16 minute read

Talking Shop - Ready when you are!

Rachael Simpson-Jones speaks to independent retailers to find out how they have been coping over the latest lockdown, and what plans they have been making for reopening.

Dan Lovett - Beccles Toy Box, Newmarket

At the moment, sales are mostly being driven through our social media pages, primarily Instagram and Facebook; the two pages are linked. My wife is working full time at home, and I’m homeschooling my two boys while also overseeing our two shops, Halesworth Toy Shop and Beccles Toy Box. If a customer needs gifts for a birthday or other event, or see something they just have to have, they can drop me a line and I’ll do my best to get it to them ASAP, either a collection from the shop door or dropping it off if they are local. We’ve been doing this for the past two months, and it’s been working really well for us. All the staff bar myself are furloughed, and my boss, Nigel Kemp, is caring for his parents, so the social media strategy is keeping things ticking over nicely without over-facing anyone.

I’m being quite selective about the products we highlight on our social media. For example, during a recent stock take, we unearthed a few Lego Bonsai Trees, which have been wildly popular. Bill Bulstrode from Framlingham Toy Shop, with whom we have a great relationship, managed to secure me 12 more out of one of his deliveries. We help each other with stock a lot. A post about the trees went straight up on the Facebook and Instagram pages, and within an hour, I had 40 messages either wanting the Bonsai Trees, or asking whether we had other particular Lego sets.

I must admit that I used to hate Facebook. I called it Faceache and could never understand the fascination with looking at pictures of other people’s dinners. But from a business perspective, it’s been great. Before the first 2020 lockdown I already had an Instagram account for Beccles Toy Box and it was working really well, but although we had a Facebook page, we didn’t really do much with it. Then, I connected the Instagram to Facebook, so the two were linked, and that was when things really took off. The biggest thing I’ve learned about social media is that if you have something to sell, don’t post it during the day. Instead, go for 7-8pm, when the kids have gone to bed and people have more time to look at social media. I’ve had messages arrive at 1am asking for toys! For an indie, social is a great tool, and I find it can offer a more personal service than ordering through a website. I like to greet people using their names, which you can clearly see if an order has come through Facebook. Using somewhere like Amazon, you’re a number, not a person. Offering that personal interaction is something the big boys will never be able to do; it’s hard work, but it pays off.

Like a lot of retailers, we’re not sitting on a vast amount of stock, so we’re going for lines that are hot at the moment, driving sales with minimal time expenditure at our end. We’d been holding onto 50 or so sledges for a long while. By the time the snow made an appearance, Bill and I had already advertised these on social media and cleared the lot, well before many other retailers in the town had even put theirs online. It’s all a case of getting onto the hot lines as fast as you can.

The best seller for us at the moment is Pokémon. My launch delivery of Shining Fates product has just arrived, and I can’t wait to unpack it. Pokémon is absolutely massive for us; there’s a contingent of loyal fans in the area always keen to get their hands on new product. I’ve got a ‘little black book’ of Pokémon fans, and I’ve already pre-sold my launch delivery. None of it will even make it onto social media; it’s already spoken for. It’s the 25th anniversary of Pokémon this year, which is going to make the brand even bigger and better. I reckon it’ll be the big thing of 2021, to be honest. Character Options has some great new anniversary toys coming through, and there’s a raft of new lines on the way from Asmodee. While our shop has been closed, the enormous buzz around Pokémon and Shining Fates has been a major boon.

Outdoor is a strong category for us. Swingball from Mookie is really popular, and footballs are always a best-seller. It’s a big year for football, so that will help boost sales. Kites and gliders are always in demand, and if it’s as hot as it was last year, I think every family in Britain will be after paddling pools for the back garden. If you’ve got stock of Intex paddling pools, you’ll be making a mint this year!

Hot Wheels is a really strong brand for us within Action Vehicles; we’ve got a whole area dedicated to it under the stairs in our store. A lot of collectors come in looking for a particular car, but my son and I get first dibs when shipments arrive. One year we took delivery of a £1,000 order, which we unpacked across the shop floor and did a YouTube video for customers going through each and every vehicle. It was so much fun. We offer RC from Tobar, as well as Maisto and Bburgago die-cast too.

We’re waiting to see what happens with reopenings. Only this morning was I talking to Bill, and he mentioned the possibility of the May bank holiday. Easter would be great though; it’s like our second Christmas. A lot of parents still buy Easter eggs of course but loads also buy toys instead of an egg (or as well as, for some lucky kids).

Last summer, even though being open was sandwiched between lockdowns, we saw exceptional sales. My boss even remarked that it was better than summer 2019. We’re in quite a touristy area, right on the edge of the Norfolk broads, so we get plenty of visitors that have been out enjoying boat trips. The local caravan parks are all fully booked for this year. People want to get out and make the most of it when they can, and we’re likely to see much less foreign travel. In 2020, we saw more holidaymakers than ever renting boats and discovering the area; many that came into the shop said they’d be back the following year, and I reckon they meant it. It’s lovely here, and I think we’re in for a great summer. w

Lee Borastero - Kids Stuff, Wells

We didn’t have a website during the first lockdown, but we have one now and sales are starting to pick up. It is admittedly a little slow; people don’t seem to be spending too much at the moment (my wife’s actually just shouted out that we’re certainly not!) and we’re not offering delivery, just click & collect. Setting up the new website was in the pipeline before Covid; we’d actually taken down our old one in February 2020 for a revamp. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of websites – I want to see my customers strolling through my door, and I want to see them smiling at me when I take their money for their exciting new purchase (masks notwithstanding). However, setting up the site is something we needed to do to keep business ticking over.

We’re seeing around 20% of our usual sales for this time of the year at the moment, but those sales are keeping us going, paying our Toymaster fees, rent and other bills, staff costs and supplier invoices. I would estimate that two-thirds of the orders we are getting are for Lego, from £9.99 sets right up to the £300+ Lamborghinis and Technic builds. The average spend on Lego is around £45. These sales are stemming from families that are continuing to look for fun things to do at home with the kids. They tend to be our local regular customers; half of them have my mobile number and they’ll happily ring me to ask if I’ve got what they want.

The other third of my sales is a very mixed bag. Pre-school, dolls and, weirdly, some bulk buying of pocket money toys. People are drip feeding their kids with them. We’ll get an order for multiple bouncy balls, whistles, fortune telling fish, jacks games, £20-worth of toys worth 50p-£1 each. It’s quite an interesting development.

If we’re allowed, we’re looking at an Easter reopening. We’ve got a restricted entrance at the front of the shop. Its quirky shape and layout means we can have a maximum of eight shoppers at one time, because of pinch-points the width of a doorway. If it’s not possible to reopen, then we’ll carry on as we are. Our customers are really keen to come back to us, especially the kids. They’ve essentially not been in the shop for a year, and it’ll be such an experience when we can welcome them back. I spoke to a customer the other day, who told me his grandkids miss coming in and wanted to know when we’ll be reopening. He’ll know just as soon as I will – when Boris tells us. At that point, it’ll be a case of dusting the shelves, sweeping the floor, washing the windows, and getting generally spruced up ready for the first customers back through the door.

I’m grateful that we had such a fantastic Christmas. It was so good, in fact, that we worked out that we’d be able to stay shut until May, at which point we’d need to pick things up again. Christmas 2020 was on par with 2018, which was very strong. Being shut is not ideal by any means, but it has allowed us to do a few bits around the shop - change a few lights, install new CCTV. But we want our customers back now, please!

We’re located in quite a touristy area, with Wells Cathedral and Wookey Hole nearby. Friends that run log cabin holiday lets tell me they are fully booked from Easter weekend until almost the end of the year. We’re regulars at a place in Cornwall, but for this year we’ve had to go on a cancellation list with 20 families in front of us, which gives some indication of how busy the UK holiday industry will be this year. If we have spring/ summer weather like we did in 2020, it’ll be cracking season. On that note, I’m struggling to find paddling pools anywhere. Toymaster warned members about paddling pools in April or May last year, advising placing orders then for this year, but about a third of what we’ve ordered has been cancelled so far, or we’re getting part fulfilment. Container rates aren’t helping, and issues with the new Brexit customs system are affecting deliveries - my January Lego launch stock arrived mid-February because it got stuck in France for four weeks.

The only thing I want to add is a message to fellow retailers; stick in there, guys. We’re going to get through it. See you on the other side.

Louise Anderson - John Anderson Toymaster, Whitby

Despite the lockdown, we could technically still be open as we have a Post Office in our store. However, Whitby is very much dependent on tourists, and obviously there aren’t many of those at the moment. It’s a bit of a ghost town, and current footfall just doesn’t warrant me opening my doors. I’d just be siphoning cash that I need to try and keep hold of for further down the line. There’s a major Post Office not more than a five-minute walk away, so it was a no-brainer just to shut up shop again, and I made the decision to furlough all my staff for the latest lockdown. Looking ahead, I’ve been placing orders ready for when we reopen, so we can look towards the summer months.

We now have a new website up and running and the online side of the business has become more a focus. Truth be told it’s a bit late; in earlier lockdowns it would have really helped us. But going forward, at least we’re now able to sell online properly.

People assume Christmas must be our busiest time, but here in Whitby that’s not the case. The town is overflowing with visitors in the summer, and if I want to sell a £165 Lego set, that’s when I’ll do it. I actually run my stock down towards Christmas, which most retailers wouldn’t dream off. I have my main lines and my Toymaster Christmas Catalogue lines, but don’t carry as much other stock as I would in the summer. We’re hopeful for a really strong summer like last year. After the first lockdown ended, our sales were way up; everyone was so delighted to be out and spending money.

I’m bringing in stock for Easter on the assumption that’s when we’ll be allowed to reopen. We’ve got a lot of the latest lines from major suppliers including Schleich, Lego and Hasbro, including classic games from the latter, which you couldn’t find anywhere just before Christmas. I did a virtual preview with Hasbro and it was reassuring to see that I’d already ordered all the big lines the sales team were highlighting. I’ve also got new product on the way from Gibsons. Doing the Gibsons virtual preview helped me out quite a bit; afterwards, a rep rang me to let me know about the company’s new Whitby jigsaws, and those have now arrived. I’ve found the virtual previews really helpful, though I could have done with being invited to take part in a few more.

I still have more orders to place; we sell a lot of pocket money toys, so I’ll be getting in touch with H. Grossman and ensuring we have plenty of pick-up price point toys and collectibles. As I’ve got good terms with Toymaster, I’m trying to stagger my orders, so I don’t end up with a big bill that needs to be paid in one go. There are gaps on my shelves, but they will be filled by Easter with higher price point ranges. I just hope availability isn’t an issue, in some cases it’s been patchy.

We usually sell plenty of bikes, but I can’t get any this year. We’ve been told we won’t get any before Easter. There’s a lot of families out there desperate to get out and about together, so I’ll keep on at the suppliers to see if the situation changes. We see strong sales from outdoor sports equipment, kites, buckets and spades and other beach toys, while scooters are always popular.

I’m anticipating that the rest of this year, once we’re all out of lockdown, will be even better than last year. Unless I’m mistaken, nobody will be able to fly off anywhere any time soon and UK holiday resorts will be inundated as a result. It’ll be manic for us, but manic is what we need – we want those tourists through the door. I’m hoping it will be a good year and make up for the lean patches. The addition of the new website should bolster things for us too in the winter season.

Being forced to close the store feels like I’ve let my local customers down. I have maybe 20-30 local regulars that used to visit frequently; I see them around town and they all say they’re looking forward to coming back. Ultimately, I think challenges still lie ahead, but our big focus is on taking care of our customers as best we can and providing everything they need. My staff are great, brimming with ideas on enticing shoppers back through the doors once we reopen, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again just as much as the customers.

indie viewpoint

Toy Barnhaus

People get ready

Writing this with a week to go before Boris’s announcement of his roadmap out of lockdown, we really cannot believe where the last seven weeks of the lockdown have gone. Ever optimistic, we are hoping we may get to open for the last week of March, although realistically we think it will more likely be April. However, if it is March, we will both do a jig on the salesfloor.

The UK vaccination programme is coming on apace, and will hopefully lead to increased confidence for when we do re-open. We have seen a survey suggesting that people are now more confident about returning into stores than they were after the first lockdown. This will be a key factor when we re-open, as increased customer confidence should lead to a quicker bounce-back on trade.

In the week of Valentine’s Day, our bestseller was the Lego Creator Flower Bouquet; a great new line that is targeting a slightly different market. Mark is also delighted he will not need to buy his wife flowers anymore, now she has a permanent set in Lego.

Since our last column, we have had the big freeze. During the snowiest day, we were mentioned on a local Facebook group as having sledges in stock - consequently, our phone lines went mad, and we sold out of all our sledges in one day. Over half term, which is normally a big week for us, we are hoping we will pick up more business online. As we write, we’re also eagerly awaiting the launch of Pokémon Shining Fates, which will be our biggest launch so far this year. With limited stock and high demand, we are hoping for great sell through. All credit to the Pokémon Company for creating so much buzz around the 25th Anniversary.

Looking ahead to spring and summer, we are already seeing signs of disruption to stock, particularly in pools, with severe shortages of some of the larger pools. As the possibility of holidays abroad is still up in the air, a lot of people are going to be holidaying in this country, and we expect this will lead once again to increased demand for garden toys to keep families amused over the summer. We just hope we can get the stock. It doesn’t help when shipping containers are in the wrong place; this leads to increased shipping costs, a particularly hard hit to take on larger items.

In our outdoor range, scooters and ride-ons are key sellers, and the Nebulus scooters and licensed scooters from MV are our best-selling ranges. We offer a wide selection of outdoor toys from Dolu. The My First Moto is a fantastic line that has proved extremely popular, it’s a great product for younger kids. We also stock a wide range of summer and beach toys. Last year, we were quite surprised to do impressive trade in body boards, and not just at our coastal store. We will be up-ordering on these this year. We have learned that we can sell a wide range of beach lines throughout all our stores, whether they are near the coast or not. You don’t tend to find such items inland, but customers like to pick them up in advance of a trip and there’s clearly demand.

Moving into spring, when we have everything crossed to be able to re-open, we expect to see strong sales, as ever, from nature related lines. Things like bug viewers and catchers are always popular as inexpensive pick-up lines that kids get a lot of use from. Interplay/ Playmonster’s Fairy Garden range always sells extremely well; it can be used to grow plants all year round but there’s always an uplift in the spring. The range has been a bestseller for several years now, with customers coming back for more - the new lines always sell well.

So, there’s plenty to look forward to. Hopefully, we’ll all be getting ready for reopening (and dancing that jig) by the time you read this.