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Indie Insight: Wigwam Toys talks the consumers’ rediscovery of community on the high street

Having met at college through a shared love of Fine Art, the Wigwam Toys team comprises collectors, crafts-people, bibliophiles, and big kids at heart, all of whom have their own role to play in the eclectic mix that this little Brighton independent toy shop has to offer.

Times were, Wigwam Toys was an essential stopping off point for the some 7,000 local children within walking distance of the shop. The events of the year and the subsequent Covid-19 restrictions may have put the stoppers on the store’s usual numbers, and the usual sell-through of its most popular items but thanks to a quick pivot to the online retail space and a shift in the consumer mindset that sees them ‘discovering – or rediscovering – the value in being a part of a community, Wigwam Toys has managed to maintain its position as a pillar of the local Brighton community.

ToyNews catches up with Clair Letton, co-owner and founder of Wigwam Toys to talk about the company’s latest developments, consumer trends, and what the life of an independent retailer looks like in the year 2020.

Hello Clair, thanks for chatting with us for our ToyNews Indie Insight. To kick us off, could you give us a bit of background on Wigwam Toys? Who have you got on the team and when did you start your adventures in toy retail?

We took over the shop in 2012 after the death of the previous owner and re-branded as Wigwam Toys. We had two school age children and a pre-schooler, so we felt well qualified when it came to buying stock, as we knew the kind of store we wanted to use ourselves. I had had plenty of retail experience, and we had both always wanted to be shopkeepers, so it was a case of right place right time, when the property came up for sale less than a five minutes walk from our home.

We specialise in design led, quirky and interesting toys and gifts that you don’t find on every supermarket shelf. Over the years we have grown from a team of three, to eight part time employees, who include; our shop floor manager Benjamin, bookkeeper, website lady, sales assistants and ourselves, Clair and Jesse. Last year saw the launch of our website, and with its growth through 2020, we are hoping to expand our team to 10 in 2021.

Looking over the Wigwam Toys website – which is a great showcase for the brick and mortar shop – there’s a real diversity to the product range. What do you guys look for in the product you bring in store?

Our buying principals have remained the same across the years: Do we like it, would we buy it, would we give it to someone else’s child, and does it represent good value? By value, I mean more than just in the financial sense; the item needs to be well made and do the job it is meant to do. A toy or gift that falls apart, is hard to use, or simply doesn’t do what it says it will, is a disappointment to the giver and the receiver and a waste of money and resources. 

Our background is in Fine Art. We met at art college here in Brighton, so I suppose it’s natural that we are drawn to design led toys and gifts. We also have fond memories of the toys that were part of our own childhoods, so there is a good helping of nostalgia in there too with Care Bears, My Little Pony, Pound Puppies and Sylvanian Families being some of our biggest sellers.

Saying that, we are always on the lookout for new and interesting items. Current favourites are Poppik sticker posters and the Haynes advent calendars from Dynamic Distribution, the collectable PopMart figures from Babywatch and CandyLab wooden cars from Little Concepts.

Each of us have our areas of interest, for me it’s books. I would not so secretly love to have a Wigwam Books as well as Wigwam Toys. For Jesse it’s LEGO and for our shop floor manager Benjamin it’s Sylvanian Families, and Care Bears, oh and Pound Puppies, and Ponies and, well, it goes on!

We are all drawn to different things but agree on most of the buying decisions. We work well as a buying and selling team because we know our customers and we all have the same vision and standards when choosing what we sell.

Our children have always been a good gauge of whether something has play value and longevity. They are teenagers and young adults now, but there are certain things they still enjoy doing and they remain dedicated testers.

How do you think the set up you guys have then sets you apart on the high street?

We have a strong vision for the type of business we aim to be. We are environmentally considerate, community minded, customer focused, and we aim to behave as ethically and kindly as we can. I think this is reflected back in terms of our customers’ loyalty to us. Those of us on the shop floor are all collectors, makers and big kids! I think our enthusiasm is contagious and our customers know we will always be able to find something for them.

The unavoidable question then, how has business been for you guys over the course of the year and all that the pandemic has brought with it? 

Being closed for three months earlier this year was obviously a blow, but we saw an upswing in our online sales, and did plenty of home deliveries for local customers. Since reopening we are a little down on previous years, partly due to the limited number of customers we can see in a day and keep everyone safe. I think although retail generally has been hit hard, the toy industry is not as hard hit as other sectors. Children still have birthdays and need entertaining. We have seen an increase in the average spend over the last six weeks.

How have the events of the year dictated the way you guys operate or the products that you bring in store?

We are based in a residential area with over 7000 children withing walking distance. We normally sell large volumes of greetings cards and wrapping paper, along with the sub £10 items that customers would normally buy as birthday presents for their children’s school friends. Because those birthday parties didn’t happen during lockdown, and numbers are limited once restrictions lifted, we have seen a big drop in this area, leaving us with higher volumes of products we would normally sell day in day out. We are thinking creatively about how we advertise this stock and evaluating our buying for Christmas. 

We have also been stocking up on family activities like puzzles and games, and creative activities that will keep kids and adults entertained should we enter a second lock down, and as usual wet weather pursuits are curtailed due to restrictions.

Have you seen a shift in the consumer mindset over the course of the pandemic and the lockdown? Has it had an impact on the way consumers buy toys or the toys and brands that they want to play with?

We have always had good sales of items that fall into the retro or nostalgia category, but there has been a big increase in this area for us. I think perhaps that in times of anxiety we fall back on things that remind us of better times or offer us comfort. The sales of 1000 piece puzzles certainly increased at the beginning of lockdown and has continued to hold strong. Families were seeking alternative activities and turned to things they had perhaps not had time for previously, or not done since they were children.

I know many have spoken about increased community spirit. Consumers have rediscovered, or perhaps discovered for the first time, the satisfaction of being part of a community. For many the lack of readily available resources during lockdown, lead them to seek alternatives to the supermarkets and larger stores. This put them into contact with their smaller local businesses such as ourselves.

We love the retro vibe that Wigwam Toys has about it. What is the Wigwam Toys ethos? For you, what is being a toy retailer in 2020 all about?

We choose not to sell digital toys or licensed products, not only because they are readily available elsewhere, but we believe that childhood is short, and having time play is special, it grows imaginations, fosters relationships, stimulates minds and helps children to express themselves, relax and have fun. There is an educational component to some of what we sell, of course, but those items are chosen because they are something special, beautiful objects, interesting information well presented. 

I don’t think a toy needs to make noises or be expensive to be played with over and over again. Just look at what kids can do with an empty cardboard box. I would like to think we can play a part in creating memories for the children who play with the things we sell, their favourite book or cuddly toy. We want to be able to offer our customers a well curated selection of things, that they can buy with confidence. To offer all our customers both in store and online a high level of personal customer service. 

As we enter Q4 and the crucial Christmas shopping season, how confident are you in the high street, brick and mortar toy shop? 

Providing we don’t lock down again, I think that the sales in store should hold strong. In a normal year, we would see a huge increase in the footfall through the shop. Our biggest challenge is going to be getting customers in and out safely, we only have a small store and have had to limit the number of customers who can be inside at any one time. 

As well as the required PPE and hand sanitising station for customers, we have installed an air sterilizer to bring down the accumulated viral load in the air as the weather gets colder, and we no longer have doors and windows open. 

During lockdown we started using our shop windows as browsing areas, by moving shelving in and displaying products. This means now we have reopened, customers can get a good idea of what’s inside whilst they wait. We have a space outside the shop for a gazebo and plan to set up a “Stocking Stuffers Grotto” for the five weekends before Christmas, in order to increase the number of people who can shop at the same time. 

What do you bring to the table that online shopping can’t?

I do believe that customers still want a physical shopping experience. It’s the personal touch and being able to see the quality and size of the item, to ask questions and seek recommendations. A physical store is also part of the community, regular customers come in to chat and catch up, we get to know the children and what they are interested in and can tell them about upcoming launches or deliveries they may be interested in.

What’s the next big step for Wigwam Toys?

We will be constructing an outdoor office to the rear of the shop in order to house our web stock and web business, as we are running out of space inside, and aim to recruit one or two new part time members of staff to assist with the extra work. We are putting our fine art backgrounds to use by designing a range of greetings cards and wrap that will sell in-store and on the website. 

Thanks Clair, anything Wigwam Toys would like to shout about right now?

Running a business during the Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenge to us all. For small and microbusinesses, the entrepreneurial mindset has been key to our survival. It’s the ability to think creatively and to solve the problems that allows us to thrive, be that supply or delivery issues, staffing shortages or reduced footfall.

As a small business we are able to be adaptive, responsive and able to deliver the level of personalisation and customer service that we were once more used to, but has declined in many of our largest stores and on our high streets.

The inability to physically shop in the way we used to, financial anxiety and breaking from routine has led many to examine their shopping habits and question what we really need to be happy or satisfied. Certain business models no longer seem sustainable, stores that rely on high volume sales of cheap products no longer seem so attractive.

My hope is that out of the ashes of the post-coronavirus retail landscape, small retailers will be able to rise and continue to grow, to be supported by customers who can see the value in what we have to offer.

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