Overriding the Amazon Default: How can independent toy shops survive Lockdown II?

The online-meets-physical retailing solution, Click and Collect has been the saviour of many independent toy shops over the course of the year, helping local businesses negotiate closed doors and a locked-in nation as the fight against coronavirus ensued.

In the days following PM Boris Johnson’s announcement of a national lockdown part two until December 2nd, however, it’s become unclear whether it will be enough to keep high street retailers above the water for a second – all the more crucial – time around.

The festive shopping season had been seen as a beacon of hope for many UK indies this year, who, while under no illusion that Christmas was to look the same as previous years, remained optimistic over the consumer’s inclination to supporting the local this year.

Despite a narrative for many of the UK’s department or chain stores that’s made for some sorry reading this year, the quick-to-react independent scene had struck a chord with the public, offering delivery and click and collect services that enabled them to remain a relevant part of the consumer landscape.

Fears have, however, resurfaced that with their doors to be closed for the next four weeks – a crucial period in the shopping calendar for the toy industry across the board – shoppers could be tempted to turn back to the likes of Amazon and other online giants; a move that ‘will put a lot small businesses at serious risk of going under.’

Amanda Alexander is the owner of Giddy Goat Toys, in Didsbury, Greater Manchester, and one that, despite ramping up her own online efforts over the course of the UK’s first nation-wide lockdown, is left feeling anxious over what this Q4 lockdown will mean for business.

“I just hope shoppers don’t default to Amazon for all of their shopping this year,” she tells ToyNews. 

“My call to action would be for shoppers to get out this week if they can, and shop local while they still can. Then, after lockdown, make an effort to check if their local shops are offering Click and Collect services, or have websites that they can buy from.”

Alexander’s Didsbury store has, over the years, found itself at the centre of a community that supports its local and independent businesses. But, like the rest of the consumer world, it isn’t immune to the allure of what Amazon and the online giants offer, or indeed their ubiquity when it comes to online shopping.

Amazon has made little secret of its plans for this Q4, with news of its move to ramp up warehousing and packing operations as well as employ thousands more in warehouse staff making the headlines well before the second half of this year. 

The online behemoth reported a blockbuster third quarter last week, with sales skyrocketing 37 per cent year over year, cementing itself as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic shopping trends this year. Amazon was no doubt still celebrating its $5.2 billion second quarter profit when it posted a 200 per cent year on year increase for Q3, logging an eye-watering $6.3 billion for the term.

It’s little wonder why the indie toy shop is approaching the critical festive shopping season with more than a little trepidation. The might of Amazon is one ominous shadow to contend with and for the independent, every move is a test of character and an educated guess at how to play the coming weeks.

Clair Letton, owner of Brighton’s Wigwam Toys, tells ToyNews: “I have had supply chain concerns for a while, and it’s a juggling act buying stock knowing we will probably lockdown again – do we need to stock up to keep up with online sales, or buy less because the shop will be closed? Only time will tell if we have it right.”

But if the independent toy shop can only take lessons from the first time the UK entered lockdown, then there is cause for a cheerier outlook on what the coming four weeks have the potential to bring, provided of course, the ‘shop local’ remains as prescient in the consumer mind-set as it has been.

“There was a large swell of support from our local customers earlier in the year and I think that the desire to shop local is certainly there,” continues Letton. “We can provide the customer service and the dedicated knowledge that Amazon can’t, and I would like to think that the Indie toy sector can muddle through.”

Charlotte Khan, owner of Folkestone’s Moo Like A Monkey, echoes: “This lockdown feels very different as the outcome is less unknown; we have a reference, we know what worked and what didn’t work last time.

“We know that it’s possible to come out of the other end of it. We are less panicked and overwhelmed, our energy is focused on confidently preparing the systems we need to put in place to make it work.

“This is of course is our peak season, so we are gutted it’s happened, but we know if we ramp up our website advertising and social media activity, continue to offer free local delivery and be as active and positive as possible on our social media channels, we will get through this and come out the other side even stronger.

“People are more aware than ever of how important it to support shops like us of they want their high street to survive this.”

Realistically though, warns Wigwam Toys’ Letton, if independent traders in all sectors are to survive the coming months, “customers have to consciously choose us over the large chains and online megastores.

Letton adds: “We will be posting everyday, but I think lack of customer preparedness in November, may see consumers flocking to Amazon in December in order to guarantee presents are delivered in time for Christmas.”

And it’s there that the small business owner has the biggest battle on its hands. Community or no community, can the indie scene maintain its position in the consumer mind? And, with increased competition from the likes of The Entertainer who in the last few months has positioned itself with Debenhams and Asda, beefed up its online operations and launched a ‘buy now, pay later’ payment option with Klarna, it’ll be the loudest independents that get their voices heard this Christmas countdown.

“Didsbury is a good community,” continues Giddy Goat Toys’ Amanda Alexander, “but not enough do Click and Collect to make it viable during lockdown. It’s getting on Clearpay that has saved my business, and being on Down Your High Street.

“We really rely on the Q4 trade to get us through the rest of the year, otherwise there is a serious risk of a lot of small business going under.”

New routes to the consumer

Since the implementation of the first nationwide lockdown across the UK, more than 100 independent retailers have joined the Down Your High Street platform, an online market that forms a virtual High Street for local and independent businesses. The platform has been regarded as a means of levelling the playing field, to a certain degree, for shops in the struggle for numbers against the online giants.

“Many of [the independent shops] are making as high as five figures in revenue each month from our online sales,” Daniel Whytock, CEO of Down Your High Street tells ToyNews.

“I hope that many of them will see the revenue as a great addition to their shop, and in times like the UK lockdown, a way to minimise financial risk to the business.”

Whytock explains that through his platform – an online destination that has been developed to ‘take the High Street to tomorrow’ and to ‘give every shop the chance to thrive’ – he and the team have witnessed “a huge desire to support local businesses this Christmas.”

“We are receiving messages from customers asking for Christmas gift suggestions as they really want to support independent retailers, even when they don’t know what they want.”

It’s without doubt that the pandemic has brought about a year of change like no other for retail. And while yes, consumerism has leaned heavily into the online shopping scene, it very well could be the case that the indies that can adapt to it, may well find it a larger pay-off than previously imagined.

Moo Like A Monkey’s Khan, says: “We are feeling a really strong sense of support from our customers and local community. It will be 10 times harder work that that it would have been if we could have just had an open shop but we are okay with that, I’m confident we can work hard, adapt and survive it, again.”

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