We have received praise from local customers who remembered us. Some of them were children before when we had Children’s World in the Hotel Del, and now some of them have children of their own. It’s nice to be back and in a comfortable place to do business.”

Geppetto’s, located at 1146 Orange Avenue is open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Coronado store can be reached by phone at 619-522-0918.

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