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The Owl, the Octopus, and Me

Friday, December 20, 2019
samantha hubbard in her store with the logo

Alumna opens unique brick-and-mortar toy store amid age of online shopping

by Molly Bruni

Samantha Hubbard ’91 picked up a part-time job at a local specialty toy store and, as she says, “found [her] bliss.” Eight years later, she opened The Owl and the Octopus in Wayzata, Minn., focusing on specialty toy brands that are hard to find in big box stores. 

The mascots of her store—and the store’s namesake—represent the spirit of imagination and learning that exists within every child. Olivia the Owl is curious and loves to learn, while Oswald the Octopus loves to play and use his imagination. Together, they remind us how a thirst for knowledge can coexist with a playful imagination, and how the two may actually rely on each other to truly thrive.

“By playing these two characters off of each other, we are able to show how kids can Play to Learn (Oswald) and Learn to Play (Olivia), and everyone can have fun,” Hubbard says.

Hubbard is celebrating her first anniversary with The Owl and the Octopus. She talked with Trinity about her friends Oswald and Olivia, her focus away from mass market products, and competing for customers in the era of online shopping. 

toy store and inside of toy store

Your store is known for unique toys. How do you pick what toys to sell? 

I am often accused of only getting toys I like, and I'm often heard squealing as I look through catalogs. But, my first task is to find good quality toy brands that people are not going to find in the big box stores. I can't pinpoint how I know what to get, but in this first year I have relied on my vendors to guide me if they felt I was really off the mark and advise on the latest trends. It's a fun process, but it requires keeping up with trade magazines, watching kids YouTube, and listening to what kids and parents are asking you for when they come into the store.

More and more traffic is moving online for toy sales—how do you keep a storefront open in the midst of the Amazon Prime era? 

Some interesting studies have indicated the millennial generation is not as interested in purchasing everything online, particularly toys. They like being able to go into stores to see what they are getting, to touch and feel the quality of the product. 

One of the reasons toys like slime and putty are such a massive trend right now is because of the millennial generation having tech put in their hands as kids, instead of toys. This generation missed out on tactile play, and they are craving it as they age. If toddlers are any indication of brick and mortar vs. Amazon, brick and mortar wins everytime. I don't have a week where a child doesn't come in and say, "This is the best store I have ever been in," or "This is my most favorite store, ever.”

Specialty toy stores cannot compete with Amazon or even Target when it comes to things like Legos, Barbie, and the mass market licenced products. I personally just don't sell those items—either the buy-in is too high or I'm purchasing at the cost that Amazon is selling at. People are going to come to me for the specialized brands like JellyCat plush, Ravenburger puzzles, Janod toys, Djeco crafts, or Micro Scooters. A lot of my customers also feel very strongly about supporting a local store and want to make sure they keep these types of shopping experiences available and in existence.

Describe the moment when a child discovers the perfect toy.

My favorite moment was a 6 year old boy who was shopping for a birthday present for his best friend. The store is 2,300 square feet, and we have everything from games, puzzles, and outdoor fun, to arts and crafts. But he locked in on the self-inflating whoopee cushion, and the look and smile that spread across his face indicated that nothing was going to be better than this. He grabbed the whoopee cushion and hugged it until mom was ready to check out. I wrapped it up for the birthday, and when I handed it back, he was the happiest kid I had ever seen. I knew he could not wait to get to that party and have his friend open that gift. This is how I want every child to leave the store.