In early March this year, Peter Allinson, owner of Whirligig Toys had around 100 of the ‘make and do’ products he stocks in his four brick and mortar stores in the South of England listed on his online platform. As the coronavirus outbreak neared its peak here in the UK, Allinson had listed over 1,000.
The former teacher turned toyshop owner is just one of many independent toy retailers who were forced to adapt and change their tactics when the full force of COVID-19 hit our shores and sent the country into lockdown.
Coronavirus may have done its bit to shutter up shops and keeps doors closed up and down the country, but the people of the UK were still in need – if not more so than ever before – of toys, games, and entertainment to keep a population of children frantic from missing school friends and social interaction, focused and refrained from tearing down the curtains.
At the time ToyNews caught up with Allinson earlier this week, the toy shop mogul was putting the finishing touches in place in order to reopen his Canterbury store, a feat that would bring his open store count back to a full complement.
“It’s been longer than we hoped, reopening this last store in Canterbury,” he tells ToyNews. “There seems to be a worldwide shortage of perspex right now…”
Having spent the morning screwing in and fixing in place screens alongside other means to keep his Canterbury store ‘COVID safe’, all signs were pointing for a grand reopening of the store this week. But, he insists, while doors up and down the country are reopening, the past few months have certainly been formative in shaping the look of the retail space for the foreseeable future.
“Online operations will be key for a while beyond this, I should think. The doors will open, but in adopting measures to keep the numbers in the physical down, and implement queueing outside of the shop, a lot of success will be dependent on delivery, collection, and so forth,” Allinson continues.
“I have gone from around 100 product listings on the Whirligig website, to now over 1,000 – and I had to write the marketing copy for all of them… as a result, our online sales have never been so high; there’s real demand from consumers for products that will last, keep children entertained and offer good quality play value.”
That said, it’s of little surprise that sales at Whirligig are still down on last year’s figures, but it’s only to be expected of a store that has been denied the high traffic of footfall found in a tourism hotspot like Canterbury for two, going on three months. Despite this though, Allinson remains optimistic that Christmas will deliver the goods, certainly among a population of parents and families who ‘have found a new appreciation of the value of play and engagement with toys and games among their children.’
Over in Folkestone, and the children’s shop Moo Like A Monkey has found similar experiences, yet found a strength in its adaptability.
“We have worked extremely hard, but have seen the benefits, and our customers have remained loyal and supportive,” the store’s director, Charlotte Khan tells ToyNews.
“Customer demands changed over night and we had to quickly accommodate. Suddenly, the gifting market became more important than ever, and offering a free gift wrapping service was key for us, as was free and prompt local delivery for our local customer base, which allowed us to compete with the larger retailers who wouldn’t be able to manage a same day delivery service.”
Above all else, Khan suggests that a feeling of community has arisen from the mire that was and is COVID-19, who has been buoyed by the local support of her customers.
“You can sense that people don’t want to lose their local independent shops,” she states. “The support remained consistent throughout lockdown and as we have reopened.”
It was toy sales that got Moo Like A Monkey – a shop that divides its stock 50-50 between toys and children’s clothing – through the lockdown period. Products for new babies, educational, outdoor garden toys, and products that could keep young children engrossed in play, all played their role, it would seem, in keeping a nation entertained.
“Many of our suppliers really stepped up, sending emails about products we weren’t aware of that had started to sell well or them, offering suggestions and support when things were changing so quickly,” she says.
The question now is, where do we go from here?
“My main concern is that footfall on the high street will be low for some time so we will need to rely on our online presence and continue to invest time into our social media content,” answers Khan. “Although we have survived lockdown the economy will take a long time to recover so we aren’t out of the woods yet. Christmas is coming though, so it isn’t all bad news.”
And actually, with the industry nearing that moment each year when it begins to turn its attention to the favoured holiday season, the outlook is far from grey.
“Local independents have had a chance to adapt and meet customer demands in a way larger retailers couldn’t,” says Khan. “I’m hoping this shift in shopping habits and brand loyalty remains and boosts independent businesses in future.”