It’s been three decades since seven of the eight toy buying groups across the UK and Ireland came together under the mission statement of ‘helping members trade profitably,’ to form Toymaster as we know it, and it’s still on the path for growth. Robert Hutchins talks with Toymaster’s managing director, Ian Edmunds to learn the history and the future of the group
Early this year, the Toymaster buying group announced via the pages of ToyNews that a new raft of garden centres had just joined its books. The move is not only indicative of the kind of landscape we find ourselves in today, in which diversification has become a presiding factor, but testament to the strength of the industry itself: there’s money to be had in toys.
Toymaster has known this for the best part of 50 years. The history of the Toymaster buying group reads a little like that of Alfred the Great, the historic figure – and focus of the Netflix series The Last Kingdom – who is often credited with uniting the disparate kingdoms of England some 1,000 years ago. Albeit, presumably with a little less bloodshed and full frontal nudity, although, witness accounts do vary…
The story goes that in 1989 AD, there were no fewer than eight regional toy buying groups in the UK and Ireland. It was in that year that seven of these groups struck upon the terms to combine their efforts to form what the toy industry now knows and recognises as Toymaster today.
The seven were united under one simple mission statement, a lore forged by the forefathers of this successful group of buyers and one which is carried by its torchbearers today; to simply “help our members trade more profitably.” Over the past 30 years, the many fingers of the Toymaster buying group have extended into even the furthest reaches of the United Kingdom, accruing a membership base of some 145.
While plans are for the group to now maintain its base at this level, growth is still very much on the cards. Taking into account the number of members with multiple stores to their own name, the Toymaster network of physical retailer outlets across the UK is closer to 250.
And there’s room – even in today’s current climate – for a fair few more.
Three decades in the toy buying game has put the group in quite the powerful position, but while the Toymaster name is known far and wide across the UK and Ireland, it maintains that member autonomy is at the front and centre of what it does. This is a group built on the strength of the independent retailer, after all.
“We offer different types of membership; Associated or Branded, to accommodate retailers who want to trade under the Toymaster banner or not” explains Toymaster’s managing director, Ian Edmunds.
“However, whatever they choose, all of our members retain their independence and some of them choose to trade under their own shop name, rather than the Toymaster brand, as that is how their local shoppers know them.”
Spurred not only by the collapse of Toys R Us two years ago, and the continued woes suffered by big high street names, like Debenhams, the independent retail scene seems to be benefiting from a charge of renewed spirit at the moment. As suppliers the world over look at the landscape with a keener eye, now, more than ever, it is paying to be an independent retailer.
“Every member has their own individual landscape,” continues Edmunds. “Our suppliers still value the independent sector highly, and this is down to developing strong relationships with our suppliers and treating it as a partnership. It is important that the relationship benefits both the supplier and the Toymaster members.”
Those benefits come thick and fast, from marketing to invoicing, Toymaster is on hand to alleviate much of the paperwork, “allowing our members more time to focus on the shop floor itself and maximise sales.”
“We also provide access to all the major suppliers, with terms negotiated centrally on their behalf,” continues Edmunds.
Time was, that Toymaster was working with a pool of some 300 active suppliers. Recent years have seen this number reduced to closer to 180, owing to the number of supplier consolidations over the years. This, in itself, is merely a reflection of the times. 2018 was a year for a number of acquisitions and mergers, yet, despite the reduction in actual supplier numbers, variety of product available to Toymaster members is still heralded as a major coup of joining the network.
“We don’t tell our members what ranges to buy or how to display them within their stores, just ensure there is a depth to choose from,” Edmunds tells ToyNews.
“The decision on what to stock is entirely theirs. Yes, we can give them suggestions and opinions if they want, but ultimately, it’s their store, so they make the decisions.
“The guidance we do offer to Toymaster members, is to speak to us at Toymaster and also speak to fellow members. That’s one of the benefits of being part of a buying group – our members have a network of like-minded retailers that they are connected to and who are happy to help each other.”
So how is Toymaster capitalising on this feeling that 2019 really could be the year of the independent toy retailer? For Edmunds, the strategy to adopt now, is ‘less is more.’
“We encourage our members to do fewer things, but do them better. To focus on key brands that are not stocked elsewhere locally, and make them stand out in store.”
Of course, part and parcel of this is the growth of the experiential shopping trend; a bread and butter offering for toy retail, and high up on Toymaster’s agenda, too.
Edmunds continues: “All forms of in-store theatre are a great way of driving footfall and ultimately sales. The key relationship is still between the member and supplier, but we are always on hand to help and advise. We encourage members to share successful activities with each other so that they can all benefit.”
On the topic of whether Toymaster will actively seek out retailer diversification, tapping into a world of gift shops and visitor attractions, Edmunds remains characteristically tight-lipped: “We’ll speak to any toy shop in the UK and Ireland, provided they’re bricks and mortar stocking toys year-round,” he says.
Let’s see where the future takes Toymaster and its mission statement next.