Groton - For Lisa and Peter Marcus, revamping the Lee's Toy & Hobby website a little more than a year ago has made all the difference in an industry where small, independent shops have been on the wane for years.
"It's the difference between going out of business and staying in business," said Peter Marcus, third-generation owner of a Poquonnock Avenue store that traces its roots to the original 1952 shop on Bank Street in New London.
"It's added business," Lisa Marcus said. "It's kept us successful during these economic times."
It's not so much that online buying has become a major portion of the business - it accounts for only about 5 percent of sales, according to the Marcuses - but having a strong online presence has led to more foot traffic.
"Our Internet site has started driving brick and mortar sales," Lisa Marcus said in a written statement. "People are walking in with lists their children already compiled. The site is also serving grandparents searching for items and collectors seeking discontinued toys."
Marcus added that summer visitors can scope out offerings online before entering the store. The site averages about 100 visitors a day, the Marcuses said.
"The site is an advertising tool," Lisa Marcus said.
Her husband, a self-described "old-fashioned guy," was a bit skeptical at first about spending significant money to design a new website. But he has to admit it has paid dividends.
"I fought her on it for two years," Marcus said. "I finally (agreed) we need to take the store to the next level."
Starting from scratch, the Marcuses have about 6,000 items posted online. And they are taking aim at reaching the 10,000-item plateau in the coming months.
Along with placing the store's items online, the Marcuses are investing in a new point-of-sale system that can coordinate sales and inventory, ensuring that customers never leave the store disappointed because a product is out of stock. The store runs on a 1950s-era system in which stickers taken from sold items are laboriously entered by hand to keep track of inventory.
"It's a daunting task," Marcus said. "Keeping up with the inventory is the hardest part of maintaining an online store."
And, in the toy and hobby business (hobbies now account for about 70 percent of sales), products change regularly. But Lee's Toy & Hobby has kept it simple by focusing on classic toys that never go out of style - such as Playmobil, Lego and radio-controlled vehicles - while developing a niche in snatching up soon-to-be discontinued items that have a loyal following.
The online store has been instrumental in moving such discontinued items as Madame Alexander dolls. Online orders have come from as far away as Australia and Spain, but the Marcuses' focus has remained local.
"I think we're fortunate," Marcus said, remarking on the resiliency of his business. "When the economy is going down ... we have more people in the store looking for things to do."