Independents | “Innovation at risk” without the survival of independent toy shops

While the latest set of NPD results spell out the resilience and adaptability of the toy industry that across both the US and UK markets has managed to see a growth in sales over the past year, the current landscape and shift to a more digital arena has left some concerned for the innovation of product it has to offer.

With sales lifts of 16 per cent and five per cent across the US and UK toy markets respectively, driven by families looking for means of entertainment out-of-school children, or consumers eyeing new avenues for entertainment during lockdown, it’s fair to say that the toy sector has found the silver lining of the pandemic.

However, with the majority of those sales generated through online shopping, home delivery, and click and collect services (in the US retailers offering this service increased their digital revenue by 49 per cent on average), and with brick and mortar shops now shut until lockdown lifts again, questions have been raised over how smaller toy brands will manage to get their airtime.

Laurence King Publishing is a relatively new player on the UK and international toys, games, and children’s products scene, and as such is more reliant on the independent retailers and international trade shows than others. To a company like Laurence King, each works as a platform on which to showcase its innovation to new customers.

So while online giants like Amazon drive shoppers towards mainstream brands and movie franchises (Star Wars, Pokemon, Marvel, and LOL Surprise combined made up 13 per cent of all US toy sales on the year), it’s understandable that the smaller, emerging companies are left feeling rather more concerned.

“Launching new, innovative formats and game play in lockdown was a challenge,” says Marc Valli, publisher at Laurence King. “It was heart-breaking to release some of the titles we had the most hope for, things we thought were new and super original, and couldn’t wait to show to buyers at trade shows and see how people responded to them in shops, only to see them go unnoticed online despite the best efforts of our marketing department.”

Showcased in Germany, where trade shows did still take place last year, the same new products “received very positive responses” and therefore, according to Valli sold well. 

“With new titles, and especially new formats and new concepts, we have always been able to rely on the support and the enthusiasm of independent stores, so it was very difficult to see them closed,” he continues.

“It just made me realise how important bricks and mortar shops are. Without having those platforms to show and demonstrate new games and ideas, I fear innovation will suffer…

“I hope these can all reopen soon and that independents will have a resurgence after this lockdown.”

There are platforms in place, however, now aimed at helping independent retailers recoup sales lost to the online giants and internet shoppers, by presenting a digital high street on which retailers can place themselves, and through which, smaller companies can too get in on the digital consumer trend. One such platform is BeeZee, a shopping app that brings local independents into a digital high street space, allowing shoppers to place orders with indie retailers that can then be delivered to their homes via courier.

The app has been developed as a means of tapping into the population of consumers driven to online shopping and likely to stay their post-pandemic as they grow accustomed to the ease of home delivery.

“Covid-19 has certainly changed the shopping culture for good, but despite the pandemic there has been a huge boom in online shopping over the past few years, and local retailers have struggled to compete,” Georgina Green, founder of BeeZee UK tells ToyNews.

“Our mission is to offer local, independent retailers a way to embrace this trend and ensure they profit for survival.”

Laurence King’s Valli maintains, however, that the experience of shopping with a local, independent retailer will forever be hard to replicate in the digital sphere, and that its survival is integral to the state of innovation in any industry, not just toys. 

“There is nothing nicer than as a customer than to walk into a small shop and find something new and quirky, to be able to move it in your hands and have a sense of ‘hey, have you seen this? Now what is that?’, he says.

“In many countries, both high street rents (unregulated real estate markets) and the internet have really hurt independent shops, but I do hope that Covid-19 will have created a ‘ground zero’ from which new shops will emerge, or re-emerge, Phoenix-like, in the same way that vinyl records and printed books have bounced back.

“Independent shops are not just a great way to get new products and ideas out there (of course buyers from chains also visit them regularly for research) but they are also, for us, a great way to get feedback straight from the horse’s mouth, since the owners of those indie shops know their customers so well.”

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@bizmedia.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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