It’s something that has been on the cards for the family-run toy retailing outfit for some time now – five years, at least – but 2018 is finally the year in which it all comes into fruition for The Entertainer.
This is the year of growth, period, for the UK multi-channel toyshop.
It’s on the other end of a crackling telephone line, dipping in and out of
connection, that Gary Grant explains the journey his increasingly ubiquitous toy retail chain has been on over the past half a decade.
He’s on the move – most likely to his next business meeting of the day – and it’s a small window in Grant’s hectic schedule that ToyNews seizes with the independent toy store magnate, to learn more about it.
He wants to clear one thing up. When, in a recent statement pertaining to the chain’s move into Kosovo, the founder of The Entertainer declared 2018 as its “year of growth in Europe and the Far East,” we certainly shouldn’t be discounting the UK.
The Entertainer currently boasts 145 stores here in the UK. Grant has plans to smash through the 200 mark on home soil by the end of 2019. He already has a fleet of 16 additional stores lined up for launch this year – the most recent opening to be in Chatham just last month; so bringing that to the magical 200, for Grant, at least, should be little more than child’s play.
“When I talk to my sons about it all, I ask ‘where is The Entertainer heading?’… and they will turn around to me and say ‘well, it’s 1,000 stores now isn’t it, Dad?” Grant tells us, offering a candid glimpse into the homestead of this
family-owned and run business unit.
While the Grants are known industry-wide, and increasingly world-wide, as hardworking over achievers, even the man in charge knows that 1,000 stores in the UK is something of an unattainable target.
“Yes, it’s impossible to have 1,000 stores in the UK. But it’s not impossible to have 1,000 toy stores around the world. Bearing in mind the current rate of growth we are seeing, we will certainly smash through 200 stores in 2019.”
Currently, its international network of stores is sitting at 21, he states. “Or is it 27?” Grant asks me. A quick search and it looks to be closer to 20 but we can forgive the confusion, with a network model of franchises popping up across Europe and the Far East at “an exponential rate,” you’re sure to lose track of those that have been announced and those still awaiting the official launch.
“Internationally, we started to grow our business overseas five years ago and with one of our longest-serving and successful partners, the Zeta Group,” explains Grant. “Zeta Group is based in Azerbaijan and has two stores currently, with a third opening before Christmas.
“The group has also opened its first store in Kazakhstan. That’s the same group moving into other countries with The Entertainer brand. This is all done through franchising, so if you walked into these stores, you could well be walking into a store in London, or Camberley. They look absolutely identical in every way, it’s just in a different country.”
Grant has ventured into six countries altogether through the franchising model. Its recent partnership with Axiom to open a store in Kosovo marks its sixth. He has a seventh overseas operation in Malta through an ownership acquisition with the Maltese family run toyshop and distribution outfit, Mizzi.
“The franchise model that we work with will grow exponentially in the next few years,” Grant assures us. “And no, it’s nothing to do with Brexit.” It’s really not.
The Entertainer’s growth strategy was in play long before Brexit reared its ugly head. It’s not really much to do with Toys R Us, either. The retailer was propelled into growth when Woolworth’s finally closed in 2009 and since then, this is a toyshop that has been taking on partnerships on a global level for years.
The most recent partnership it has in play is a supply relationship with Matalan. The toy shop will be rolling out 60 toy departments with Matalan in the coming weeks. It follows a successful trial run of nine with the retail outlet last year. But these are not Entertainer stores per sé.
“These are Matalan toy departments that we are working with on the toy knowledge, stock and supply,” says Grant.
“We trialled nine last year and they worked really well, so we are half way through a three-week programme of opening out 60.
“They are branded Totally Toys, which is a brand name that we own, so these aren’t Entertainer stores. We just source for them, price and offer them business knowledge from the toy industry.”
What’s clear is that Gary Grant is a man fond of forming the right kind of partnerships, and as long as you tick the right boxes for them, The Entertainer is one to nurture that pairing in the facilitation of mutual growth.
“What The Entertainer is looking for is relatively simple: we tend to work very well with family businesses,” divulges Grant.
“The Entertainer is 100 per cent owned by the family and family businesses generally have similar values and objectives; it’s not about short-term gain, but long-term, sustainable family business with similar bones to us in the way they treat their people, the charity giving…” he trails off. There’s a lull on the other end of the phone and a momentary pause for breath, evidently a rarity in the world of the Grants.
“The values that are important to The Entertainer translate well into the business we partner with. They get where we are coming from and there is a shared language between us.”
When asked on whether The Entertainer will be looking to take the US and look to plug any remaining gaps left by the collapse of Toys R Us stateside, the answer is resoundingly and politically diplomatic.
“In our partners, we have our eyes on all markets and it is about partnerships. Would The Entertainer bob over to the US and, by itself, open UK stores? The answer would be no…
“Would we partner with people in the US, the answer is through a franchise agreement, we are partnering with people all around the world. Next year we will have five new – from what we currently know and currently have in process – international partners during 2019.
“But we have a huge number of contacts and we have people contacting us now. We are focusing a lot at the moment, and the teams are extremely busy in, working with other people who are showing an interest in becoming a toy retailer in their country.” While that left us with perhaps more questions than answers – well, will the retailer move into the US? – the conversation slides into chatter about Toys R Us and the over all retail scene.
There’s no denying it’s taken a significant knock this year with a number of high street retailers feeling the effect of circumstance.
“I wouldn’t like to say that it’s all about Toys R Us closing, but there has to be an element of Toys R Us closing,” muses Grant.
“We are trading in the middle of a very difficult market. Retail is very tough and there are a lot of solid companies that have been badly shaken. Retail is being shaken at the moment. Toys R Us exiting the industry has helped retailers within the industry – it probably hasn’t helped the industry too much as it’s a challenge for suppliers – but it has helped its retailers.
“At the same time, the crazes that we have at the moment – we have never had such a line-up of crazes as now. I would put LOL Surprise in that category. It’s hardly a craze, with toys between £6 and £60, but it’s definitely a phenomenon. The volumes are just phenomenal.
“Then with Slime, Soft N Slow, Putty, it just goes on and the amount of stuff that kids are into on a collectable basis is quite phenomenal. On top of that, I would suggest the industry to have an outstanding summer year. We haven’t been as keen on summer stock as this in ten years, and have sold out of everything.
“All in all, I would be surprised to find a retailer that was unhappy with life,” Grant concludes and it is clear that this is a toy shop owner who is very happy with his lot.