Hard-working co-owners Shawnta’ Ray and Rick Harmon are living examples of entrepreneurs who can toughen up when life throws them a steep challenge. They also know how to “Happy Up,” which is why – eight years ago – they incorporated their toy store business under that moniker.
The duo’s successful business, which currently includes storefronts in Glen Carbon, Ill. and Clayton, Mo., are solidly operational due to their own tenacity, extremely loyal customers and the support of the Small Business Development Center.
Ray, who worked for 10 years as a sales clerk and later as manager for the company’s previous owner, bought what was then known as Once Upon a Toy (Edwardsville) and LagoonaMagoo Toys (in O’Fallon, Ill. and St. Louis). The Small Business Administration (SBA) provided Happy Up with a guaranteed loan on their business.
In 2008 the recession hit, adversely affecting the nation’s small business community and especially independent toy retailers. After three years of anemic sales – combined with months of careful consideration – the pair made the difficult decision to close two locations and consolidate operations.
“The recession hit us hard,” said Ray. “We regrouped in Edwardsville and opened our Clayton storefront in June 2012.” All of these critical business decisions were not the only thing Ray had on her mind. “I was nine months pregnant at the time,” she added.
The birth of their healthy new baby was a burst of sunshine for the couple, right before having to face their biggest storm. Upon returning from an annual toy vendors’ expo in New York City, Ray and Harmon were notified by their local bank that it was calling their loan on the Edwardsville store building – despite the fact that the owners had kept pace with their loan commitment.
“We were blindsided,” she said. “We shared this news with the community, never imagining what would happen next.”
What happened next was that Ray’s smartphone began ringing with scores of long-time customers and fellow business owners in Illinois and Missouri who wanted to help keep the toy store’s doors from closing. Hundreds of families came into the toy store and pleaded for it to remain open, according to Ray.
“It was incredible,” Ray remembered. “My phone began exploding with calls from generous people who appreciated not only our stores but also our community outreach.” The owners regularly host no-cost game nights at schools and retirement homes across the greater St. Louis region.
“In three days, about 1,000 people had collectively raised $80,000 through an online crowdfunding site,” Ray added. “Although we were initially reluctant to accept it, we ultimately decided it was okay and very necessary to continue keeping our business and our stores operating.
“The show of support, combined with the loyalty of our employees, was overwhelming to us. Concerned business leaders, long-time customers and kids with piggy banks full of coins reached out. It was truly amazing.”
The community’s generosity gave this small, independent retailer a glimmer of hope but did not get them completely out of the storm. Suppliers had become aware of their situation and many of them demanded upfront cash payments. The building’s owner sent notice of a rent increase. This is when the Small Business Development Center stepped in with an offer of help.
Metro East SBDC Director Patrick McKeehan helped analyze the business’ financial situation and strategize how to use the community’s contribution. He connected Ray and Harmon with an experienced real estate professional to review the lease for a new retail space in Glen Carbon. SBDC staff explored low-cost marketing options and alternative financing to improve Happy Up’s cash position. Ray and Harmon were introduced to Justine PETERSEN – the region’s SBA-designated microlender – and secured a small loan to help finance holiday inventory.
“We’re grateful to Patrick for sharing their expertise with us,” Ray said. “The SBDC and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville provided us with marketing expertise and options for accessing additional operating capital.”
In June 2013, what had been known as Once Upon a Toy moved to a brand-new space in Edwardsville Crossing, changing the name of its storefront there (and in Clayton) to Happy Up.
The bright, sun-filled 4,000-square-foot space is attractively stocked with a wide selection of wooden toys, games for kids and adults, classic jigsaw puzzles, science experiment kits such as Build a Catapult, a Geyser Tube that launches soda with a single roll of Mentos and much more.
“We’re positioned as a go-to store for creative, quality birthday gifts for as little as $10, and that includes free giftwrap,” said Ray. “The Rody Horse (a hippity hop ride-on horse made of brightly colored, super-strong vinyl) is our best seller.”
Patrons will no doubt be attracted to the Glen Carbon location’s 14-foot rubber chicken replica, suspended in mid-air over a neon-green sofa in the store’s play area. Both are cherished holdovers from the Once Upon A Toy days and now constant reminders of the joy in being “Happy Up.”
The Metro East SBDC assists start-up ventures and existing businesses headquartered in the nine-county Metro East region of Calhoun, Jersey, Madison, Bond, Clinton, St. Clair, Washington, Monroe and Randolph. It is a service to the community supported by the SBA.
By aiding entrepreneurs and companies in defining their path to success, the SBDC network positively impacts the Metro East by strengthening the business community, creating and retaining new jobs and encouraging new investment. It enhances the region’s economic interests by providing one-stop assistance to individuals by means of counseling, training, research and advocacy for new ventures and existing small businesses. When appropriate, the SBDC strives to affiliate its ties to the region to support the goals and objectives of both the SIUE School of Business and the University at large.
To learn how the SBDC can help your small business, contact the Metro East SBDC at (618) 650-2929 or email@example.com.
Find your local SBDC today! www.asbdc-us.org