Wes Gardner, owner of Teton Toys in Lehi, credits his business success to Legos.
“I’m a Lego freak. I asked for Legos for every birthday and Christmas from when I was age 5 to 20,” he said. “If anyone got me anything else, I’d look at them like, ‘Why are you giving me this?’”
The confidence and competence he learned while throwing Legos out on the floor, building something that was just a concept or design in his head, is important to him. It’s also a type of play that can shape the dreamers of tomorrow.
“To create something in your own mind, and then build it in three dimensions, that is such a power. That is so cool,” Gardner said. “I built every shelf here, I had a vision for this store, because of Lego.”
The “here” Gardner is referring to is his new 6,300 square foot, natural light-infused Teton Toys specialty store that sits at the border of American Fork and Lehi, just across State Street from Lowe’s. Of course, the store, which opened in November, features an impressive collection of Legos on this side of the Point of the Mountain. In fact, Teton Toys carries everything regular Lego Stores carry — except for special edition toys and the Pick-A-Brick option, two things possessively unique to Lego Stores.
But Legos are only the start. Teton Toys carries all the regular toy brands, like Mattel and Hasbro, but also the more unique brands, like Playmobil, Melissa & Doug, Groovy Girls and Brio. And if there’s a toy a customer wants but can’t find, Gardner’s team can hunt it down.
“My goal is, every time you turn a corner, something new is there, something that makes you say, ‘Wow, look at this,’” Gardner said. “My focus has been to match the store inventory as closely as possible with the interests of my customers. I take my cues from my shoppers when deciding what to order for the store.”
To that end, his store is not stocked and maintained like other department stores. He wants customers to feel like they are at home, just with a really big closet of toys. Wandering through the store is more an experience, a place to get lost in for a bit, to revisit old favorites and introduce them to a new generation of children. The 20-foot ceiling is painted to resemble a sky scene, and the pastel tones and hues on the walls suggest a relaxing atmosphere. In one corner of the store, Gardner set up a play area, so toddlers can come and play for free, and their parents can relax on the couches and catch a breather during errand-running.
Gardner sees stores like Target and Walmart as his chief competitors, and has set his prices accordingly. That said, he’s not as low as Walmart and can’t be. He may not be as low as what might be online, but he’s not much higher, he watches the toy market closely and he sets his prices accordingly.
“Every single one of the price tags is me making a conscious choice,” he said.
Customers don’t have to search the aisles for help either, as is often the case in department stores. His employees come to work excited to interact with kids, big and small, helping them find just the right doll, model, action figure, science kit, or dress-up outfit.
“I’m kinda a big kid myself, so I can relate to kids and their parents,” said Quinn Gardner, manager of Teton Toys. “Getting to interact with people is something I’m passionate about.”
Assistant manager Harley Marshall feels the same.
“I’m really interested in all toys, and I’m a people person, so I love being able to suggest toys. We have stuff Toys “R” Us doesn’t have. We have a lot more unique products,” Marshall said.
Gardner himself is no newbie to the toy scene either. At 37, he’s worked in retail for most of the past 20 years, and the Lehi store is actually the second under the Teton Toys brand. He started the first Teton Toys store in 2010, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. That store has become a destination point for world-traveling tourists, and a highly successful income source for him. So much so that when they heard he was going to take the risk to open a second store, friends in Wyoming thought he was crazy to give up the peace of the steady income and a smooth business situation.
“I don’t know what it is about me, but immediately, once I felt comfortable, it felt uncomfortable for me,” Gardner said.
So Gardner started looking for a second site to open another store.
“In Jackson, I heard thousands of times kids saying they saved their money because they knew they were coming there, and wishing they had a store in their hometown,” Gardner said.
So why Lehi, and why in a place with so much competition?
Gardner said he looked around at other states, at other locations, but they didn’t feel right.
“This is the best spot for in the country for me to open my second store. Northern Utah County is a mecca for families,” he said.
That said, it has not been an easy few months. If he had to do it again, he said he wouldn’t open in November but time his opening earlier in the shopping season. Interest in the Lehi store is still slowly growing, and he’s had to cut payroll, employees and other expenses. Without the success of the Jackson store, this one would have floundered already. But his expectations for the store are “phenomenally high,” because he believes there isn’t this unique type of specialty toy store in the county yet.
He even feels a bit like a pioneer, because he’s trying to bring back the specialty stores of another era.
“I’m trying to take advantage the whiplash against big box stores. But this is a lot of stress. Sometimes it feels like there’s a reason others aren’t doing this. But my goal is to continue this adventure, if I’m right,” he said.
For Gardner, his Legos of yesteryear challenged and stretched him, and owning a toy store is no different. He’s worked an exhausting amount of hours on the Lehi store, often going more than 36 hours without sleep. But it’s been worth it, and he hopes it will continue to be of worth to toy-lovers of Utah County.
“My growth as a person, as a business person has been phenomenal. I never in a million years thought I’d learn what I’ve learned in the last three months. I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he said.
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