“The outpouring of local emotion has been astonishing”: Rachel Lowe on the last days of Portsmouth’s U-Need-Us

Growing up, much of the renowned board game and puzzle designer Rachel Lowe’s childhood was set to the backdrop of Portsmouth’s U-Need-Us joke and toy shop. Some years later, Lowe found herself to be one of the 96 year old shop’s best-loved suppliers.

This month, U-Need-Us closed its doors for the very last time. Lowe pays an emotional tribute to the shop she has spent her life with, and asks ‘what of the future of the high street?’

The old fashioned bell above the door chimes for the last time, tolling out the closure of this 96 year old party, joke and toy shop that, finally, has had to submit to the continuing change in consumer behaviour of modern times.

U-Need-Us in Portsmouth, established by William George Searle in 1923 and now in its fourth generation of Searles, was a much-loved corner shop specialising in fancy dress, games, puzzles, joke and novelty gifts, party accessories and all things set to make you smile. 

Customers gathered at this one-time Portsmouth establishment on Saturday, March 30th – just like they have done for the past 96 years – to bid farewell to the family-run business, and show their support for this beloved store.  It made for an emotional day of shared memories.

Having grown up in Portsmouth, this shop served as a backdrop to much of my own childhood. I remember getting my first detention at school, having bought fake vomit from U-Need-Us to put on the science lab floor.  The trick I played on our teacher amused my classmates, but the game was up when I was sent to room 99 with a detention. There ended my rebellious years. In the years to come, I would buy many a gift and gadget, party items for my girls and jokes to play on my siblings.  Any occasion that needed an accessory, U-Need-Us was the place to go.

In my mid-twenties I set up my first company making board games and I became a supplier to U-need-Us.  I take great pride in my Destination Portsmouth board game being their best seller of all time. I cherish the photos I have of the entire window display they created to showcase the game. They have stocked every product that I ever created over the past 15 years, the last being The Portsmouth Puzzle and their best seller of Christmas 2018. They knew how to get behind a local product. Writing about them now in the past tense feels very strange.

News of their planned closure came to me via a text message from a friend with a screen shot of a social media post. Initially I thought it was a hoax, but after contacting Steve Searle, I received confirmation that the post was in fact the sad truth. 

Steve explained that they simply could no longer compete with the mass-market discount stores selling similar stock, or take on the online shopping trend that U-Need-Us simply wasn’t geared up for. I was shocked by the news, but even more, I was shocked at my reaction; finding myself in floods of tears.  I took to social media myself to share my own memories of the store and the outpouring of emotion from the people of Portsmouth was astonishing. But there was also a sense of bewilderment and anger suggesting that us, as customers, are responsible.

For many of us, it might be that unconscious impulse buy in the supermarket or the convenience of the Amazon online purchase delivered to your door. Having said that, once upon a time, in my sector Toys R Us was the place to have your products listed. As an ex supplier of Toy R Us, it was exciting to get national listings in a big chain. If Toys R Us could not survive in todays market then what chance does a little store like U-Need-Us have? 

I am no expert but my personal opinion is simply the online trend of home shopping is much to blame. It is convenience and price that influences consumers. I predict that one day our high streets will be replaced by housing estates and our beloved bricks and mortar stores will have no choice but to either close or go online. I have had to submit myself to the pressure of consumer behaviour and I now have an e-commerce store which is not something I really wanted to manage, but then I guess I am more old-school in my preferences.   

I would like to point out that in contrast to Toys R Us, U-Need-Us did not ‘go under’ or into ‘administration’. U-Need-Us was a solvent company who had noticed over the past few years the dramatic change in how people are spending their money. For them, the transition to a major online overhaul was not something that would fit with the way they want to operate. The owners made the difficult decision to close before their business was affected any further. 

I think this was a bold and brave move and they can hold their heads high knowing they have been a staple of the local community and an established part of Portsmouth’s history.  It is indeed the end of an era.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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