Whirli learning: Selling toys the Whirligig way – inside the UK’s independent ‘make and do’ retailer

A former teacher-turned-coffee shop owner-turned-managing director of the UK’s biggest independent toy retailer outside of a buying group, Whirligig Toys’ Peter Allinson is a champion of the ‘things to make and do’ toy space. ToyNews takes a look at the working parts to find out what makes this toy retailer tick

It’s a reassuring phone call that comes for Peter Allinson, owner of the fleet of independent Whirligig toy shops across the South and South East of England, from another toy company requesting another consultancy with the expert of the ‘things to make and do’ toy sector.

For Allinson, a career in the toy industry is an answer to his calling in life. It’s a little surprising to learn, then, that he has only been in it for eight years.

It’s not standard practice for toy retailers to be called in for the development process of new products of course, but when they are, the results are usually well worth the effort of ‘stepping outside of the usual procedures’. In fact, Allinson tells us that some of the projects he has played a helping hand within the development of, have become some of the best-selling items in the ‘make and do’ genre.

“It goes to show that products with the benefit of retail insight can be really strong,” he tells ToyNews. It’s certainly a way of working that Allinson is keen to promote. 

“I definitely think more toy companies should adopt this practice. There are a lot of retailers out there who really know what they are talking about, and if you bring that level of expertise into those rooms, the product can only benefit,” he says.

Allinson likes to call himself a toy researcher, one whose job it is to share his insight and findings with his audiences of consumers – parents, children, and families – across his network of five stores and souped-up online platform that he has poured ‘100s of hours into updating’ over the course of the pandemic – a step he took in order to tap into the surge of online shopping that 2020’s Coronavirus restrictions brought with it.

It’s a job description that conjures up wonderful imagery of exploration, yet succinctly conveys the role that Allinson has – if not appointed himself – then certainly adopted within the industry; of being the voice-piece for the ‘make and do’ toy sector.

You’ll find no LOL Surprise dolls, collectables, or ‘throwaway toys’ with ‘limited life-spans and play value’ on the shelves of a Whirligig Toys store. Allinson is an explorer of unique items, a self-confessed tinkerer of crafting kits, and a specialist in a sector that encourages children and families to get hands-on, to create, invent, and use their imagination for a pay-off that goes beyond the bells and whistles of the playground crazes or unboxing phenomenon. 

It’s likely the teacher in him that fuels the passion; a career he left some 20 years ago yet appears to have stuck with him in his approach to looking for ways to enrich the lives of children simply by encouraging them to explore.

“It’s really not about being worthy,” Allinson says. “Educational toys can be seen as being worthy and boring, but Whirligig isn’t about that at all. I want our customers and the kids to have fun. We encourage them, through the products we sell, to discover things for the first time.”

Allinson makes no secret of his own curiosity. He is a box opener whose Toy Fair modus operandi (in a given normal year outside of a global pandemic, of course) is to play with all of the toys he encounters.

“I am a sucker for opening up a box and seeing what’s inside,” Allinson confesses. “I go out and play with as many toys as I can and look at them from a teaching perspective, from a play perspective, assess what is going to have really good play value, what experience it offers that will move children on to the next level.

“The thing is, I am a maker by trade as well. I like making, I crochet and knit, and I sew, so when I am around kids in the family, I encourage them to make something all together.”

Allinson’s penchant for creating began to surface during his stint as a Brighton coffee shop owner where he would display his crafts – including a knitted Brighton’s Royal Pavilion – proudly in his cafe. 

“The plan was to open one or two shops in London over the next year or so. We’ll have to regroup after last year, and look at those plans for the coming year.”

“People really responded to what I brought into the cafe, while at the same time things like Bake Off and Sewing Bee were taking off and there was a lot of media attention around artisan hobbies,” recalls Allinson. “It was 2012, and people were really responding to the make and do element. So, I put all of these things together and out popped Whirligig.”

In the October of that year, the first Whirligig Toys shop had opened its doors, launching with the idea of presenting toys, kits, and things for children to make and do. 

“I believe that children should be doing practical activities. These are what you remember from your childhood. I also wanted something for older children, because it’s lovely buying things for tiny children, but actually nine year olds really need good toys,” says Allinson. 

“That was the starting principle for it. I had no retail experience at all, so made it up as I went. I went to Autumn Fair, asked ‘how does this work?’ and then went on to open four shops in five years.”

It wasn’t a planned strategy, but it was one that has since made Whirligig Toys the biggest independent toy store in the country outside of an indie buying group. And the scale of that achievement shouldn’t be understated. That’s five locations that each make a success of presenting the obscure and unique toys that too often fly under a radar preoccupied by the latest franchise releases or movie tie-in lines.

“A lot of people think of the toy industry and think of the plastic tat that gets thrown about and thrown away,” says Allinson. “But when they walk into a Whirligig they see a different side to it. A lot of our work is about putting the message of the wonder of the toy space out there.

“We have 20 staff across Whirligig, and the key thing with all of our staff is that we don’t sell anything unless we have made it and played with it ourselves. When people come into our shop, we know what we are talking about. The toys are not just boxes on shelves; they are things that I have invested in personally. Generally that is my role in the business.”

If Whirligig’s success over the last eight years is proof of anything, it’s that even before the pandemic, there was a hunger among consumers for the things to make and do market. Now that lockdowns, restrictions, and social distancing have thrown the values of play directly into the public consciousness over the past year, Allinson sees no signs of that hunger abating.

“The toys I sell have really been hitting those notes – people wanted things with longevity, things they could play again and again, models to make and things that are going to keep children engaged for a long time,” he says. 

“With children not mixing as much, the ‘fad’ toys are in lesser demand, because fewer people are talking about them. Instead they were looking for wooden kits to build, scientific projects, logic and thinking games, and anything with an artistic element.”

Not only did Allinson manage to meet the demand of what consumers were shopping for throughout the summer’s lockdown, but so did he meet how they were shopping, by overhauling his online operation and listing the entire shop’s collection on the commerce site.

“We know that we could do this across the country, but we have been growing very carefully and very well. I’d like to look into other towns in the South East and in London.”

“We have had people from all over the country looking for things with real substance,” Allinson explains. “It’s the way people shop nowadays, accelerated by the pandemic, and the way it will be going forward. We will always have our website fully up-to-date with product listings, toy guides, and information for shoppers.

“We try to replicate what we bring to the in-store experience on our online platform now, and people are really responding to that.”

But while online shopping is on a stark growth trajectory, the allure of physical shopping will always remain, and Allinson will always be prepared to explore further opportunities for expansion as they present themselves to him. Before the pandemic struck the shores of the UK, it was the plan for Whirligig Toys to open up its first London store this year. 2020 had other ideas for the retail scene this year, but the twinkle remains in Allinson’s eye all the same.

“We need to regroup after this year, but the plan was to open one or two shops in London over the next year or so,” he reveals. “So we will look again next year. We are a small company, kind of a big small company, and we only expand where we can, and we do things carefully because we don’t have the backing of some of the bigger boys.

“We are never going to be The Entertainer, I don’t think. We have grown where we have grown because we are able to. The response to the first store was fantastic, so we looked at other towns nearby and thought, well there’s nothing like us here. 

“We know that we could do this across the country, but we’re limited by my own growth plans… with these five, they are all within two hours of my house; so we have been growing very carefully and very well. I’d like to look into other towns in the South East and in London.”

For now, though, Allinson will continue to allow that passion he has for creative play and creativity to steer the direction of the Whirligig Toys brand, and through that, he will continue to carry out his research on the latest toys.

“We haven’t got Toy Fairs to go to this year, but there is still a lot of good stuff out there and the connections I have in the industry allow me to go and analyse toys,” he says.

“I think we are about to see a lot more people and a lot of the bigger brands – seeing what’s happening in the make and do space – responding to it. And so they should be. For me, it’s continuing to work with small companies who are innovating and doing clever things.

“When I am at a Toy Fair I am straight into the Green House, or I am upstairs to the far corners of the toy hall. The big companies – they don’t really get me, and I don’t really get them. There is plenty of innovation out there,” he concludes.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of ToyNews and its sister title, Licensing.biz. He has worked his way from Staff Writer to Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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