Indie insight: Armadillo Toys’ Lisa Clay on lockdown spirit and being the BTHA’s Ultimate Superhero

For the past 17 years, the independent retailer Armadillo Toys has been supplying the Leeds locals with an offering of traditional toy and games, while embedding itself at the centre of a community of parents and children spanning almost two decades.

When the pandemic first struck last year, owner Lisa Clay (often known by her local shoppers as Mrs Armadillo herself) doubled down on her community efforts, placing the shop front and centre of a number of initiatives to provide children and families with the tools they’d need to see them through lockdown.

Three lockdowns of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in, and Clay remains a resilient member of that local landscape, and it’s this year that the British Toy and Hobby Association has recognised her efforts and handed her the first Ultimate Superhero Award, a part of this year’s Toy Retailer of the Year Awards.

We catch up with the fashion and textile graduate-turned-toy retailer to learn more about life as Mrs Armadillo.

Hi Lisa, and to kick us off – congratulations on the award win – Ultimate Super Hero! What does that mean for you and for Armadillo Toys?

Well, just call me Mrs Armadillo! Here to save children from boredom one toy at a time. Seriously, I am very humbled and proud at the same time, so thank you to the BTHA for this award.

As a small independent shop we have to try harder and harder every year, we have to compete with the huge online giants, supermarkets and the multiples, so it is amazing to feel that you can be seen and noticed amongst the larger players.

As for Covid19 it just seems to be yet another hurdle we have had to, and are still trying to overcome. I hope that all independent toy shops will have the heart and courage to keep going.

Can you tell us about your career in the toy industry? How did it all begin for you?

I studied fashion and textiles so this was not a natural career move. I opened the shop in 2003 when my two daughters were of primary school age. I was working but not enjoying what I did, so I wanted to do something for myself and had a few ideas. The one that stuck was a toy shop, I was fed up with my daughters asking for TV advertised toys that they later didn’t play with.

I knew there were better toys I could find for my children. I was looking for engaging, educational, and good quality toys that I could not find on my high street or in the shops we had access to.

So 17 years on and you’re going strong. What do you think it means to be an independent toy retailer today?

I am extremely proud to be independent, it means the shop is my shop, how I want it to be and I sell the brands I select. I want to create a unique experience for my customers, children and adults alike. This is of course vital if the shop is to survive, as a small indie shop we can’t always compete on price so we have to offer something extra, that could be our free gift wrapping, our extensive range, our experience and advice or just that we are local and convenient.

What is it that Armadillo Toys does to hold its position at the centre of a local community?

Armadillo Toys is situated in a thriving local suburb where there is high demand for housing and retail premises. I believe that there is a strong sense of community in Chapel Allerton and the Shop Local message is definitely being heard.

Being part of a community of local businesses, we all thrive together and support each other and there are also many community groups that we have links to.

Among the reasons listed for you winning the award, there was mention of the innovative ways you made safety restrictions in-store fun, your dedication to sorting postal orders and even delivering toys yourself, and the creation of Sally the Social Distancing Spinosaurus – it sounds like you really put the effort in. Why was it so important to you to hit the mark with all of this?

Firstly children are the heart of everything we do. We want to ensure they are happy when coming into the shop, if the children are happy the parents are too. I was very worried before opening after the first lockdown, so many rules etc. So I set about trying to make it less scary to use the hand gel, or stick to the rules. Sally was created as a character to help the children understand the rules, navigate our one-way system and keep their distance from other customers.

Of course, Sally’s Special Sanitiser was very popular and helped any nervous children, now of course we all take these things in our stride as if they are normal.

The offer of free delivery was for survival, in the first lockdown people really did stay at home, so it was either post, deliver or lose the sale. I hate losing any sales. It was extremely hard work, but all the hard work put in last year has meant that I am in a good position as we are faced with the third lockdown.

How did all of this help strengthen your role within the local community?

Local businesses are the ones called upon to donate to schools, playgroups, charities etc, as a toy shop we have been doing that for years, the majority of our customers are local, many are teachers and child minders too. I am sure they would not have expected anything less of me.

Our local businesses have a WhatsApp group, just this weekend we have been asked if we can buy a tablet for a child, one of the schools needs 40 extra tablets for home schooling. This is what a local business should do and I am in the position to help, so of course I am.

What inspires you and the way that you operate Armadillo Toys? 

It’s the children, of course. I want to create memories of coming into a toy shop, their local toy shop, where we know their names and what they like to play with.

It will be a sad world if our local independent shops don’t make it through this. It is important to me that the shop is a safe and friendly place for families to visit, this is why it was so heart breaking to firstly have to close and then secondly when we opened we had to put measures in place that may have destroyed the soul of the shop.

I can’t wait until we can be a normal shop again, with toys out to for the children to play with and for us to demonstrate to our customers.

What will be the next steps for you as we continue to navigate a constantly shifting landscape for retail and toys? What lasting impact do you think the past year will have in indie retail and for Armadillo Toys in particular?

I have been increasing my products offered on my website and social media activity as I think everyone is trying to do. It is not where my heart is but I understand that this is the world we now live in, I am not a natural at this but like everything when you are a small business like mine you not only wear a lot of hats you wear all the hats.

The past year, thanks to the generous government support, has been OK. Sales are down, of course, but I have so far come out of this OK. Last year was extremely hard work, during the lockdowns my staff were furloughed and I did everything myself, from mid November and through December I worked harder than ever. This did pay off and will help me through Lockdown III.

For us, I don’t believe there will be a lasting impact, we are a bricks and mortar shop and we are in a little suburban bubble and I am sure we will be OK. We are the go-to place for party presents and as we offer free gift wrapping most parents would pop into our shop on the way to parties, this was a huge part of our trade that we have temporarily lost but I hope that we can regain it soon.

Thanks Lisa, is there anything you’d like to add?

Thank you to everyone who has worked hard through this, the admin staff of the toy companies, the reps and agents who have kept us all going, the delivery drivers who are working harder than ever, and of course to my fellow independent toy shop owners.

I sincerely hope to see you on the other side and that 2021 will be better. Here’s to a huge bounce back in sales later in the year. Take care and stay safe all. Lisa (or Mrs Armadillo as I am sometimes known).

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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