Homegrown | No monkeying around: The right royal welcome of Laurence King

The next in a series of articles exploring and celebrating the homegrown British toy design and production scene across all stages of its development, ToyNews catches up with the British born publishing house Laurence King to talk about its successful move into children’s toys, games, and activity kits, and how it become the hero of the independent toy retail space.

When the British born, now internationally-reaching book publisher, Laurence King, first started out in the children’s gifting, toys, and games market only a few short years ago, it wasn’t entirely certain of how long it would last.

Its fears were that a new name on the scene would find it difficult to establish itself in a market as highly competitive as the children’s sector, with products – by and large – carrying higher price points than much of the competition, coupled with uncertainty over how much parents would want to invest in their children’s gifts. Nevertheless, Laurence King pushed on.

Today, with another healthy year of business under its belt (even taking into account the past 12 months plighted by the coronavirus) Laurence King remains among a pool of favoured clientelle of the independent toy and gift retail space who champion the firm for its ability to deliver high quality, design-led products that boast a uniqueness and depth of product with which they can set themselves apart from their bigger, more mainstream competitors.

With the lion’s share of its own business in the book trade, and with an ever growing reputation on the toy scene, too, Laurence King shares a special relationship with the independent retailer, and it’s one well worth exploring. Here, ToyNews talks to Marc Valli, publisher at Laurence King, to learn more.

Hi Marc, thanks for talking with us. How was the gifting and children’s market business for Laurence King over the course of 2020? What sort of pick up did you see across the activity kits and arts & crafts markets as a result of lockdown and social restrictions?

It was generally very healthy. Family games were very popular; and our bingos in particular sold extremely well (better almost than at any other time in the past). Clearly, families were desperate trying to find interesting (and constructive and rich) activities during lockdown and our Animal Bingo series fit perfectly well. I think there is also a general longing for being connected to the natural world and that also tied in really well.

We also saw a dramatic increase in the sales of activity books, especially adult colouring books. Before the summer we released a book/kit on collage, called ‘Extraordinary Things to Cut-Out & Collage’ (as the name indicates it is crammed full of things you can cut out and collage) and that also sold very well.

I suppose you could feel people were in need of fun and creative things to take their minds off what was going on in the world out there. We released a book on baking sourdough bread- again with very positive results. I may be the only person in the UK who has not managed to bake any sourdough during this lockdown. Now we are back into lockdown maybe it’s not too late for me to start…

But I must say not all of it was positive. Launching new, innovative formats and game play in lockdown was a challenge. It was heart-breaking to release some of the titles we had most hope for, things we thought were new and super original, and couldn’t wait to show it to buyers at trade shows and to see how people responded to them in shops, only to see them go unnoticed online despite the best efforts of our marketing department.

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

In Germany, where most trade shows did still take place, these same new products received very positive responses, and sold well. 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 Indies will have a resurgence after this lockdown.

That said, in the UK market, Waterstones and John Lewis did remarkable work in terms of their online sales and that really did help us. There were similar examples in the US. And I hope that their increased online presence will help everyone in the business in the future.

Can you talk us through Laurence King’s relationship with the children’s toys and activity kits market? What has the journey towards growth in the market been like?

We are still quite new to it; and since children’s is such a competitive area, we were not sure we would be able to make a mark or succeed in that market. Our products generally carry higher price points than most of the competition, and we were afraid that parents would not want to invest that much on children’s gifts—’why would I pay an extra five pounds just to watch my kid destroy it…’

But, we were pleased to find out that, if something really feels different, high quality, with high design values, enough parents are willing to pay more. I for one can still remember, and feel inspired by, some of the more iconic toys and books I was given as a child.

Our first big success in this area was ‘Storybox’, but since then we have also produced many successful bingo and memory games for kids as well as the amazing series ‘I Saw It First’ which comes in a triangular box.

Before Christmas we launched two very exciting new kids’ games: one of them called ‘Wild Bunch’ and the other ‘Who’s Hiding’, but our big success was ‘Poo Bingo’, which we could not (despite our best efforts) keep in stock almost anywhere. When it comes to making young kids laugh, I suppose you just can’t beat poo…

This Spring we are very excited by ‘Monster Hotel’ and ‘Bug Me Not’ and, yes, you guessed, another poo product, only a jigsaw this time.

You’ve been championed by a number of the independent toy retailers for the quality and unique products you bring to the sector. What is it that Laurence King brings to the children’s market?

I suppose that if you run an Indie store (something I have done for 20 years at Magma) you just have to offer your customers something extra, not just in terms of customer service (it’s always nice when a real, flesh and blood, three-dimensional human being smiles at you…) but mostly in terms of originality. And there is nothing nicer 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!?’

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 will have created a sort of ‘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.

What new launches can we expect from you guys for 2021? How will you continue to push the envelope of design and innovation in the children’s sector?

This may sound a bit pretentious, but we wouldn’t really do this if we didn’t get that rush of excitement you get when something you are working on suddenly takes a life of its own and looks and feels different, new, fresh; in other words, innovative.

We all crave that daily rush of creative adrenaline and I am sure it is the main reason we get up and go to work—or, in today’s terms, walk across the living room towards our desks…

On an international scale, what kind of growth plans do you guys have for 2021? How does Laurence King epitomise the Great British success story?

We are continuing to push our German language list, which has been hugely successful for us. We are also trying to do the same in Dutch. These are great markets with very discerning customers who can appreciate good design and illustration and high-quality products. There are also markets (in particular Germany, Austria and Switzerland) where the Indie trade is still going strong.

In terms of formats, we are still investing a lot into the jigsaw area, bringing out new formats and new types of jigsaws. ‘299 Cats & a Dog…’ which was a beast to produce (we almost gave up on it halfway because of the design and production challenges) was another big success for us in 2020 – it will be followed, of course, by ‘299 Dogs & a Cat…’ and many more innovative jigsaw formats. Watch this space…

And finally, Marc, what’s the next big move for you?

Well, Laurence King was acquired by Hachette in September (we are now part of the thriving Orion Group) and we are looking forward to using their resources – and work closely with their brilliant, talented teams –  to try and take our list to the next level.

It feels like a fresh start and a big challenge, and makes me feel at least 10 years younger…

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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