The kitchen table story is one wellknown within the toy industry, perhaps more so than any other, for the simple reason that for those of a particular mindedness – the likes of which are intrinsically drawn to this line of business – play comes naturally.
Beyond the literal act of stacking one block upon another, play, moreover, is the act of imagining; tweaking, moving things about and then re-imagining it all again. It’s a process that most of us reading this now are all too familiar with. And among us is Julia Minchin, the founder and joint managing director of the baby and preschool specialist, Hippychick, who did in the very literal sense begin her journey within the business of play from her kitchen table in Spaxton 20 years ago today.
For it was while at her kitchen table that Minchin kickstarted her business with the invention of the Hipseat, a baby carrier devised to ease the strain on parents’ backs when carrying their baby or toddler on their hip. That was back in 1999, and from there it wasn’t long before Minchin’s spine-saving innovation became the figurative back bone of a blossoming Hippychick business.
Recent headlines have drawn a great deal of attention to Hippychick, who is currently enjoying the limelight not only as it celebrates two decades of successful entrepreneurship within the pre-school toy sector, but for its redoubled efforts towards sustainability and eco-friendly toys amid a shifting consumer consciousness.
It was earlier this month that the firm was championed across the national media for its commitment to recycling with the launch of its Wheelybug Clinic, run by the company’s resident Wheelybug Doctor, that repairs and upgrades old Wheelybug ride-ons in its own bid to encourage consumers and parents to re-use toys rather than consign them to landfill.
The initiative has marked the start of what Minchin has outlined as major plans to promote the message of sustainability within the toy space from here on.
“Sustainability is front of mind for Hippychick going forward,” she tells ToyNews. “We’ve made strides already but there’s plenty more to do. Our toys are all about quality and durability, and are really built to last, whatever an exuberant toddler will throw at it.
“If they do suffer a surface graze, or a little nick or tear, we don’t want the toy to be consigned to the scrap heap when clearly it has plenty of life left in it. So, our message is, if it’s repairable, we’ll do everything we can to restore it to its former glory so it can be returned to its owner, passed down to a sibling or re-gifted.
“Fortunately, we have a highly skilled technician at Hippychick who is delighted to take on the Wheelybug Doctor mantle and has enabled us to develop this area of the business which we intend to further develop for other brands of toys in our portfolio.”
The idea, it would seem, is that when you buy into the Hippychick brand, you buy into a service, or a partnership that will take one through one’s product life journey. And if that’s what a retailer is selling to its customer – a partnership with a brand (and one that pulls out all the stops to reduce returns) – then it’s little wonder Hippychick has become a favourite among so many of them.
Hippychick is a healthy business with a turnover of upwards of £3 million, and one that packs a strong reputation across the toy industry and its network of retail platforms and diversity of retail partners. And it’s carved quite the position for itself within the traditional toys sector.
“We have never been, and never wish to be in the business of selling tech-centric toys with bells, whistles and flashing lights, or following the latest toy fads,” explains Minchin. “Our toys are designed to be timeless classics that will have a positive impact on a child’s growth and will endure through future generations.
“Demand for these types of toys has been there throughout the 20 years we have been in existence, and we believe it will still be there in many years to come.”
Hippychick certainly has something. Enough even to have lured Minchin’s husband Jeremy out of the Metropolitan Police and his work as a detective and into the world of toys and pre-school products in 2001, to join the expanding business which now taps into a self-established, and organically grown community of Hippychick fans and followers.
Minchin and the team speak to this community (can we call them Hipsters?) on a regular basis, whether that’s through the company’s online blog, its library of free, downloadable e-books or its Hippychick Baby Club, to maintain that all-important dialogue between brand and its end user.
“No longer can businesses such as ours be one dimensional,” says Minchin. “Consumers want and expect so much more from a brand. They look to one that will hand-hold them through the often-complex journey of pregnancy and parenthood, and that will ensure the successful future of their child.
“We need to offer, at a very basic level, products that at least meet but for the most part exceed expectation, as well as informative and reassuring customer service. But we also need to offer added value such as informed advice for safe, productive and effective parenting.”
This extends now into its position on environmentalism.
“Many of our toys are already made from sustainable material, such as our Classic World range of wooden toys,” Minchin continues. “We recycle all materials in the warehouse currently and are looking to address our packaging in the near future, to try and reduce the surplus as well as the use of plastics.
“Up-cycling is also an area we want to encourage. We know, for example, that our Hipseats are used by film crews for supporting heavy camera equipment, so we want to spread this message. It’s great to know that my original invention has a life that extends beyond a toddler who wants to be carried.”
Such success doesn’t come to anyone easily. While it may have only taken a couple of years since its concept stage at that Spaxton kitchen table for Hippychick to become the fully-fledged success, with expanding warehouses and a team of staff based in Bridgewater working through an ever growing portfolio of brands, it’s not without adaptability and foresight that the company has traversed 20 years’ worth of change; be that changing markets, changing consumer demands, or the change at retail.
“The retail climate has been and continues to be challenging, particularly as more and more retailers continue to reduce their footprint or cease trading,” says Minchin. “We have had to respond to demand for customer choice and to the way consumers now want to shop.
“We have achieved this by making our products available through several different channels, not just traditional brick and mortar. Everyday the team at Hippychick looks to improve processes and working practices throughout all the departments with the objective of being the best and most efficient supplier in the market, and achieving our key objective which is to deliver exceptional customer service and exceptional quality of product.
“During the past 20 years, the business has been enormously successful, but has also faced a number of challenges, but I believe Hippychick has managed to stand the test of time, mainly through intelligent, well thought through product curation.
“We have always worked hard to remain true to our brand values which have defined us from the outset, never deviating however tempting. This has given us a solid and respected reputation in the industry: customers know they can trust our products to deliver on quality and integrity over time.
“We also have a solid financial base, and that’s very attractive in a climate where there’s currently a lot of uncertainty,” Minchin concludes.
And to think, it all started out with a kitchen table.