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Hallowed ground: Inside the AIS Independent Toy and Gift Show

With a long list of suppliers waiting to get on board with the AIS group in the wake of Toys R Us, Miles Penhallow, head of toys and children’s gifts at Play-room and name behind the Independent Toy and Gift Show is currently the man of the hour. He talks to ToyNews about the shifting retail space, this year’s show and how to maintain that air of exclusivity

There’s something rather quite exclusive about being a member of the AIS buying group that you’re not necessarily privy to elsewhere. It’s a penny that dropped for me as I was chatting with the group’s head of toy and gifts, Miles Penhallow, about what we can all expect from the upcoming April show this year.

For a start, I don’t know any other buy- ing group that hosts a professional Murder Mystery night at a swanky hotel for retail members and selected suppliers to come together for a sophisticated evening of networking (I’ve seen a number of retailers carve up the dance floor, or butcher a mix of disco classics at a certain Harrogate hotel in my time, but nothing quite like this), neither have I heard of buying groups handing out M&S vouchers to those retail members, simply for turning up.

It would appear that the perks offered up by Penhallow and his team lend AIS membership a certain piquancy, that – de- pendent on your tastebuds, of course – gives it all an air of fine-dining, among so much of today’s fast-food fascination.

You’ll have to forgive the food analogies for the moment, the AIS Independent Toy and Gift Show’s famed lunchtime menu is a thing of fine reputation across the industry, after all. However, there’s more than beautifully braised beef to this Solihull show, and more than one reason as to why Penhallow is today, such a popular character.

To understand the show’s ever-increasing esteem among the industry players, it perhaps helps to take a look at the shifting dynamic among suppliers and the independent retail base. Since the demise of Toys R Us, this is a scale that has begun to find itself sliding.

“We had a very good year last year,” Penhallow tells ToyNews, “we ended last year seven and a half per cent up on our invoice sales from our members and we are currently running at 22 per cent up… but the picture is mixed.

“There are some areas of the country that haven’t benefited from Toys R Us closing as they never had one near them anyway. But there are those that have benefited greatly, because they had a Toys R Us on their doorstep.

“The general message is there are now less places to buy toys in bricks and mortar stores, and while it will take longer for the larger players to gear up and take that gap, the indies can benefit in the short term.”

That’s why Penhallow’s recent message, when announcing the dates of this year’s Independent Toy and Gift Show (April 29th – 30th, by the way), was that this is very much the year for the independent retailer.

It’s also why, Penhallow explains, that when it came to walking the halls of this year’s London Toy Fair, he had never found himself “to be so popular.” It’s important to note at this point, and seldom remembered, that AIS is the fourth largest supplier to its members after the likes of LEGO, Hasbro and Mattel, so when it comes to having a grasp on the indie trading sector, none can be better equipped than Penhallow is now.

“We have seen,” he says, “certainly among the large companies – including LEGO – they are saying that they need to be working with independents again, getting closer to them. They have to because there is the worry that this could happen to the next biggest customer. They want to spread the risk and build up their base with the independent.

“We have seen a lot more support in certain areas and, dare I say it, even some improved terms in certain places.”

Words perhaps none could have predict- ed to be uttered at the end of 2017, yet an indication of just how far that pendulum has swung in the wake of Toys R Us. As a result, AIS now has a long list of suppliers who “would love to come to the show.”

“But the show is only for those suppliers that have agreed to become preferred suppliers, that can be invoiced through our central paying system, and because we have always had that criteria, we have ultimately always had that number limited to around 85,” says Penhallow.

Given the current demand, would it make sense for Penhallow and the team to capitalise on this surge of popularity of the hallowed AIS member supplier status and increase the numbers?

“That’s not something we will be doing,” Penhallow states. “We won’t be diluting our messaging by opening the floodgates. We don’t want our members to have a choice of seven jigsaw companies. We want them to deal with the best three. If they deal with the best three that turnover becomes more meaningful and that member benefits more.

“This way, we can set growth targets, we can do more if we are focusing the turnover into less suppliers. If we let that turnover get dissipated across too many suppliers, and I think 200 suppliers is too many sup- pliers, how can we put a message out saying we believe in this range, or that range, if we’re promoting three similar ones?”

I mentioned the exclusivity of this particular club, didn’t I? But it’s not to say retail members are restricted to deal only with those preferred suppliers, neither does

it mean suppliers don’t all get a crack at the AIS whip. Its list of preferred suppliers is updated regularly, with inactive suppliers bumped for newcomers, in order for the Group to keep up with the current trends.

It’s why this year will see the likes of Jazwares, Hornby Hobbies and Wild & Wolf make their show debut, because trends is a pulse upon which AIS has a finger firmly placed. The group was ahead of the curve when it came to spotting the growth potential of the garden centre, and among its retail membership today sits all manner of outlets for toys, from pharmaceutical chains and department stores to visitor attractions. And AIS likes to tailor its approach for each; because this is a group that makes a point of of knowing each of its members very well indeed.

“I will often be on the road, making store visits to our members – finding out what is working for them, what is not, what their in-store layout is offering in terms of set-up, or experience,” explains Penhallow. ‘We like to then share those stories with the membership, to help encourage them and inspire their own efforts. It’s a close-knit community that we like to create when you’re a member of AIS.”

Even if you’re not, there’s still plenty that AIS’ Independent Toy and Gift Show has to offer you this year, starting with lunch and ending on two days of relaxed supplier-buyer interaction, at a show famed for bringing the big names like Hasbro, Mattel, LEGO, and Character Options all together under one roof.

Puzzles is this year’s central theme – with Gibsons and the firm’s 100 year celebrations taking centre stage of this easy-paced yet integral trade show. As long as all bloodshed is kept strictly to the Murder Mystery evening, of course.

About Robert Hutchins

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